CSC's superhero extends lead in style
Comparisons between Ivan Basso and Miguel Indurain have now stopped. Today, on the slopes of the seventeen kilometre-long Monte Bondone, as the maglia rosa rode virtually the entire second half on his own en route to victory, the only words television commentators were able to blurt out over and over again were "Lui è fuoriclasse, stesso Lance Armstrong" ("He is unequalled, like Lance Armstrong").
"I haven't won much in my career, so when I can, I want to take advantage of it. And to win in the maglia rosa doesn't happen every day... today was one of my must beautiful wins!" Basso exclaimed. "My team helped me a lot today and I have more confidence."
This isn't to say the others didn't try; Saunier Duval-Prodir's two-pronged attack with Stage 13 winner Leonardo Piepoli and Gilberto Simoni at around eight and a half kilometres to go at first gapped a very select gruppo maglia rosa - but Basso came back with such vengeance, the names of Piepoli, Gutierrez Cataluna, Gadret, Perez Cuapio and Belli were instantly dropped.
Only scalatore Simoni was able to hang on, exchanging turns with Basso for a kilometre or so, until he too found the going simply too fast. Nonetheless, the man from Trentino was clearly the best of the rest, conceding a minute and a half and moving to fourth overall, 9'34 down.
"Basso is really, really strong. Yes, my team worked well today; Piepoli attacked to make a selection in the front group and to make sure that riders would not come back and just sit on. But Basso was just too strong," said Simoni.
Phonak's raging bull José Gutierrez Cataluna once again displayed consummate consistency in this Giro, riding alongside Piepoli for much of the latter half, within his limit, and containing his losses to just eleven seconds more than Simoni by the day's end. Consequently, the 31 year-old Spaniard held his second place, but is now a further two minutes behind the maglia rosa, 5'24 adrift of Basso.
As for the others, fifth-placed Frenchman John Gadret (AG2R Prévoyance) finished 2'40 in arrears, Wladimir Belli (Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni) 3'12, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) 3'25, Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) 3'27, Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) 4'19, Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) 4'22 and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) 4'37. While they may not be saying it, it appears it's 'game over', and if Basso rides like he did today, tomorrow's epic to Plan De Corones will only make matters worse.
"Again, I was out of the race right away," conceded Savoldelli. "I couldn't get my rhythm going at all. But I'm hanging tough and I just hope I improve, but I'm losing a little morale here. I'm still going day by day, but I'm not improving."
Indeed, the teamwork, the pedaling cadence, and the unrivalled strength bear an uncanny resemblance to the seven-time Tour de France winner in his prime. Since the beginning of this race, even his words are beginning to sound awfully similar to Armstrong's: "I'm going well but the Giro isn't over. Now I don't think about today, just what happens tomorrow," said Basso.
How it unfolded
Stage 16 started on a warm, sunny day in Rovato, hometown of Lampre-Fondital director Giuseppe "Martino" Martinelli, with 166 riders hitting the road save for Stage 7 winner Ric Verbrugghe (Davitamon-Lotto), who was a non-starter. Stage 16 would finish atop the 1650m peak of Monte Bondone, a sharp summit that looms over Trento and the Adige River valley. It was atop the Bondone half a century ago on the Giro d'Italia's Stage 20 from Merano to Monte Bondone where Luxemburger Charly Gaul took command of the corsa rosa amidst a freak spring snowstorm. The question today was: could Ivan Basso creat a storm of his own?
The favourite for today's stage was Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval), the tough Trentino mountain man from Palu di Giovo, just across the Adige River from Monte Bondone, who knows the twisting 17.4km ascent with 38 hairpin turns of the former military road better than the back of his hand. For the first hour or so as the gruppo compatto traversed the Brescia hinterlands up to the mountains through Val Trompia, famous for firearms production, no one was firing off the front and the first hour was covered at the pedestrian pace of a 28.8km/h average.
As the CSC-led gruppo headed deeper into the mountains, the skies became more overcast, with some grey clouds gathering near the far mountain peaks. After 35km in Brozzo, halfway up the climb to the first GPM in Lodrino, 22-year-old Colombian from Miguel Rubiano Chavez (Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare) took off solo to protect his teammate Balliani's lead in the Maglia Verde classification. The miniscule climber from Bogota was best young rider at the Giro dell Trentino last month and felt at home among the green mountains.
Rubiano Chavez took the GPM 2'43" ahead of teammate Balliani, who had fled the peloton to increase his lead; down the other side of the climb in Vestone approaching Lago d'Idro, the tiny Panaria rider had established a four-minute lead on the gruppo Maglia Rosa. Saunier Duval had joined the chase for Simoni and the lead had now stabilised as the road continued to head north towards the next climb of Passo d'Ampola.
Atop Passo Ampola after 92km, Rubiano Chavez still had a four-minute lead as he passed through the feed zone, headed along the mountain lake Lago di Ledro and through a double tunnel after Molino del Ledro before plunging down to Riva del Garda at the north end of Lago del Garda with 55km to go. Selle Italia sprinter Alberto Loddo abandoned, and after three hours, the average speed was 35.1km/h. At Arco, in the narrow Sarca River valley just north of Lago di Garda and after 123km, there was a Gazzetta 110 sprint, at which point the Colombian fugitive still had a lead of 3'20" after being away for almost 80km. Saunier Duval and CSC were still riding tempo up front as the Giro d'Italia passed through the village of Dro, the hometown of Italo-American rider Guido Trenti.
