Showing he will be one of the riders to beat in this year's Giro d'Italia, Riccardo Riccò proved quicker than compatriots Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) in the six-man sprint which settled the tough second stage of the race.
The group pulled clear of the rest on the day's final climb, the difficult ascent toward the finish line in Agrigento, and there 'the Cobra' timed his move perfectly to triumph. Overnight race leader Christian Vande Velde and his Slipstream Chipotle H30 team put up a spirited, stubborn defence of his maglia rosa, but ultimately lost out by the smallest of margins.
The American crossed the line just behind Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana), placing 19th on the stage and conceding 10 seconds. This saw him drop one second behind new leader Pellizotti in the general classification.
Riccò and Pellizotti were equally satisfied with their day. "This morning I wanted to win the stage," said the former. "Benitez helped me in the last kilometres and then Piepoli. I was feeling well so my team-mates helped me. We made a great sprint and it was good to beat Di Luca because it shows I have great condition.
"Today I was feeling very well and I hope now that my bad luck is behind me. I have been very unlucky since the start of the season. First of all, I crashed with Valverde on the second stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico. Then I crashed again on the stage to Montelupone, and again in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, 300 metres from the finish line. After that, I had a flu just before the Classics."
Riccò had even more bad luck during today's stage, being involved in a crash which left Slipstream's Dave Zabriskie on the ground and out of the race. The American had started the day second overall, level on time with Vande Velde, and could possibly have ended up in the maglia rosa this evening. However he cracked his L1 vertebrae and, while fortunate not to be more seriously hurt, is out of the race.
Pellizotti said at the post-stage press conference that his first win, a stage of Tirreno Adriatico, fell on Father's Day back in 2002. He dedicated that win to his father, and today did the same to his mother on Mother's Day. He also said the victory was for his wife and his unborn baby daughter.
"Things happened as we wanted them to," he said. "The tactic this morning was that Nibali had to attack in the final kilometre to try to win before the sprint started. Meanwhile I had to stay quiet in the bunch and then make my own sprint.
"During the race itself, Nibali couldn't attack as the group was going too fast. But I was ready, and things worked out as decided this morning."
His fourth place earned him the first maglia rosa of his career, but he's planning on having more. He's got big ambitions for this Giro, and doesn't see why he should be content with what he has achieved thus far. "This year I am captain of the team," he stated. "They gave me this responsibility. I think I am ready. I feel good and I want to fight until Milan...my target is to have the pink jersey there."
Vande Velde had no aspirations to hang on that long, but he did make a great effort in trying to earn at least one more day in pink. He finished just shy of that and will start tomorrow second overall. "There was a split at the end," he told Cyclingnews after the stage. "I guess it must have been nine or ten seconds. It is a pity. I tried, though, I gave it everything...the team did a great job today."
Fellow Slipstream rider David Millar agreed. "We are gutted. However the team was awesome today. And Christian did an incredible ride anyway, to do what he did."
The American plays down any thoughts of fighting to regain the race lead tomorrow. "I am not a sprinter by any means. If tomorrow was a time trial, I would have it in my hands for sure. But I am not a sprinter." He then added graciously, "Pellizotti is an amazing bike rider, and he deserves it."
The Italian will do what he can to hold on, even though he is nervous of Di Luca. "Tomorrow is not a difficult stage and Bennati is a great sprinter. So we could do both, have a stage win and the pink jersey. That could be a good outcome for tomorrow. But Di Luca is just behind me and so I could lose my jersey to him. I don't want to think about that, though, I want to take things day by day. The only important thing is to have the pink jersey in Milan.
He's delighted to finally get the race lead after a long time trying. "I've been doing the Giro for six years. It is the most important race for me. I always wanted to have the pink jersey but it was always impossible, there were always problems. It was like a black jersey. This year, I was very surprised that it arrived like that, very easily. I am happy."
If he proves to have the form to fight for the jersey in the high mountains, he's likely to be up against Riccò. Today's stage winner is also feeling good about his chances. "I think I am fresher than last year," he stated. "I am more tranquil. I feel I am not yet at one hundred percent but I believe I am going well. I think that's the case because I beat Di Luca and Rebellin today, and you have to be strong to do that.
"I think I will be at my best in the mountains, I will fight for the Giro there."
How it unfolded
196 riders took to the road this Sunday morning. Milram's Igor Astarloa wasn't among them – he came down with a fever and those intestinal problems that have so plagued the peloton this year, and had to drop out of the race.
Dioniso Galparoso of Euskaltel had the first escape in this year's Giro. He built up a lead of 1'20 before being pulled back into the peloton.
As expected, another escape group formed on the descent of the first climb of the day. Jeremy Roy (Française des Jeux) and David Loosli (Lampre) took off on their way down. They stayed away for quite a while, with a lead of up to 10'10.
With about 65 kilometres to go, a railroad crossing brought down a number of riders. The most seriously injured was Slipstream's David Zabriskie, who had to be taken off in an ambulance.
The break was brought back with 50 kilometres to go. Slipstream held everything together after that for as long as it could. Eventually, LPR Brakes took over, hoping very much to get the win for its captain, defending champion Danilo Di Luca. The Italian team led the way over the finish line for the first time, and took off on the circuit. The leading group kept getting smaller and smaller, but all the favourites managed to stay near the front.
They made their way around the final lap, and the last climb, a 3.9-kilometre hill, took its toll. A decimated group hit the one-kilometre marker, and Joaquin Rodriguez of Caisse d'Epargne looked for his moment of glory, taking off in a surprise attack. He got away so cleanly that it looked like he would be successful.
But the final uphill proved to be harder than anticipated, and as he neared the finish line, a group came up and overtook him. Riccardo Riccò proved to have the best legs after 207 kilometres and outsprinted his compatriots Danilo Di Luca and Davide Rebellin to joyously take the win.
Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas finished fourth, giving himself enough time to take a one-second lead over Christian Vande Velde and stripping the US American of the maglia rosa.
Stage 3 - Monday, May 12: Catania - Milazzo , 221km
The sprinters will be ready to blast like Muncibeddu for the first time in this year's Corsa Rosa with the 221-kilometre run to Milazzo. After starting in Catania, the riders will ride around the parameter of the active volcano of Mount Etna and then start the final flat 120 kilometres to Milazzo. The race has only visited this seaside city once before, and that was in 1961 when Italy's Nino Defilippis reigned.