Di Luca conquers Montevergine after six years and re-takes the Maglia Rosa
Liquigas did a number on the final ascent of Montevergine by propelling Danilo Di Luca to the win and, at the same time, into the leader's Maglia Rosa. On a stage he first won in 2001, "The Killer" launched his sprint in the final 200 metres to hold off a strong Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) finished some seconds back, in third.
"It was really a beautiful stage. Thanks to the team for doing all that work," said the 31 year-old after the stage. It was due to the work of Liquigas, and the unfortunate crash of teammate Enrico Gasparotto, that Di Luca moved back into the race lead.
Liquigas started its work on the Montevergine di Mercogliano after Saunier Duval had led all day. With the early escape trio (Pavel Brutt, Yuriy Krivtsov, and Markel Irizar) caught, the Italian team brought in the late move by Julio Pérez (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare). The three-time Giro stage winner tried a dig that started with nine kilometres remaining.
"I tried hard today, but I felt bad in the finale," said an exhausted Pérez. The Mexican gave up with 800 metres to the line. "It was too bad."
Di Luca launched with Riccò on his wheel with 200 metres remaining. The Saunier Duval rider was not able to profit from the work of his team but he showed a great pair of legs behind the Liquigas leader.
"I remained a little closed," noted the 23 year-old from Modena. "Di Luca went and I remained a little bit behind. But, overall, the climb went well for me. For me and [Team Captain Gilberto] Simoni it was a confirmation of good form. Second place is good for me, and from here it will get better."
"I am really tired," confirmed Simoni, who lost a little bit of time to Di Luca. "Today was truly tired. Di Luca's team did a number. ... Riccò did well with second but Di Luca was just amazing today."
The last winner of Montevergine, Cunego, followed behind the front duo to take third. His Lampre-Fondital team did not control the stage like Saunier or Liquigas but it chose to play a defensive role, one that could help Cunego in the third week.
"Today felt good but Di Luca and Riccò were very strong," noted Cunego, catching his breath in the mist that surrounded Montevergine. "I was left a little behind at the finish but later on in the week the climbers, like me, should move up the classification."
Due to a light rain the roads became slick and crashes followed. Gasparotto was the victim of a crash with World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quickstep-Innergetic) with just under 75 kilometres to go. As a result, Gasparotto was unable to defend his race lead although he did continue racing. Bettini looked worse.
"It is the same zone as I had hit in Tirreno, more or less," confirmed a tired-looking Bettini at the finish. "The roads were very slippery. Gasparotto crashed; I crashed. Yet, another time for this year, I hope I will go well from here. ... I feel okay and the Giro is long; I will try again."
How it unfolded
After a transfer from Sardinia and rest day on the Italian mainland, 192 riders departed on the lungomare (or seafront) in Salerno, along its eponymously named Gulf under bright, sunny skies at 1:15 PM. The riders took it easy the first hour as they cruised at 30 km/h along the twisting coast road of the Costa Amalfitana, considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
Liquigas was in command on the front for Maglia Rosa Gasparotto, who was likely to lose his pink tunic atop the climb to the Santuario di Montevergine di Mercogliano.
After 33 kilometres, approaching the famous fishing village of Positano, Ag2r's Krivtsov made a move and was quickly joined by opportunistic Tinkoff rider Pavel Brutt, who was wearing the Maglia Verde of best climber and was looking to score more points out front.
Five kilometres later, Euskaltel-Euskadi's Markel Irizar got across and it was the right combination. 10 kilometres later, near S. Agata sui due Golfi, the climb to the day's first GPM began; the front trio had gained three minutes on the disinterested peloton, who seemed more attuned in the gorgeous scenery than controlling the break.
Atop the first GPM at Picco S.Angelo. after 51 kilometres, it was Brutt who bruted his way in front of his break companions. As the trio passed through Termini at the tip of the peninsula, with the Isola di Capri in the background, it held a four minute lead. The break was working well together as they headed east towards the southern suburbs of Napoli.
As the clouds rolled in from the Gulf of Napoli Saunier Duval-Prodir took over the tempo on the front to keep the break close and give their rider Riccò a shot at the stage win atop Montevergine di Mercogliano.
The skies darkened along the Costa Sorrentina and after 80 kilometres in Castellamare di Stabia, the break still had a four-minute lead. A few drops of rain began to fall and the roads were quickly soaked for the gruppo. Oil quickly rose to the surface, making it slick as ice.
