Gonchar back in the pink
After almost seven hours of racing, it was Belgian rouleur Rik Verbrugghe of Cofidis who was the last man standing, and the first rider across the finish line on the longest day of the 2006 Giro d'Italia. Stage 7 was the first day of summer heat and humidity as the Italian Grand Tour headed to the south of Italy, riding through the corrugated roads of the Marche hinterlands. Verbrugghe gave Cofidis a much needed win and the lanky Belgian from Chaudfontaine made a last-minute move from a breakaway that was just about caught on the final run in to the finishing climb to Saltara.
For was the older of the two Verbrugghe brothers, it was his 16th career win and third ever at the Giro d'Italia. "I had marked this stage, but winning is still not easy," he told Belgian VRT. "In our break, Garate was probably the best, but I played it tactically to attack just before the climb. They hesitated and if you give me five seconds, then I'm gone.
"I found it really tough at the finish. I almost stopped, but could keep my gap. The Giro suits me well, it's the third time that I've taken the flowers."
With a huge grin, 35 year-old Sergei Gonchar (T-Mobile) put the maglia rosa back on. Like Barbie, pink is clearly the favourite colour of the 35 year old from Rovno, Ukraine, and the usually stoic Gonchar was pumping his fist and kissing his new maglia rosa on the podium in Saltara. "I am so ready to celebrate the maglia rosa. It's totally unexpected and I'm just really happy to have it back again." A happy Gonchar explained further that, "I just came to the Giro to prepare for the Tour de France with Jan Ullrich, so this all comes as a total surprise for me."
Second on the stage and second on GC, just 0'06 behind Gonchar was Discovery Channel's Paolo Savoldelli. The defending Giro champion showed once again at this year's edition of the Corsa Rosa that he's simply got fantastic legs with a last kilometre attack off the front of the chasing group. It almost brought him a stage win, but did provide a nice 0'12 time bonus that regained some of the time he lost to Giro arch-rival Ivan Basso of CSC in Thursday's TTT. Savoldelli was happy with his ride on Stage 7, but was also realistic about what really happened today, saying, "Sure, it was very hard, but nothing like the real mountain stages that are ahead. I'm feeling really good and so when I saw the break ahead in the last kilometre, I wanted to give it a shot, but there was still one man left ahead at the end. We knew that Di Luca wasn't good but it wasn't really the right time to attack him."
CSC's Basso was strong all day, but Giro contender Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) had a bad day at the office, wilting in the heat and humidity. Basso explained, "Today looked like a good stage for me. I was good in the finale, but I got closed in in the last kilometre so I couldn't follow Savoldelli." Di Luca's comment was, "Yes, it wasn't a good day for me. Already on the Catria climb, I wasn't good. I tried to drink as much as possible but it was really humid today...for the first time this year. I thought things would go better for me and hope for a better day tomorrow."
With a nine man break away for half the stage today that included two good Spanish stage race riders well up on GC (Vila and Garate) that was allowed to gain almost 7 minutes, Gilberto Simoni was correct when he said post-stage that "it was kind of strange today." And Simoni's Saunier Duval teammate Manu Mori, who was up the road in the break as a non-working stopper echoed Gibo's comments, saying, "With big names like Garate and Vila in the break, to let them get seven minutes was just was too much."
How it unfolded
It was a beautiful spring Saturday morning when the 194 remaining Giro d'Italia riders left Cesena's via Emilia Levante at 10:48, and right from the beginning of the Giro's longest stage, the action was hot. Bernaudeau, Clement, Baliani, Albizuri, Navarro Garcia and Van De Walle attacked after 5km, but they got caught after a few kilometres. Then a crash brought down Van Hecke, Lopez Garcia, Luengo Celaya, Navarro Garcia, Brown and the luckless Andre Korff, after 23 km near Torriana, and Korff and Brown had to abandon. Sylvain Calzati (AG2R) and Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis) attacked near Ponte di Verucchio just outside San Marino after 29km, and they had the right combination to get away.
By the first GPM in San Marino after 43km where Scheirlinckx beat Calzati, the front duo had now gained almost 10 minutes as the gruppo had sat up and the break rode 39 km in the first hour. By the 110 Gazzetta sprint 45km later in the beautiful hill town of Urbino, the leaders had a huge advance on the chase; 17'48 at km 94. Calzati took the sprint points and when Paolo Bettini took the remaining points, his action continued and became a major counterattack of 30 riders.
More abandons mounted on the long, hard hilly stage, as Bertolini (Selle Italia), Thierry Marichal and Cristian Moreni (both Cofidis) took off their race numbers. The big counter attacking group quickly gained ground on the two escapees up front. After 122km in Colombara, the 15.8km ascent of Monte Catria commenced and Scheirlinckx quickly dropped Calzati on the unpaved section. Over the top, the Cofidis man had 2'30 on the now reduced in size counterattackers and 4'15 on the chasers. Since Discovery Channel didn't make the big move, so they had to send tough guys Matty White and Pavel Padrnos to the front of the main gruppo to keep the large escape close.
The counterattack had now been honed down to eight riders on the tough ascent of Monte Catria, with dangerman Garate (Quick.Step), Vila (Lampre-Fondital), Kessler (T-Mobile), Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne), Mori (Saunier Duval), Verbrugghe (Cofidis), Yakovlev (Liberty Seguros) and Peña (Phonak). Down the long descent to Cantiano with 83km to go, Scheirlinckx continued his solo action, as the chasers were closing the gap; meanwhile back in the gruppo, Discovery Channel stopped chasing. The next 35km were fast and slightly downhill all the way to the base of the penultimate climb of the day and Scheirlinckx was 2'00 ahead of the counterattackers and 5'00 ahead of the main group of 80 riders, where maglia rosa Olaf Pollack (T-Mobile) rejoined the main group after being dropped on Catria climb.
