Passo Fedaia sees Riccò fly ahead of classification favourites
In what was what arguably the 91st Giro d'Italia's hardest stage – 154 kilometres and five major mountain passes – Italy's Emanuele Sella bolted clear of his escape companions to win atop the Passo Fedaia, 24 hours after topping the Alpe di Pampeago for victory. Second was Sella's CSF Group team-mate Domenico Pozzovivo.
Behind the duo, Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) escaped from a group of general classification favourites with less than three kilometres left of the 13.35-kilometre climb to the finish. Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes), Alberto Contador (Astana), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) sought to limit the losses to the Italian. Despite losing 16 seconds to Riccò, 2007 Tour de France champion Contador took the maglia rosa and the 25 year-old Spaniard now leads by 33 seconds over Riccò and 53 seconds on defending Giro d'Italia champion Di Luca.
Contador was delighted to be in the race leader's pink jersey, noting, "We are going to enjoy this moment because tomorrow is another hard day – Riccò is very strong – I am not as strong, we'll see."
Overnight race leader, Italy's Gabriele Bosisio (LPR Brakes), finished the day at 14'47".
Contador's day had its difficulties; he suffered from hunger and had a run in with Italy's Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre). "I didn't eat well but I was able to recover," he added. "I had better sensations later; the only thing in my head was to try to stay with the leaders on the Giau – when Bruseghin fell into me I had a problem with the rear wheel.
The winner of France's Grand Tour last July fought well on the Fedaia when Riccò initially lifted the pace at five kilometres remaining. He locked onto Pozzovivo and bridged with Russia's Menchov and Italy's Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas). Simoni, Tadej Valjavec (AG2R La Mondiale) and Di Luca joined up to the main contenders, just as Pozzovivo went clear.
"I think that the Marmolada was very hard added on to the whole stage and what we did yesterday," confessed 25 year-old Pozzovivo. He nearly bridged up to Sella, who had been in the day's initial escape of nine that formed after the first climb of the day, the Passo Pordoi. "He is great; he made the escape and then did that. I never saw him before the arrival, unfortunately." CSF group also had Italian Fortunato Baliani in the escape group and utilised Mexican Julio Pérez in the finale.
After Riccò launched free, there was a fight from the remaining group of overall favourites to pull back 'The Cobra.' Contador and Menchov did the initial work while Di Luca and Simoni were slightly off the pace. As the chasing four joint together, Contador went on the chase solo at 1500 metres remaining.
Feeling the threat of the Italian and Spaniard ahead, Di Luca gave a hard chase. In fact, the rider from Pescara kept going once Contador was in the fold and closed to nine seconds on Riccò by the finish at 2057 metres.
"I thought if I was feeling well I would try to make a show," Riccò confessed. "I think it worked and I gained on my rivals. I saw my rivals, who attacked and then went into difficulty." He lost his key domestique, Leonardo Piepoli, to a crash. "I hope it is not serious. I will miss him at this Giro," he added of Piepoli, who is reported with a possible fractured rib.
"I don't have the condition of last year, but I think I am there," said Di Luca, whose chase limited Riccò's damage. "I hope to continue to fight to the end. I did not lose today; there are five riders there [in contention], and we will fight until Milano."
Winner of the 2001 and 2003 Giro d'Italia, Simoni, used his experience to manage the attacks up the Fedaia. He struggled at points, but succeeded in pulling himself back and finishing only 16 seconds behind Riccò, together with Contador.
"It was tiring, but my head is good," said the rider from Trento. "If one is there they can't make the difference. Riccò was ahead but only held 10 metres on us. I am there, up front. I am taking it well. ... I hit a little bit of a crisis and then I came back, but I remain confident."
Behind classification favourites Riccò, Di Luca, Simoni, Contador and Menchov, others were not so luckily. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto) fought the best, while Pellizotti lost time, but not as bad as Contador's team-mates Andreas Klöden – at over five minutes behind – and Levi Leipheimer – seven minutes. Di Luca will now take on the sole leadership of LPR Brakes as his team-mate and two-time Giro d'Italia winner, Paolo Savoldelli, fell eight minutes behind.