For the next 30km, the road towards Bondone climbed gently towards Cadine, before plunging down to the crossroads where the ascent of the day's ultimate climb began. Rubiano Chavez was beginning to lose time as the chase pace increased and the little Colombian began to tire. With 30km to go in Pardegnone, Panaria's little solo battler was hanging tough 2'25" ahead, whereas Saunier Duval's Lobato was hammering hard on the front of the gruppo Maglia Rosa - five kilometres later Rubaino Chavez had lost most of his advantage and was only 42" in front on the panoramic road above the Adige valley. Just before Cadine, Bobby Julich drove it on the front past Rubiano Chavez with 21km to go and it was gruppo compatto with the Panaria rider absorbed after 117km of liberty.
Once again, the red white and black train of CSC was in total control as the gruppo Maglia Rosa hit the first ramp of Monte Bondone; CSC's Lombardi, Julich and Bladzun dropped off as Jens Voigt and Volodymir Gustov were up front for Basso, with Inigo Cuesta and Carlos Sastre in reserve and rest of contenders lurking behind. With CSC's tough tempo, every 100 metres that passed saw fewer and fewer riders left up front. After 2km, Voigt's pace had dumped two-thirds of the gruppo while Simoni had his maximum race face on. Selle Italia's Serpa made a fast move and CSC let him go, while Savodelli only had Chechu with him as Tom Danielson had fallen back, as had Michele Scarponi, while his Liberty teammate Caruso was still up with the leaders.
It was then time for Voigt and Gustof to pull off before Cuesta hit the front after 3km of climbing. With 15km still to ride, Serpa was getting pulled back as Savoldelli started to slip backwards in the 30-strong group. In Sardagna the status quo remained plenty of riding to the top. Serpa was then absorbed and it was still Cuesta surging forward on the front, with Basso on his wheel and Sastre behind the Maglia Rosa as CSC once again showed their total domination of this year's Giro. Just behind was Phonak's raging bull Jose Gutierrez Cataluna, with Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio right behind. Simoni then sent teammate Piepoli to the front after 6.5km, and the stage 13 winner cranked up the pace when he got there, which shattered the front group of 36 riders. Piepoli's action spat Savodelli, Cunego and DiLuca out the back as the leading group was down to Sastre, Basso, Simoni, Gutierrez Cataluna, Belli, Piepoli, Gadret, Lopez, Perez Cuapio and Caruso.
Bruseghin was chasing hard to help bring Cunego back (who was 20" in arrears), and with 10km to go, the pace up front slowed slightly, allowing Perez to get back with the leading group. Sella, Pellezotti and Pena plus Chechu Rubiera and Savodelli were chasing hard, but finally Cunego and the Lampre guys just couldn't follow the pace of the group up front. As the chasers neared, Simoni sent Piepoli back on the front for more forcing as Caruso was hanging on for dear life. Halfway up the Monte Bondone ascent at Candriai, Sastre came back to the front as Caruso, Belli and Lopez were blown out the back and the frontrunners were now down to six; Sastre, Basso, Piepoli, Simoni, Gutierrez Cataluna and Perez Cuapio.
Suddenly Piepoli attacked with Simoni on his wheel as Sastre dropped back, his work now done, but Basso covered the all-out effort easily, not having to rise from his saddle. Gutierrez Cataluna cracked as Piepoli stayed on his wheel to defend Simoni. Up front it was mano a mano between Simoni and Basso, as Savodelli sat back at 1'05", Cunego at 1'20" and DiLuca at 1'40" with 7km still to ascend. But with 6.5km to go, it was game over as Basso got out of the saddle and accelerated hard, just riding Simoni off his wheel and quickly gaining 10" on the tough Trentino. The CSC superman was now flying up the ascent, pedalling fluidly at 90 rpm as Simoni was all out behind but still losing time to his countryman.
With 5km remaining, Basso had quickly established a 35-second lead over Simoni, with Gutierrez Cataluna and Piepoli 48" behind and closing on the second-placed rider. Up front it was all about the spectacular progression of Basso, with the desperate pursuit of Simoni and Gutierrez Cataluna behind and the rest of the race blown to smithereens along the ascent of Monte Bondone. All heart and guts, Simoni was going all out to save second place as his hysterical tifosi chased him with the Italian flag up the torturous climb. As the road flattened out a bit with 2.5km to go in Norge, Gutierrez Cataluna made another big effort to catch Simoni, but the Saunier Duval rider relaunched in the last kilometre - he was 1'30" behind the flying Basso, with Gutierrez Cataluna and Piepoli just 15" behind, but Simoni simply gave it his all to stay in place.
At the finish, it was Basso who soloed in for the stage win after ascending at the rapid rate of 22.7km/h to generate over 450 watts. Simoni was second at 1'27" and ended up moving into fourth on gc, 9'27" behind Basso. Piepoli took the sprint for third ahead of Phonak's Gutierrez at 1'38", while Ag2r's surprising John Gadret was fourth at 2'40", just six seconds ahead of a resurgent Perez Cuapio. Next was Belli at 3'12", Pellezotti at 3'27" and a group with Caruso, Savodelli, Pena and Noe' at 3'30". Another disappointing day for both Danilo DiLuca, 4'28" back and Damiano Cunego at 4'38", while Jan Ullrich had a decent day and wasn't that far behind on Monte Bondone.
Wednesday's 158km stage is full of woe; a brutal stage with 50km of climbing that has a second consecutive mountaintop finish. Starting in Termeno, it travels via Passo di Pinei, over Passo delle Erbe to finish atop Plan de Corones at 2273m, with the last 5.5km up an unpaved gravel road next to a ski slope with sections that boast a 24% grade! Watch for huge gaps to open on Stage 17's ugly final ascent, with a pure climber like Serpa possibly destined for victory.