Though polemics spoil the party
As good as the Colle della Finestre stage to Sestrières last year, maybe even better, the penultimate stage surpassed all expectations. And so did the maglia rosa.
Just when one thought we would witness another CSC gift like yesterday, Ivan Basso turned the screws just a little bit tighter, leaving Simoni in his wake and riding the finale as if it were flat, confirming his dominance in what will go down as one of the best, most memorable stages in Giro d'Italia history.
Holding a slightly crumpled, sweat-stained picture of his day-old son with both hands (who he still has not seen in the flesh), it was perhaps the most emotion-charged Basso we've seen since the race began, almost three weeks ago.
"I did it for my son Santiago and my wife Micaela," said Basso. "I had [the photo] with me in my pocket during the stage; a photographer gave me the photo of my son this morning, and my gesture at the finish line wasn't something I had thought about - I was so happy, I felt I had to express my emotions.
"My ride today is another demonstration of how I've been riding during this Giro, and I don't think I stole anything from anyone. I've already shown my character at this year's Giro. It's one of the best days of my life, but it's sad there are polemics."
One minute and seventeen seconds later, the disillusioned face of Gilberto Simoni arrived in Aprica. Clearly disgruntled and crossing the line with a laconic grin, the Saunier Duval rider gave his all to win, but against the Behemoth of Basso today, it was simply not enough. However, according to Simoni, Basso asked him to slow down on the descent of the Mortirolo and not drop him - but that did not mean the gift of a stage win.
"Basso said to me, 'Don't drop me on the descent', so I thought I had a chance to win today; if I had thought Basso was going to do that in the finale, I would have played my cards differently," explained Simoni. "I'm just happy that the race is almost over," he said, looking disgusted.
Adding fuel to the fire was the 2003 Giro champion's description of the maglia rosa's performance, which he termed 'extra-terrestrial' - and not in that nice, 'he's out of this world' sort-of-way. "I've never seen anyone dominate [like Basso], never seen any one that strong!" exclaimed Simoni. "He seems like an extra-terrestrial."
When Basso saw the replay of Simoni's words on camera, his face changed from one of elation to one of anguish: "I don't like to be called an extra-terrestrial or a phenomenon," he retorted.
"I've been on the podium in the Tour de France twice and was the only rider who could stay with Armstrong on the climbs. Me and my team worked really hard to win this Giro d'Italia. I told him it was better to arrive together at the flat section before the last climb, and then fight for the win.
"Maybe Gilberto will understand [later] that it is not as bad as it seems; maybe he said those things because it was straight after the finish, but there is nothing to complain about. In this Giro, I have always been honest and played fairly. In the last kilometres, I didn't attack, I only rode my pace - and that made the difference."
Added CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, "We're not giving anymore presents; basta [enough]."
Basso chose to explode the race wide open on the Passo di Mortirolo's lower slopes, just three kilometres into the fifteen kilometre-long climb, dropping everyone bar Simoni. Both wanted the win today. Each traded long, hard turns to show their strength, pedaling an almost identical cadence; from the outset, it was crystal clear a physical and mental mano-a-mano was on.
Behind, José Gutierrez Catuluna and Damiano Cunego weren't working nearly as well; their different physiques, styles and objectives making it difficult to join forces. Nevertheless, the pair stayed together till the finish, 2'51 their deficit by the day's end. Consequently, Phonak's raging bull kept his second spot by 2'43 over Simoni, while 'The Kid' became one of the day's biggest profiteers, moving up a notch to fourth on the classifica generale.
Savoldelli, weakened from the start without super mountain domestique Tom Danielson, did his best to find a rhythm on the un-rhythmic Mortirolo, a climb possessing gradients varying from 2.8 to 18 percent and boasting a 10.3 percent average. The defending champ did have the occasional company but none who would work with him, and mostly rode the final forty kilometres on his own, losing six minutes and sliding to fifth overall.
