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Although he's learned to speak Italian via his trips to the Giro d'Italia, Robbie McEwen has...
Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) pulls on the purple points jersey
Although he's learned to speak Italian via his trips to the Giro d'Italia, Robbie McEwen has impressed with his post race TV interviews delivered in decent Italian. So far, Robbie Mac is three for three in Italian TV interviews and also three for three in sprint wins at this Giro, where the Aussie pocket rocket is simply schooling the rest of the sprinters - Italians included - at this year's Giro d'Italia.
When the Giro d'Italia last finished in Forli' 29 years ago, it was Belgian sprint ace Freddy Maertens who won the stage in 1977 and perhaps among historical cycling figures, McEwen resembles Maertens the most. With his 11th career Giro stage win today, McEwen showed his sangfroid and explosiveness, and was clearly delighted to win again in his maglia ciclamino of best sprinter. After wishing his mum a happy Mother's Day back home in Oz, Robbie told RAI-TV, "Today was 'magnifico' for me and the team. Before the Giro, I was hoping to get one stage win, so this is great." When Robbie was asked when he might finish his Giro adventure, he was non-committal, saying, "I'm taking things day by day here and so not sure when I'm going home." McEwen may have another chance before next Wednesday's rest day in Stage 9, but that might be it until Monday's stage 15.
T-Mobile's 32 year old sprinter Olaf Pollack is having his best year ever and today, the powerful ex-pistard from Berlin was runner-up to the explosive Aussie, and so fought his way into the maglia rosa thanks to a time bonus. Pollack, who paid his dues for years on the tiny Agro-Adler team explained post-stage, "I'm really glad that our T-Mobile Team was able to keep the maglia rosa at the Giro. It's been a great two days here for us."
Pollack may have had a better shot the win if he hadn't lost his leadout man Andre' Korff with 1.5km to go. "Well I was shocked", explained Pollack. "With 1km to go, I realized that Korff had crashed and that was my man, so I was left alone." When asked how long he expected to wear the maglia, the knowing Pollack smiled and said, "Tomorrow I go back to work for Gonchar."
After an air transfer from Belgium Tuesday night, a rest day Wednesday and Thursday's Stage 5 team time trial, Friday's long flat stage through Emilia-Romagna started at 11:50 with 194 riders in Busseto, the birthplace of Italian musical great Giuseppe Verdi, and home of Italy's renowned culatello salame.
The Giro riders exited Busseto's Piazza verdi with a day of marvelous weather; sunny skies, temps in the low 20's with low humidity and light variable winds. The gruppo entered the heart of Emilia-Romagna, a region of Italy with a tremendous passion for cycling, home of Marco Pantani and RAI-TV commentator Davide Cassani, and towards the finish city of Forli', hometown of 1956 Olympic cycling champion Ercole Baldini, who earned the nickname of "the Forli' Express" when he was racing.
After a close second in Thursday's TTT, Friday's new Maglia Rosa was Serguei Gonchar, the experienced 35 year-old Ukrainian rider who lives in Marostica, Italy, and has won five Giro d'Italia TT stages in his career. In fact, Gonchar has finished the Giro eight times in the top ten during the last nine years ('97: 5th, '98: 10th, '99: 7th, '00: 9th, '01: 4th, '03: 8th, '04: 2nd, '05: 6th), but his mission at the Giro was not to win. In fact, T-Mobile hired the big gear humper to help Jan Ullrich in the upcoming Tour de France, so T-Mobile was looking to put the pink tunic on sprinter Olaf Pollack at the end of Stage 6, who was in striking distance with finishing time bonuses.
After just 6km, a break of three riders got away in Soragna and after a short struggle, the gruppo let the trio make its escape. It was Ceramiche Panaria's Serguei Matveyev who made the move, perhaps inspired by the fact that his sponsor's headquarters was in nearby Sassuolo. The orange clad Ukrainian was joined by Credit Agricole's Edalaine and Euskaltel's Aranaga. 8km later near Fontevivo, the three riders had a lead of 1'31. After 84km in Rio Saliceto, the break had their biggest margin of 6'14" when they contested the 110 Gazzetta intermediate sprint, won by Aranaga.