In S. Antonio Abate, after 88 kilometres, there was a mass crash in the gruppo with at least of half of the riders hitting the deck, some of them hard. The victims included Maglia Rosa Gasparotto, Maglia Ciclamino Petacchi, Cunego and World Champion Bettini. Worst off was Ian McLeod (Française Des Jeux), who broke his collarbone and had to abandon. Bettini also was hurt; he broke his bike and had to make a change. He then had a long painful chase back to the gruppo with his Quickstep teammates Engels and Scarselli, punctuated by several visits to the race doctor's car.
The World Champion had crashed on his lower left ribcage, exactly where he had crashed into traffic sign during Tirreno-Adriatico.
The quick showers had stopped as the race traversed the grimy hinterlands of Napoli on the way to the mountaintop finish, but as the gruppo maintained a slow tempo after the crash, everybody, but McLeod, got back on. Up front with 60 kilometres still to race, the break's lead had ballooned to 5'50"; the front trio had gained two minutes from the crash and eventually got their biggest lead of the stage - 6'40" at the feed zone after 92 kilometres.
However, Saunier Duval meant business and the yellow clad team cranked up the pace. At the Garibaldi sprint at Castel S. Giorgio, there was no contest as Irizar rolled through. Saunier Duval-Prodir was cranking up the pace as the road gradient rose towards Avellino, hometown of Tony Soprano's Italian ancestors. The front trio's lead had fallen by two minutes in 15 kilometres and it struggled to stay ahead of the charging gruppo.
Benoît Joachim (Astana) and Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) hit the deck in Avellino.
As the 20 hairpin curves of ascent to the Santuario began, the lead of the escapees was down to two minutes and falling fast as Acqua e Sapone took over from Saunier Duval, while Ceramica Panaria was lurking near the front for magic Mexican Pérez Cuapio.
Up front, Brutt busted off of the break solo with 15 kilometres to go. As the gruppo began the ascent to the Santuario, there was a lot of shifting for position as the riders ascended the steady four percent gradient at 30km/h. Liquigas had taken over the forcing on the front of the gruppo, led by Charles Wegelius and an elegant looking Vincenzo Nibali in the Maglia Bianca of best young rider.
At 10 kilometres to go, Brutt was finally pulled back by his two break buddies. One kilometre later, T-Mobile's Rabon took off from the gruppo and got a gap, which provoked a massive move from the magic Mexican, Julio Pérez.
The Panaria man powered a huge gear off the front and caught the break with a two-kilometre burst. He passed them to move into the stage lead. The break had lasted 112 kilometres.
Cofidis rider Steve Zampieri was next to attack while Liquigas kept the pressure on. Predictor-Lotto's Cioni bridged to Zampieri, as well as Lampre's Marzano, Panaria's Emanuele Sella, Quickstep's Visconti and Aitor Pérez Arrieta of Caisse d'Epargne.
At five kilometres to go, Pérez Cuapio had a 20-second lead over the gruppo which had absorbed the small Cioni-group under the impulsion of Saunier Duval's Piepoli. Panaria was playing the team game perfectly as Sella was covering the moves on the front.
The next two kilometres would be crucial for the magic Mexican who powered his 53x19 through the hairpin turns up to the Santuario. Although he tried to hang tough, World Champion Bettini dropped off from the now 25-strong gruppo.
With just two thousand metres left to race, Pérez Cuapio was gritting his teeth, hanging tough with a lead of 20" and it looked like he might hold on. However, the Liquigas train was at full throttle. Maglia Bianca Nibali was flying in front of the now 10-man chase group and the Mexican's magic just wasn't enough to hold off the acid green wave of Liquigas.
Next up for Liquigas was Pellizotti. The curly-haired rider rode a perfect uphill lead-out for Di Luca, simply shredding the competition. With 200 metres to go, 'The Killer' showed how he earned his nickname with a brilliant uphill sprint for the stage win, just ahead of emerging young rider Riccò of Saunier Duval and Cunego.
Riccò's teammate Simoni lost about 20" in the frantic finish, while Astana leader Savoldelli lost 40". Di Luca took over the Maglia Rosa, while Liquigas has the first four places on GC with Di Luca, Pellizotti, old man Noè and young talent Nibali.
The sprinters will be ready for Stage 5, from Teano in the northern suburbs of Napoli. It runs up and down along the farm roads of Frosinone province to finish just south of Rome in the beautiful wine city of Frascati. But with the climb of Le Macere just 15 kilometres from the finish, look for World Champion Paolo Bettini to go on the attack in his search for revenge.