Scheirlinckx was caught outside Acqualagna with 65km to race and the now nine front runners (Calzati had been caught and dropped) had both Mori and Vila, who were not pulling through as defenders of their leaders Simoni and Cunego. There was a lot of drinking and not much chasing behind, so the break continued to gain time and was 7'00 ahead in Furlo with 60km to the finish. Vila had been maglia rosa virtuale for quite a while, as he was only 1'26 down on Pollack at the start of the day.
Finally Liquigas-Bianchi took up the chase and as soon as they accelerated, and were joined by CSC, the gap to the break now fell quickly. With 47km to go in Fossombrone, at the foot of the steep 8km ascent of Monte delle Cesane, the gap was 3'30 and falling. Gerolsteiner had also joined the chase behind and as the break hit the 18% ramp at the beginning of the ascent, Scheirlinckx and Yakolev went right out the back as Garate put the hammer down on the front. Efimkin made a move from the break but came back after a few kilometres, earning himself a dirty look from Garate when he was caught for his useless attack. In the gruppo behind, maglia rosa Pollack lost contact halfway up up the ascent as CSC had the experienced Iñigo Cuesta riding the tempo up the climb.
Danilo Di Luca was having a bad day, hanging on for dear life at the back of the front group on the hot, dusty climb. And back with the Liquigas-Bianchi man was pocket climber Jose' Rujano (Selle Italia) who was also suffering. Chapeau to big Staf Scheirlinckx, who was finally caught after being of the front for 160km on a hard hilly stage. Over the top of the brutal Monte delle Cesane ascent with 39.5km to race, the break was still away with 3'40 lead as Verbrugghe too the KOM points. Garate was hammering hard to stay away and it was a key point in the race, as the chase would either start in earnest or the break would stay away.
As the long descent started, T-Mobile's Matty Kessler hit the deck and crashed out of the break, leaving only five up front. Garate then gapped the others on the descent but was rejoined by Peña, Vila, Mori and Verbrugghe, while Efimkin had been dropped. Garate was trying to get Vila to work up front, but the Lampre man just couldn't go against team orders to sit on as a stopper for Cunego.
With 24km to race, break had 1'20 on Efimkin, as Kessler was absorbed by the gruppo led by CSC's Nicki Sørensen, 3'15 behind the break. Garate was frustrated by the lack of cooperation from his companions. Patxi Vila was still maglia rosa virtuale and Garate decided to go solo with 20km to race, but his attack was covered by the others. As the 1500m wall climb up to the village of Barni started with a sharp left hand turn, the gap was 2'30 with 16km to go, and suddenly Lampre-Fondital sent big Marzio Bruseghin to the front to make a huge acceleration. The real chase was on and the new pace stretched the gruppo out into one long line at 50km/h. maglia rosa Pollack and Rujano were hanging on the back, while Ullrich pounded a huge gear at the back as he was showing his Tour de France interval training program. Bruseghin, Tiralongo and Bruseghin were up front hammering away. Di Luca had found his legs pedaling a small gear and stayed with the front group, while Lampre had already pulled back 1'00 of the break's lead.
Cunego's Lampre-Fondital train was motoring all out at the front of a group of 40 chasers with all the Giro favourites present. With 15km to go, the gap was now down to 1'40 while Garate tried to dump the others and go solo, but it was nothing doing for the Spanish champion. Lampre-Fondital's forcing was working as the gap came down to 0'58 with 10km to go in Cartoceto. Marzio the Muleskinner was showing why he's considered one of the best gregari in the business with an incredible effort for his leader Cunego.
Under the shade of the beautiful olive trees of Cartoceto, the pursuit race between Garate and the break and Cunego's Lampre-Fondital train traversed the hilly road to east towards Saltare. Mori and Vila were coming through once in a while, but not really working. At the base of the descent in Lucrezia with 6km to, the gap was stable at 0'45 and it was still all Bruseghin, all the time. Lampre-Fondital was saving Szmyd and Tiralongo for the last ascent to Saltara.
Motorman Verbrugghe made his move on a flat section before the final climb to try and get away from the climbers in the break and quickly got a gap on the rest with 5 km to go. The chase group was going all out 0'40 behind as Paolo Savoldelli's secret weapon Tommy Danielson was up there with the Lampre boys to set up his man. Verbrugghe was still driving as he passed the Michele Scarponi Fan Club and went under the 1 km kite. The Cofidis rider had 0'28 on the chasers as the rest of the break was inexorably pulled back on the steep last 700 meters.
With 500m to go, the break was absorbed but Rik was still rockin' 0'30 up. Suddenly a brilliant Savoldelli made a huge attack, blasting up the steep final meters, but it was too late to catch Verbrugghe, who soloed home the winner. Di Luca lost contact with the other Giro contenders on the ascent and lost 0'20 to Savoldelli, while an ailing Jose' Rujano (Selle Italia) had a disastrous day, losing almost another minute to Savoldelli and the other Giro contenders.
Stage 8 - Sunday, May 14: Civitanova Marche-Maielletta (Passo Lanciano), 171km
After a long cruise along the Adriatic coast, Stage 8 makes a sharp right and heads inland through the back country of the Province of Pescara to the first mountaintop finish to Passo Lanciano, called Maielletta. This is a tough climb in the mountains of Abruzzo with a steep final 12km to 1306m. These are the backyard training roads of homeboy Danilo Di Luca and the Liquigas-Bianchi man will surely be going for the win atop the Maielletta climb if he feels better. Otherwise it's Gibo Simoni who has to attack to pull back time from the other favourites.