After two hours of racing, the average speed on the pool table flat via Emilia was 44.150 km/h. The three riders were working well together, with the smooth 31 year old Matveyev, a former World Champion in the team pursuit looking the strongest.
30km later at the feed zone in Nonantola, home of Marco Pantani's (and Roberto Gaggioli among others) amateur team G.S. Giacobazzi, the lead was down to 5'20. With 80km to go, just outside Bologna, Davitamon-Lotto decided to hit the front as the gap fell to 4'30 as the break the University of Bologna radio telescope of Croce del Nord.
In the T-Mobile team car was Rudy Pevenage, who was watching his boy Jan Ullrich spin at 120 revs per minute on his SRM equipped Giant. As the gruppo passed through Castel San Pietro and re-entered the long straight former roman road of via Emilia as they passed into the Province of Romagna, Davitamon-Lotto had put the long lean silhouette of Bert Roesems on the front. The gap was falling fast and the Giro organization sent the team cars ahead of the break.
In Castel Bolognese with 25km to race, the gap was now down to 0'40 and T-Mobile had joined the chase up front for Pollack. But once the gap had stabilized at under 1'00, the chasers backed off as the break entered Faenza with 20km to go, home of decorated faience ceramics, the gap was back to 0'55. Discovery Channel's Tommy Danielson was feeling right at home, as he used to live just 10km away in Lugo when he rode for the Fassa Bortolo team, and was used to cruising through the green hills of the Romagnolo hinterlands on the right of the percorso. But Tommy D was keeping focused as the finale approached.
AG2R was up front now for their sprinter Tomas Vaitkus and eventually the jig was up as the lead trio came back at the 209 km point after 203 km of liberty. As the gruppo compatto entered the province of Forli'-Cesena, a headwind had come up on the via Emilia on the run-in to the finish in Forli' on the Corso della Republica, where Giro stage win record holder Mario Cipollini was waiting to see the sprint. Supermario had healed up from his broken kneecap suffered in a skiing accident and was in fine form as he joined the RAI-TV commentating team of Auro Bulbarelli and Davide Cassani for a unique perspective on cycling. In response to Cassani's question about who was his best lead out man ever, Cipo named retired riders Silvio Martinelli, Gianmatteo Fagnini and CSC's Giovanni Lombardi as his preferred pilotfish.
With 5km to go, it was a wild struggle to gain position, with Milram (Rigotto), Bouygues (Chavanel), Rabobank (Brown) and Selle Italia (Loddo) fighting for their place up front, while the gold helmet of Bettini was stuck right on the wheel of Robbie McEwen. Milram cranked it with 500 meters to go, but suddenly there was a moment of hesitation up front as Loddo and Milram's Ongarato came through. Rangy Tomas Vaitkus went long at 300 meters to go, trying to surprise the other sprinters, but McEwen went right after him, as did Pollack, who had lost his lead-out man Andre' Korff with 1500m to go. But the tough German managed to fight his way out of being boxed-in by Phonak's Guidi with a head butt, a shoulder shot and then desperately went after McEwen's disappearing wheel.
As McEwen passed the line, the fast-finishing Pollack just got by Vaitkus to take a 0'12 bonus for second. With Pollack just 0'10 behind his teammate Gonchar, the powerful sprinter from Berlin moved into the maglia rosa at the 2006 Giro d'Italia, his second time. In 2004, Pollack wore the pink tunic for one day and with Saturday's tough, hilly stage, the maglia rosa should change again in Saltare.
One week into the Giro d'Italia and the real hostilities open on this long, tough day through the hinterlands of the Marche region, the longest day at the 2006 Giro. The first half from Cesena crosses the Rubicon, traverses the Republic of San Marino, then challenges the steep climbs of Monte Catria, with the last 5km on an unpaved road, then the steep ascent of Monte delle Cesane and the final ascent into Saltare, where the last 700m have a gradient of over 10%. Strong riders will reign here; don't be surprised if the Giro favourites Basso, Cunego, Di Luca and Simoni will be fighting it out for the win from a small group of the Giro's best.