Sella, winner of the Cesena stage in his neo-professional year of 2004, spent four hours and 53 minutes covering roads that were made even more risky due the rain that fell during the day. "I don't know what to say," explained Sella, nearly in tears after his win of il tappone. "The whole team – all did well today. I felt good and I said 'I am going.' Today, I discovered a new Sella, I am enjoying this victory to the maximum."
The 27 year-old now has a significant lead in the mountains competition and holds the classification's maglia verde with a comfortable lead of 89 points over Vasili Kiryienka from the Tinkoff Credit Systems squad.
How it unfolded
The riders took off at 12:30 pm, with a view of the mountains all around them. But the scenic tranquility soon gave way to the first attacks. It was not surprising that yesterday's stage 14 winner, Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare), was in the thick of the action again. The Italian followed a move by Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne), who was also in the break yesterday. Under their guidance a flurry of attacks and counterattacks followed, until a group of 13 got clear at kilometre five.
José Rujano Guillen (Caisse d'Epargne) attacked and Sella went with him, as he was afraid someone was going to steal "his" mountain points. This didn't happen, as the duo went over the top of the Passo Pordoi, the first GPM of the day, after only nine kilometres. Going down the other side, they soon got joined by Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne) and Fortunato Baliani (CSF Group Navigare). Rujano couldn't keep up, though and soon was back in the peloton, while Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne) moved up to the front group.
At that point the gap was not more than a dozen seconds, which gave opportunity for more riders to move up. Félix Rafael Cárdenas Ravalo (Barloworld), Jens Voigt (Team CSC), Vladimir Miholjevic (Liquigas) and Evgeny Petrov (Tinkoff Credit Systems) joined the leaders to make it a solid group of nine. It contained a lot of riders who were already in the action yesterday (Sella, Bettini, Voigt, Rodriguez).
At kilometre 31, the gap was finally a more manageable 2'00", but the peloton was not willing to let them get ahead any further, with riders like Bettini, Sella and Rodriguez in there. Karpets also was only 10 minutes behind in GC.
The next climb on the menu was the San Pellegrino. The break had now found its rhythm, but the gap stayed constant. Sella was the first over the top, adding more green points to his jersey. The peloton was at 1'54", as everybody put on their windbreakers to protect themselves from the wind on the fast descent.
The next climb was more like a bump in the road, compared to the rest of the GPM's on today's menu. The San Tomaso Agordino is only four kilometres long and has a maximum gradient of 11 percent. The lead had extended to 2'10", as Sella again took the maximum points, ahead of Cárdenas and Karpets.
The only flat section of the race came after some 75 kilometres, which was used to put up the Expo 2015 sprint of the day, which Bettini took ahead of Baliani and Miholjevic. This was also deemed appropriate for the feed zone, as the rest of the course was too steep either going up or down.
Next up was the Passo de Giau, where the front group splintered. Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne), Fortunato Baliani and Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) went ahead, while the others followed behind and were soon gobbled up by the Simoni-Di Luca-Contador group.
In that latter formation, Charly Wegelius was doing a tremendous job for his team leader, Franco Pellizotti. The Italian attacked strongly some three kilometres from the top. Bruseghin led the chasers, but Di Luca was the one putting in an attack. Riccò and Simoni reacted, with Contador showing signs of weakness. He was briefly behind with Van Den Broeck, but the group came together before the top. 17 of them started the downhill, less than two minutes behind the three leaders.
Sella had led Baliani over the top, ahead of Rodriguez. The group with the favourites followed a good minute behind. The current maglia rosa, Gabriele Bosisio (LPR Brakes), was already four and a half minutes down and didn't look like he was enjoying all those vertical metres.
Francis De Greef (Silence - Lotto) and Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) came over the top 3'45" after the leaders. Iglinsky managed to get onto the group on the descent, while De Greef waited for team-mate Matthew Lloyd.
