Shortened stage limits losses for Basso's rivals
Proving his win last Saturday was no fluke, Saunier Duval-Prodir's Leonardo Piepoli outclassed all except the maglia rosa on the slopes of the Passo di Furcia to earn his second Grand Tour stage victory - and all in the space of a week. The day was expected to bring fireworks, but foul weather conditions forced organisers to cancel the penultimate climb of the Passo delle Erbe and less than two hours before the finish, shorten the final climb by more than five kilometres.
"Now that I've warmed up I can talk. I don't like this weather at all, but I've had two of my best wins in this weather," said a surprised though delighted Piepoli. "I usually don't ride well in the cold and rain like this, but I have to thank Simoni even more today than last time [in La Thuile]. Simoni said to me 'Go, go!' a few times and so I did. For sure, it was him who gave me the motivation to attack today."
Consequently, the change to exclude the steepest sections of the Plan De Corones worked in favour of Basso's rivals, who were all dropped after Piepoli's acceleration roughly one and a half kilometres from the top of the Furcia. While the maglia rosa looked as if he were out on a training ride, Phonak's José Gutierrez Cataluna at least proved he's the best of the rest, containing today's losses to just fifteen seconds and firming up his second place overall.
Said Basso: "Well Piepoli on a climb like Plan de Corones is very good as he's a pure climber. So he would have been tough to beat. Right now, it's really cold and with all the changes in the weather, it's very hard. I even feel cold climbing. This morning, we told the Giro organisers this that the riders need to be considered in a situation like this and they did so."
Curly-haired blonde Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) wasn't too far behind either at 19 seconds, and an improved performance sees him one rung higher on the leaderboard with four stages to go, now fifth on the classifica generale. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) re-found some of the form that has so far eluded him of late, finishing 41 seconds in arrears, while Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) fared a little less than yesterday, coming in seven seconds behind 'the Kid' although inching past Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) to third on GC.
"I was riding well today and when I saw Basso's group up the road, I just kept my pace and caught them. Then they attacked again and I dropped off, but I'm looking forward to the big stages this weekend," Pellizotti said.
"Yes, it was a good decision to change the stage today," said Cunego. "It would have been unthinkable to try to get up that final climb under these conditions. We would all have had to walk up! And the Passo delle Erbe would have been terrible too; we would have frozen!"
Speaking of the defending champ, Il Falco appears to have his wings covered in oil. One of the first contenders dropped on the Passo di Furcia, Savoldelli had to rely heavily on teammate Jose Luis Rubiera to pace him for the final four and a half kilometres, eventually conceding one and a half minutes to Piepoli and Basso. And given his steadily deteriorating progress, it will require a minor miracle for him to stand on the podium in Milano. Another significant loser was Wladimir Belli (Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni), fifth overall at the start of the day but losing big-time at the end, dropping to sixth overall, thirteen minutes behind Basso on GC.
"Well my Giro is getting worse day by day," lamented Savoldelli. "I still have motivation, but I'm not competitive. But I'm hanging tough and my team is working really well. Because of the rain, I'm feeling better today from my allergies, but I'm still not competitive. I want to do more but I just don't have the legs."
Given the hype surrounding today's events and what actually transpired, it was an disappointing, anti-climatic end. However, it was a sensible, justified decision to put the interests of the riders before that of the spectators. Now, just two stages are left for a last-ditch effort to unseat the maglia rosa, but realistically, Ivan Basso's looking unbeatable, and it's now a race for second and third before Sunday.
"It was a good decision to not risk anything today; it was too cold on Plan de Corones," said CSC team manager Bjarne Riis. "It would have been a good finish, but the weather just wasn't right. The officials needed to made a decision that was good for the riders. There was no doubt that we have to think of the riders first. And yes, Ivan is in great condition and we're all really happy the way things are going."
How it unfolded
On an overcast, muggy day, 163 riders departed the Campi Sportivi in Termino 27 minutes late at 13:47. The riders were worried about the terrible weather reports coming from atop the 2273m. high Plan de Corones, with a cold mix of rain and snow coming down on the misty summit.
After a riders' protest that provoked discussions with the Giro management of Angelo Zomegnan and Mauro Vegni, a decision was taken to skip the Passo delle Erbe and head straight to the final climb up Plan de Corones. The length of the stage would go from 133km to 126km and rather than climbing out of Bressanone, the riders would continue north to the head of the Isarco Valley, east along the Val Pusteria towards Brunico, south at San Lorenzo di Sebato to Longega and then up the 16.9km ascent. Some teams, like Liquigas, were not in agreement with the decision to skip Passo delle Erbe as they knew that maglia rosa Basso's weak point is his descending and that the CSC man could be vulnerable to an attack on the technical 20km descent.
Eventually, a gruppo compatto headed north along the Strada di Vini to Bolzano and the heart of the Dolomiti with a mountain-top finish on the brutal Plan de Corones high above Brunico. Non-starters were former maglia rosa Serguei Gonchar, who returned to his home in nearby Marostica to recover from a sore back that resulted from a crash on Stage 12. Liberty Seguros-Wurth rider Michele Scarponi was also a non-starter, perhaps preoccupied by the surprise incarceration of Liberty Seguros team boss Manolo Saiz in Madrid overnight.