Just 140 kilometres of racing are left in the 89th Giro d'Italia. It's a downhill run to the traditional finish on Milano's Corso Venezia, and hopefully a good night's sleep will cool some of the heated comments that came from today.
But before we forgive and forget, let us remember what Lance Armstrong said after his victory on Stage 17 at the 2004 Tour de France: "No gifts, no gifts this year.
"I've given gifts in the Tour de France and very rarely has it ever come back to help me. And this is the biggest bike race in the world and it means more than any bike race in the world and it means more to me than any bike race in the world. And I wanna win. No gifts."
That's exactly how Basso felt today.
How it unfolded
On an humid, overcast morning in Trento's beautiful Piazza Duoma, 152 riders started Stage 20 of the 89th Giro d'Italia, 211 km from Trento-Aprica, the penultimate stage of the corsa rosa. Discovery Channel's Tom Danielson was non-starter as the American climber had been suffering from the 'flu a few days ago. Danielson was sitting in 16th on GC and had ridden an excellent Giro d'Italia, this time as defending champion Savoldelli's right hand man.
North through the vineyards of the Adige River valley filled with pino grigio and chardonnay grapes, the pace was easy for the first hour through Lavis, with 26 km covered. Just after Cles, the hometown of Maurizio Fondriest, among the famous apple orchards of Val di Non after 40 km, a five man attack containing maglia verde Baliani, Edalaine, Flores, Bruseghin and Cioni went away, but was quickly brought back with Saunier Duval trying to keep it all together for the final challenge of Simoni and Basso to Aprica.
There were multiple attacks through the upper Val di Non and after the second hour of racing, the average speed was was covered in 27.9 km/h as the gruppo was again compatto in Male after 52 km. With Passo Tonale looming ahead, Belli was forced to abandon due to muscle problems after 57 km, a big disappointment for the 35 year-old hard man from Bergamo riding his last Giro d'Italia. At the sprint in Dimaro, Maxime Monfort took the prize and as the first slopes of the Passo Tonale began, it was big American Aaron Olsen of Saunier Duval riding tempo on the front. Riding his first Grand Tour, the big Yank had done yeoman's work all Giro long, riding on the front for Simoni and the Saunier Duval boys.
Passo Tonale, the dividing line between the Trentino and Lombardia regions, was the first GPM of the day. Tonale is 15.2 km climb that gains 918 m, with a 6% average grade. Atop the summit at the GPM, Baliani was double-teamed by Quick.Step's Garate and Engels, putting the Panaria man's maglia verde in play. Down the descent to Ponte di Legno, the gruppo stayed compatto, before the difficult ascent of the Passo Gavia to Cima Coppi, the highest point of the Giro d'Italia. It was first climbed in the Giro 46 years ago, where Imerio Massignan was first over the top on the way to the stage finish in Bormio. But Massignan punctured twice on the descent and was caught by Charly Gaul, who won the stage that day, while Massignan was second, finishing on his rim.
Gavia is a legendary climb of 16.530 km that gains 1320 m with a steep average gradient of 8% that hits 16% in sections. Halfway up the ascent, AG2R's Calzati and Lampre-Fondital's Bruseghin attacked and got a 100m lead when Discovery Channel's Chechu Rubiera counterattacked and caught the duo 2 km later with 6 km to the Cima Coppi summit, with the gruppo maglia rosa at 0'40. Lopez Garcia then counterattacked and bridged to the break 3 km later as Bruseghin had dropped off the front, with the gruppo at 52. As Lopez Garcia attacked, Garate exploded out of the gruppo maglia rosa, caught and passed Lopez Garcia. Selle Italia's Serpa had followed the Quick.Step man and at Cima Coppi atop Passo Gavia, it was Spanish champ Garate who passed the GPM first, with Serpa second. After pointing towards the heavens in a salute to il Campionissimo Fausto Coppi, Garate would take over the maglia verde of best climber from Baliani. After four hours of racing, the average speed of Stage 20 was 27 km/h.