Eventually, the Silence pair caught up and the chase group then consisted of Marzio Bruseghin and Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre), Franco Pellizotti and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Danilo Di Luca, Jure Golcer and Alessandro Spezialetti (LPR Brakes), Félix Rafael Cárdenas Ravalo (Barloworld), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Domenico Pozzovivo and Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio (CSF Group Navigare) (CSF Group Navigare), Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval - Scott), Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), Alberto Contador Velasco and Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Tadej Valjavec (AG2R La Mondiale), Francis De Greef, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Matthew Lloyd (Silence - Lotto), Evgeny Petrov (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Jens Voigt (Team CSC).
After the descent Nibali attacked and took Perez Cuapio with him. The two quickly gained 30 seconds on the Di Luca group and started to close in on the three leaders. With 40 kilometres remaining, Nibali and Perez Cuapio were 1'20" behind, with the group of favourites at two minutes.
Over the penultimate climb, the Falzarego, it was Sella again, ahead of Baliani and Rodriguez, who had no interest in interrupting the points gathering of the CSF riders. All he was hoping for was to get to the finish before being caught by the others. On the wet descent the CSF duo put on their trademark red rain coats, which weren't exactly aerodynamic and one was afraid the skinny climbers would be blown away with it.
The duo behind crossed 58 seconds later, while the second chase group was consistently at two minutes. A group with Bettini Noè and Savoldelli was 4'50" behind, while the Bosioni group pointed at 5'30". That group included Andreas Klöden (Astana).
The high speed chase paid of for Nibali, who joined the front runners, while Perez Cuapio was not able to hold the Italian's wheel. It would have been tough, then, with three CSF riders in the front five. But that is exactly what happened before the descent was finished, as the two CSF riders in the front slowed down to wait for their team-mate. The junction came 21 kilometres before the finish.
Before the descent ended, Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval - Scott) crashed hard and sat on the side of the road, with the Quick Step car assisting. The Giro was over for the climber and Riccò lost a valuable helper.
As soon as the final climb started, with a good dozen kilometres to go, Sella said ciao to his team-mates and Rodriguez and Nibali and took off. Soon after he left the town of Caprile, he passed the 10-kilometre to go sign. The others came by 51 seconds later, with the Contador-Di Luca group already at 2'30".
Szmyd and Spezialetti were leading the group, as Sella was literally sprinting up the slopes. The tifosi were going crazy, as the rain was slightly less on the lower slops of the final mountain of the day.
The maglia rosa was now isolated completely and already eight minutes back. Soon, Sella could see the familiar mountain sight of RVs and knew he was doing well. The road became narrower and narrower, as more and more people lined the road and Sella pushed on, increasing his lead to 2'40" over the main chasers, with seven kilometres to go.
Szmyd had done his job and sat up. In the first chase group, Nibali and Baliani had to sit up as well and let Rodriguez and Perez Cuapio go ahead. Behind, it was Pellizotti again, who was the first to attack, with five kilometres to go.
Riccò then tried twice. The first time, Simoni, Valjavec, and Di Luca got gapped. Slowly, Riccò dropped the others, like Van Den Broeck and Pelizzotti. The latter got some help from Nibali, who had been caught, but it was to no avail. The only rider making a difference was Pozzovivo, who left the group and stomped up the hill, initially helped by team-mate Baliani.
The third acceleration of Riccò proved to be decisive, as his last companions, Menchov and Contador, were not able to respond. Behind, Simoni and Di Luca were trying to come to terms with the acceleration. Eventually, the four rode together, only 50-70 metres behind. But they never managed to catch Riccò. In the final, steep kilometre everything fell apart and the riders came in one-by one, with Contador losing some more time, but receiving the maglia rosa with the knowledge that there will be no hiding on tomorrow's mountain time trial up to the Plan des Corones.
Stage 16 - Monday, May 26: San Vigilio di Marebbe - Plan de Corones (Individual Time Trial), 12.85km
Wobbly and weak legs from the previous two days in the mountains will get another test with the never before used individual time trial finishing at Plan de Corones. The climb (1080 metres of elevation gain) was cut short at the Passo di Furcia due to snow the last time the organisers tried to included it in 2006. The stage will start in San Vigilio di Marebbe and run 12.6 kilometres before hitting the finale over the sterrato [gravel road - ed.], which includes sections touching 24 percent gradient.