Contador keeps pink after Giro's second rest day
Mark Cavendish's key lead-out man, German André Greipel, has won the 17th stage of the Giro d'Italia, a short 146 kilometre journey from Sondrio to Locarno. Greipel was followed over the line by Cavendish, winner of two stages thus far, and Italy's Daniele Bennati (Liquigas). Coming out of the last corner with 250 metres to go, and seeing Bennati was not approaching, Cavendish let 25 year-old Greipel take victory in the race's only stage finish in Switzerland.
"We decided that I would go first into the last corner," stated Greipel after his win. "I started my sprint and I just thought I would go all the way to the finish. We did the lead out train as normal, I did my lead out and I felt really strong."
After the second and last rest day of the Giro, the race continued with a 'flat' stage that allowed Spain's Alberto Contador to keep the race leader's maglia rosa. The overall classification remains the same, with the 25 year-old Astana rider leading from Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni).
"Today, was a good day," stated Contador after his second day in the race lead. "I felt good from the first moments of the stage."
The race was marked by an escape of three riders - Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) and Yann Huguet (Cofidis) - that went clear 11 kilometres after the start in Sondrio and lasted until Ignatiev was caught 4.5 kilometres from Locarno.
"The escape went early... So it was almost like two days of recovery," continued Contador. "My allergies have not given me any problems."
Team High Road looked impressive as it drove the final 10 kilometres into the Swiss canton of Ticono. It shut down an attack by Germany's Jens Voigt (Team CSC) and then pulled back lone Russian Ignatiev in readiness for the blast onto Piazza Grande, site of the famous Locarno annual film festival.
General classification riders like Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes) and Contador positioned themselves towards the front as the race neared the final kilometre, where High Road led with three men - Bradley Wiggins, Tony Martin and Greipel. A brief surge by Milram's Alberto Ongarato was shut down by Martin before the penultimate corner at 500 metres. Martin then pulled off as Greipel led through the final turn.
"We are down to only four riders, with one kilometre to go we hit it," Ongarato explained. "We knew there was the curve and to take the curve in the first three was important."
World champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) was squeezed out on the right side as Bennati and Zabel lined up behind Cavendish. Bettini confirmed his error: "I found myself on the outside," he said. "I messed up a little bit. I had to brake and when you break it is not possible."
Cavendish checked Bennati was not moving up with a few turns of his head while watching his lead-out man blast off for his fifth win of the season.
Bennati finished third, but remained happy with his three wins thus far in the Giro d'Italia. "I am happy all the same with three victories and to take this jersey [the maglia ciclamino] to Milano," Bennati commented. "High Road did some great work. They were very strong in the last kilometres. The curve with Greipel, he took the turn going all out. He has great strength and Cavendish controlled the sprint."
How it unfolded
Apart from the time trials, today was the shortest stage in this year's Giro at 'only' 146 kilometres. Following yesterday's rest day, and today's later than usual start at 13:45, riders should have been feeling refreshed, were it not for the four-hour transfer they had to endure to reach the start in Sondrio. The riders seem to spend more time in cars than on bicycles...
But as many riders as there were kilometres to ride - 146 - took off under sunny skies, happy to finally get rolling again. Three riders, Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre), Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Yann Huguet (Cofidis - Le Crédit par Téléphone) - were eager to race and attacked the field after little more than five kilometres.
The peloton was eager to keep chatting and the three quickly gained a lead of over two minutes after 10 kilometres. And another six kilometres later it was already up to almost seven minutes. By kilometre 26 it was 8'10, but then the lead started to drop. Apparently the peloton had remembered that the stage wasn't very long and if the trio, with time trial specialist Ignatiev, gained too much of a lead, they could potentially not only reach Switzerland ahead of the peloton, but even foil the sprinters.
After one hour of racing the average was 42.7 km/h, and the lead continued to fall. In Dongo, after 52 kilometres, it was 7'00.
Two hours in, the average was 42 km/h. Over the intermediate sprint in Lugano, Gavazzi was eager to get the points and sprinted ahead, with Ignatiev and Huguet close behind. Behind, CSF Navigare dropped the hammer again and Baliani out-sprinted Roy on the uphill sprint in a true mano a mano.
With 45 kilometres to go the gap was down to 4'00. On day's only classified climb, the break lost some of its horsepower when Huguet couldn't follow the pace. Gavazzi took the points ahead of a non-competitive Ignatiev. Over the top of the Monte Ceneri the peloton was 1'55 behind, but with still 33 kilometres to go.
After the descent the bunch hit an open highway tailor made for reeling in breakaways. Dead straight, wide and well surfaced. The gap continued to fall and Ignatiev realised the danger and, with less than 25 kilometres to go, put in a strong attack. The Russian was hoping his time trial skills would keep the bunch at bay, a tall order with over 20 kilometres to race.
As the race entered more narrow and twisty roads, Gavazzi was swept up by the fast moving peloton with 20 kilometres to go, but they were still 1'31 behind the Tinkoff time trial specialist. At the 15km to go banner, the field, led by High Road, had only taken 10 seconds from Ignatiev. The Russian was zipping along at 55 km/h, and when High Road couldn't close the gap itself, Liquigas and Milram started to pitch in. With 10km to go, Ignatiev's lead was down to 45 seconds.
Ignatiev still looked good, but now the peloton was going full gas and with five to go it was down to 19 seconds. As the road turned slightly uphill, Jens Voigt (Team CSC) tried an attack, but it was to no avail. By this point Ignatiev could feel the bunch breathing down his neck and sat up.
High Road took over on the front again on the twisty run-in to Locarno, and such was the strength of their train that lead-out man Greipel went all the way to the line for his first Giro stage victory.
Stage 18 - Thursday, May 29: Mendrisio - Varese, 147km
Look out for Paolo Bettini and other World Championship hopefuls on this 147-kilometre stage that starts and ends with circuits of Worlds' courses. Mendrisio, host of a Giro stage departure in 1989, will see the riders off with one 13.4 kilometre circuit on the 2009 World Championships parcours. While the host of the 2008 World Championships, Varese, will welcome the riders with two circuits on the 17.4-kilometre course that will be used this September.