Patxi Vila bombed the descent of Passo Gavia and caught the front runners, and he and Serpa took off as the rest of the break sat up. In Bormio after 135 km, Serpa took the Gazzetta 110 sprint alone as Vila sat up and there were still 30 km through the mountain towns of Grosio and Mazzo di Valtellina before the terrible ascent of Passo Mortirolo. Serpa sat up and had a snack as he waited for the CSC train with big Jensy Voigt riding locomotive to suck him up. The pace was high down Val Furva to Mazzo di Valtellina as CSC and Saunier Duval kept the pressure on.
The day's penultimate ascent was Passo Mortirolo, a steep, brutal ascent of 12.8 km with a huge altitude gain of 1317m and a steep average grade of 10,3% with sections of 18%. Mortirolo is Marco Pantani's mountain and a new memorial atop Passo Mortirolo was just dedicated to the tragic hero, not to mention the hundreds of banners and signs dedicated to the much beloved, much lamented Pantani displayed all along the climb.
After threading the needle in the tiny alleys of the borghetto of Mazzo di Valtellina, the drama of the Mortirolo began immediately. Saunier Duval sent Lobato to the front to keep the pace high, with the first objective to crack Phonak's Gutierrez. Next up was CSC's Cuesta as the gruppo maglia rosa was already down to 15 riders.
Franco Pellizotti was the first big victim of the Mortirolo after 2 km and the gruppo maglia rosa was Cuesta, Gustov, Sastre and Basso (CSC), Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), Perez Cuapio (Ceramica Panaria), Casar (Française de Jeux), Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) Caruso and Osa (Liberty Seguros) Gutierrez Cataluna and Peña (Phonak).
After just 3 km of the Mortirolo, Gustov's tempo blew up the gruppo and as soon as the Ukrainian peeled off, Basso attacked. The incredible Gutierrez Cataluna held Basso's wheel, with the Saunier Duval duo of Simoni and Piepoli behind and Cunego chasing hard at 10m. Another acceleration from Basso on the tiny tree covered mountain track up the Mortirolo cracked the Phonak man and after 3.5 km, it was just the maglia rosa with a super Simoni. Piepoli was just keeping the front duo in sight, with the big Phonak man at 0'15, Cunego at 0'20 and Savoldelli and Caruso at 0'45, with the Discovery man in danger of sliding back into 5th on GC.
Just after the halfway point up the Mortirolo, Basso and Simoni were 0'25 ahead of Piepoli, with Gutierrez Cataluna and Cunego at 0'35. Savoldelli and Caruso were 1'35 back as Caruso had dropped the Discovery Channel rider a little. The front duo were riding at 12 km/h, with a great Simoni powering away. Amidst the huge crowds of hysterical tifosi with 4 km to the summit past the Pantani monument in, Basso and Simoni had 0'37 on Piepoli and had gained 1'10 on the Phonak man, who was just 0'10 ahead of Cunego, while 2'10 behind, Savoldelli was fighting valiantly as Garate came up to him and then both caught Caruso.
With 3 km to the summit, a magnificent Gutierrez Cataluna had caught Piepoli and had even pulled back some time on Simoni and Basso as Cunego was hanging tough 20m behind the Phonak man. The last 2 km of the ascent weren't as steep as the previous 10.8 km and Simoni was often in front as the clock passed 6 hours of racing under the 35 km to go banner. Just behind, Cunego had exploded past Piepoli and gotten across to Gutierrez Cataluna.
Atop the Mortirolo at Cima Pantani, there were still 33.5 km to the finish in Aprica, including a 17 km descent to Edolo. Passing through enormous crowds of cheering tifosi after 44'30 of climbing the 12.8 km ascent, Maglia Rosa Basso and Simoni had a 1'03 gap on Gutierrez Cataluna and Cunego, with Piepoli at 1'48 and Garate, Savoldelli, Caruso and Casar at 3'40.
