What will the next 48 hours bring?
It's taken what seems like ten goes and two of the world's best sprinters to go home, but after a fortnight trying, Paolo Bettini finally got the win he'd been searching for. With the peloton sucking Milram's wheels till four hundred metres to go, Gerolsteiner's Robert Forster tried to surprise, and while Olaf Pollack (T-Mobile) hesitated, Il Grillo jumped straight on the gravy train, before a hop, step and another jump saw Quick.Step's quickest stepper edge out Forster at the line.
"In sprints like this, you can win or lose in an instant. Milram did a great job in the lead-out; they are the only team here that knows how to ride for a sprinter. I came to the Giro after the [Spring] Classics in good form, but now I'm really good - finalmente... da vero! ("finally... for real!)" said a jubilant Bettini.
Said disappointed Milram man Alberto Ongarato: "We've been looking for a win since Petacchi left... our team worked really well today and we wanted to do our best for the tifosi and our sponsors."
However, it was a delayed victory salute, because after so many near misses, Bettini was at first unsure until he turned to his right and noticed Forster didn't celebrate. But when it clicked, he more than made up for it: "My next goal is to get to Milano and then decide what to about my career," he said.
Unsurprisingly, the day's proceedings were taken up by an afternoon-long breakaway, initiated by Christophe Edalaine (Credit Agricole) after 23 kilometres and joined by Ivan Mayoz (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Gustav Larsson (Française des Jeux) and Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia). Despite not one being a threat to Ivan Basso, the quartet were never really let go, as both Quick.Step and T-Mobile were backing their fast finishers. Gruppo compatto returned the situation to status quo just under the 10 kilometre to go, with the maglia rosa and the rest of the GC contenders finishing safely in the plotone.
In response to Damiano Cunego's comments that he's been 'super', Basso thanked 'The Kid', saying: "I've tried to do my best and hope to continue [doing so]. I'm tranquillo, but still have to continue [being strong] till the end - I'll just keep trying to do my best. The last week is bellissima."
While today's finish was somewhat predictable, the next forty-eight hours will be anything but. With two back-to-back mountain stages and two back-to-back mountain-top finishes, the only certainty is a firmer idea of who will be standing on the podio in Milano. So far, the top step has not shaken an inch.
Said Cunego: "I'm feeling and looking forward to the rest of the Giro."
Asked what he expects to happen, Basso replied: "Looking around isn't my habit. I'll look with my team to see what the road brings - the last week is duro (hard) with stage after stage like this, so you have to be strong all week."
How it unfolded
There were 167 riders at the start in Mergozzo, which was held under clear skies with temperatures just above the 20 degree mark. A light ESE wind was blowing, which would be against the riders as they made their way down to Brescia. Axel Merckx (Phonak) was the only non-starter, suffering from stomach problems.
With nothing for the climbers or the GC riders today, it was always going to be a classic sprinters' stage. The early attacking saw the day's four man breakaway go clear after 23 km, under the impulse of Christophe Edalaine (Credit Agricole), who is the leader in the Trofeo Fuga Piaggio classification for most kilometres spent in a break. He was joined by Ivan Mayoz (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Gustav Larsson (Française des Jeux) and Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia), and the quartet was able to get clear.
After covering 45.3 km in the first hour, the break had a lead of 3'40, as Quick.Step and T-Mobile controlled things in the peloton behind. Across the flat plains north of Milano, the four leaders powered along at a steady 45 km/h, with no hills and few corners to break their rhythm. By km 80, they had 5'15 - their maximum lead - but it wasn't going to be enough on a day like this.
The Gazzetta 110 sprint was in Cesano Maderno at km 89, and it was won by Euskaltel's Ivan Mayoz ahead of Edalaine, Larsson and Missaglia. The break's lead was now 4'02, having covered over 91 km in the first two hours. Behind, Rabon, Ludewig and Davis were chasing for T-Mobile, then Ghisalberti and Knees for Milram, and Engels, Scarselli and Bramati for Quick.Step.
Marco Pinotti, who is from Ossio Sotto, near Bergamo, attacked the peloton in order to greet his family and friends as the race passed through his region. He had 10 seconds for a hug and a kiss, then he was on his way again. The average was still 44.8 km/h after three hours, and everyone except the breakaways and the sprinters' domestiques was enjoying a relatively relaxed day.
At 40 km to go, the break had just 2'32, and it was a matter of when, not if, the peloton would catch them. The leaders held it steady until 25 km to go, then the tempo increased behind and it came down to 1'36 under the 20 km to go banner. At 15 km left, the gap was 1'03, and once the break reached the outskirts of Brescia on the two lane highway, it was swallowed with less than 9 km to travel. Edalaine and the rest earned themselves another 157 points in the Trofeo Fuga Piaggio, having been away for that many kilometres today.
On the run into town, it was all T-mobile, Quick.Step and Milram, as the pace hit between 55 and 60 km/h to prevent any late attacks from going. Jan Kuyckx (Davitamon-Lotto) tried, but got no more than 10 metres off the front as Quick.Step's Garate marked him. In the final kilometres, Baguet, Ullrich and Rabon did their turns, before Milram took over with 2 km to go with a train of five riders. Bettini sat on Ongarato's wheel, with Pollack, Vogels, Guidi, Förster and Hayman all there.
As the peloton swept into Brescia for the final kilometre, Française des Jeux tried to bring up their young sprinter Arnaud Gerard, but found the going tough in the wind. Milram led it out for Ongarato, but it was Robert Förster who jumped first and powered past the milkmen as Loddo tried to get through Ongarato on the barriers. Bettini and Pollack were quick to react, passing Förster and making their bid for the line. Bettini kept his nose in front the whole way and won from Pollack by a good 10 cm, hitting 70 km/h as he crossed the line.
Stage 16 - Tuesday, May 23: Rovato - Trento Monte Bondone, 173 km
The Giro moves into its crucial final phases as the Dolomiti climbing begins. Stage 16 is a hard stage that heads north from Rovato past Lago d'Idro, around the northern tip of Lago di Garda uphill finish on the legendary Giro climb of Monte Bondone, 1650m. above Trento. This is Gilberto Simoni territory and his tifosi will be lining the Bondone ascent to power Gibo to victory.