The first hour along the Strada di Vini, through Bolzano and up the Isarco River valley was raced at an average of 30km/h but after 33km, Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Benoit Poilvet (Credit Agricole) attacked; after 70km in Bressanone, the duo's lead was 1'10. Saunier Duval was riding the tempo on the front, as Gilberto Simoni was looking for a win and to enter the top three on GC atop the steep slopes of Plan de Corones. As a cold rain began to fall in Bressanone, the front duo continued to gain ground, with the big Anglo-Italian pounding away on the front after 78km, 2'05 ahead of the gruppo maglia rosa. Saunier Duval had gotten off the front and the chase pace had slowed down. Just before 4pm, in light of the deteriorating weather conditions atop the Plan de Corones, the Giro d'Italia organization decided that for the riders' safety, the finish would be moved 5.5km down the mountain to finish atop the Passo Furcia at 1739m. and the total stage distance would drop to 120.5km.
With 50km to race near Chienes, the front duo had 2'45 as Saunier Duval had returned to the front of the gruppo maglia rosa, while Phonak's Gutierrez Cataluna was having mechanical problems and after making a bike change, his entire team came back to pace the raging bull back to the pack. The rain began to increase, soaking the riders of the corsa rosa and causing plenty of work for the team mechanics who had plenty of punctures to deal with, especially CSC, who even had to change Basso's rear wheel.
Both break riders were hanging tough as the chase slowed behind; the road from San Lorenzo di Sebato to Longega and on to Passo Furcia was bad, as there were extensive road works and the break's lead was down to 1'30 with 25km to go. Saunier Duval's pace was starting to make a selection as the cold and rainy conditions were already taking their toll.
As the break entered the original percorso in Longega to San Vigilio di Marebbe and the Passo Furcia, the gradient increased and Saunier Duval put Gomez and Lobato on the front to crank up the pace. The gap was now 40 seconds and falling fast, but the front duo hung on for the Gazzetta 110 sprint in San Vigilio di Marebbe, where Poilvet took the prime with the gruppo maglia rosa just five seconds behind.
There was now 10km to go to the improvised finish atop the Passo Furcia and all the escapees were now brought back. Counter-attacker Illiano (Selle Italia) then got a gap off the front as the road turned left to Furcia, while Danilo Di Luca was off the back as the first slopes of the final climb began.
Scott Davis (T-Mobile Team) jumped across to Illiano as CSC was riding a moderate pace at the front, with 5km to go. Piepoli hit the front and upped the pace, with Gutierrez Cataluna, Belli, Cunego, Pellizotti, Savoldelli, Perez Cuapio and another 10 riders all that was left. Savoldelli went out the back as the Perez Cuapio hammered on the front in a big gear with 4km to the finish. The next three kilometres were steep and difficult but the final one thousand metres were not so bad, as maglia rosa Basso sat right behind the Mexican climber, who looked to be regaining his old form.
With three kilometres remaining, Perez Cuapio went again and Simoni dropped off the pace. There were now four riders left up front: Perez Cuapio, Basso, Gutierrez Cataluna and Piepoli. The Mexican was busting it on the front, while just behind the gruppo maglia rosa, Pellizotti was going all out to get across. Ten seconds behind him, Simoni, Gadret and Caruso were just hanging there, as Cunego was coming up fast. With 1.5km to go, 'Delfino di Bibbione' Pellizotti managed to get across to the front group, but then Piepoli accelerated again with 1000m. to, he and Basso pulling away from the rest. Once again, as on Monte Bondone yesterday, it was a CSC-Saunier Duval mano-a-mano and the diminutive Piepoli hit the front with 500m. to go and never looked back, taking his second win at the 89th Giro d'Italia.
As the snow swirled 500m above on Plan de Corones, at the temporary finish on Passo Furcia, big boy Gutierrez Cataluna came across third, 15 seconds behind and put a further lock on his second slot at the Giro. After a superb ride, Pellizotti was fourth, just 19 seconds back and rode into fifth on GC, with the resurgent Perez Cuapio at 0'28. AG2R's Gadret was 36 seconds back, with Cunego at 0'42 and Simoni just behind. The Saunier Duval man had ridden into third place on GC, as Paolo Savoldelli lost 1'30 and fell to fourth.
Thursday, May 25 - Stage 18: Sillian-Gemona del Friuli, 227 km
The Giro now heads to its eastern-most point on a transitional stage through the Julian Alps and then passing through northern Friuli, which was shaken by a major earthquake 30 years ago this month. Stage 18 then heads into Austria for a 30km loop before moving back to Italy. First climb is Monte Croce Carnico, with the steep 7km Cuel di Forcia waiting with 55km to go from the finish in Gemona. An opportunistic attacker could get away alone on the last climb in Cologna to solo home for victory. Watch for local lad Franco 'Il Delfino di Bibbione' Pellizotti to try and escape to move up on GC and further delight his tifosi.