Basso's only weak spot is his descending, and as he and Simoni headed down towards Edolo, the maglia rosa was slowing down the Saunier Duval man, who went to the front. Both riders were taking it easy on the tricky descent, while the two chasers were going all out to get across to the leaders. Behind, Savoldelli had already swooped the others and il Falco was gaining lost time back on Cunego.
As Basso and Simoni finally hit the wide main road SS42 with 20 km to, they had a lead of on 0'50 on Gutierrez Cataluna and Cunego, with Piepoli at 1'44. The incredible descending skills of Savoldelli had brought him to 2'55 as he had regained almost one minute on the descent of the Mortirolo.
The final ascent of the day was a 15.4 km climb that started in the centre of Edolo and gained 474m to finish at 1173m in Aprica. The first few kilometres were steepish, but the last 5 km were less than 5% with only 2% in the last 2000m. Basso and Simoni commenced the climb to Aprica with a strong headwind, as the raging bull Gutierrez Cataluna was going all out, pounding a huge gear 0'45 behind the front duo, as Cunego could just hang on. In sixth place on the road, 'Paolino' Savoldelli was all alone and going all out to keep Cunego within 2'14 and not lose his 4th place on GC.
It was now a a pursuit match and as Basso hit the front more often, the pace up front increased markedly and Gutierrez Cataluna and Cunego were at 1'23 with 10 km to go. Savoldelli caught Piepoli just at the 10 km banner, 4'04 behind the maglia Rosa. Cunego was now 0'27 ahead of Savoldelli in the race for 4th place on GC and the Lampre-Fondital man had now started to occasionally work with the Phonak man.
Basso and Simoni were simply riding away from everyone else and at 5 km, they had 1'58 on the Phonak-Lampre duo, with Savoldelli and Piepoli along for the ride, chasing 4'00 back. With 4 km, Basso started pounding away in a huge gear and upped the pace enough to just slowly crush Simoni with his inexorable progression. Looking like he wasn't feeling the chain. Basso simply rode away from Simoni and quickly gained 0'15 in 500m on Simoni. After almost 7 hours of racing, Basso won his third stage to cap a superb Giro d'Italia, holding up a photo of his newborn son Santiago to dedicate his third stage win at the 89th Giro d'Italia to his baby.
A tired and disappointed Gibo sulked across at 1'17 while at Cunego was third at 2'51, taking a 0'08 time bonus, just ahead of Gutierrez Cataluna, who hung on to his second on GC. Savoldelli and Piepoli rode in at 6'03, as the courageous Discovery Channel rider slipped to 5th on GC but managed to hold on to his maglia blu of Gran Combinata.
Française de Jeux's Sandy Casar had a strong stage to finish 7th at 7'26, with Spanish champ Garate in 8th, who then headed for the podium to put on his first maglia verde of best climber of the Giro d'Italia. Peña, Caruso, Osa, Vila and Chechu Rubiera were all in the same group. Casar moved into 6th on GC, with Garate up to 7th and Pellizotti having a giornata no to end up 8th, ahead of Victor Hugo Peña and Patxi Vila, who rounded out the top 10 on GC with just one stage still to race at the Giro d'Italia.
Stage 21 - Sunday, May 28: Museo di Ghisallo (Magreglio)-Milan / 140 km
It's all beer and skittles for Maglia Rosa Ivan Basso and his CSC boys as the final stage of the 89th Giro d'Italia, Stage 21, just cruises downhill from the Museo di Ghisallo in Magreglio across Brianza to the traditional final criterium in Milano. As the maglia rosa rolls into town, Stage 21 is the swan song for the sprinters on Corso Venezia and Paolo Bettini will try to take stage number two, as T-Mobile's Pollack and someone from Milram will try to deny him.