It was a day characterised by breakaways, crashes and high speeds but, as expected, the third stage of the Giro d'Italia came down to a bunch sprint. Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) did precisely what his team-mate and race leader Franco Pellizotti yesterday suggested he would do, winning in Milazzo and thus making it a double success for the acid green squad.
With the sprint Victory, the Liquigas team not only kept the maglia rosa, but also grabbed hold of the sprinter's jersey and maintained the lead in the teams GC competition.
At the start in Catania, there was concern about the stage's technical finish, but the worst wrecks occurred mid-stage. One massive pile-up took down riders such as stage two winner Riccardo Riccó (Saunier Duval – Scott) and David Millar (Slipstream Chipotle H30) while another put Bradley McGee (CSC) out of the race with a broken collarbone. McGee's team-mate Stuart O'Grady, who was doing his first Grand Tour since he was seriously injured in last year's Tour de France also crashed, and while he finished the stage it was later found that he also broke his collarbone.
The finale lived up to fears to some extent, as riders bumped and bounced their way through the final few kilometres. There was one tangle when Graeme Brown and a Tinkoff rider went down inside the final 500 metres, but further ahead Bennati, Erik Zabel (Team Milram) and Danilo Hondo (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli) had a clear fight for the honours. The sprint was led out by Marco Velo (Milram) and Zabel did what he could to come by Bennati, but was finally unable to do so.
"Finally, I have a stage win in the Giro," said Bennati afterwards. The 27-year-old has taken stage wins in Tour de France and Vuelta a España, but had yet to taste the thrill of victory on his home soil. "I am very happy with this as it is my first win in this race.
"It was good to place myself between Velo and Zabel in the Milram train," he continued, explaining how things unfolded. "But when Velo moved off the front, I had to really go for it. I didn't look back, I only thought about getting to the finish first because I was worried about Zabel getting by."
Zabel was also chasing what would have been his first Giro stage win, but once again in his career had to make do with second place.
"My team-mates did an excellent job in the final, " he said afterwards. "First Eichler stretched out the group, then Sabatini and Velo led me up to two hundred meters to go. I was on Bennati's wheel then. I waited a little as it seemed too early to go, but I was unable to get by him at the end. Daniele has always been very strong. Congratulations to him."
Mark Cavendish (Team High Road) and Robbie McEwen (Silence Lotto) were both missing from the final podium. They had been expected to do well, but lost out due to bad placing before the sprint.
Cavendish finally placed ninth, despite being quite a way back on the run in. "We were riding for Mark," said team-mate Adam Hansen afterwards. "We kept it together but with about three kilometres to go we couldn't see him. I went back but couldn't find him. We all sort of sat up after that because there was no point."
McEwen as further back, rolling across the line in 29th place. "At the finish Robbie obviously tried to sprint," said his Silence Lotto team-mate Matthew Lloyd. "I was just behind him and a group of guys came up the left of the road and he got swamped. He was good up to that point. Obviously sprinting is sprinting, it is temperamental at times."
Bennati said that the frustration he felt earlier in the year was part of what drove him today. "The beginning of the season was very unlucky for me because I had a problem with my left knee," he stated. "I lost a lot of time because of that, and only came back in April for the Giro del Trentino.
"After that, I went to the Tour of Romandie where I won one stage. This is my second win of this year. I wanted this win a lot. I was very angry about my bad luck and so I put that energy into getting this victory."
The bunch gallop was made possible thanks to the work of the sprinter's teams, who controlled the advantage of the day's break. Liquigas and Milram were two of the squads driving it at the front towards the finale, with the latter looking to put Zabel up for a stage win in the absence of his team-mate Alessandro Petacchi. They will clearly regret that the suspended Italian is not in this Giro; so too, ironically, does Bennati, as beating the multiple stage winner would have added to his triumph.
"I am sad that Petacchi is not present because - with all due respect to the other competitors – we know that after Cipollini, Petacchi is the best of recent years," he said afterwards. "Therefore I wanted to compete with him in this Giro."
How it unfolded
The race got off to a quiet start with the peloton carefully staying together as it circled Mount Etna, perhaps hoping the active volcano wouldn't erupt on them today.
By km 70 the riders realised they would be spared the lava, and an escape group formed. Riccardo Chiarini (LPR Brakes), Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Jeremy Roy (Française des Jeux), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step), Matej Jurco (Slovakia) and Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff) got away and stayed away, quickly building up a lead of four minutes. The peloton kept a watchful eye on them though, and the lead hovered around the two-minute mark.
The day was marked by a number of crashes, with Gerolsteiner's Andrea Moletta being one of the first to go down.
The race moved from the volcano to the sea, following the coastline along the eastern flank of Sicily. With about 70 km to go, a mass crash took down much of the peloton. One rider was sent flying after striking a manhole cover and everyone behind him went flying too. Riders and bikes were strewn all over the road.
Shortly afterwards the rain began to fall as many of the crash victims were making their way back through the convoy. A group including High Road's two captains, Mark Cavendish and Kansantsin Siutsou, made their way up through the team cars. The group also included four Saunier Duval riders, including Ricardo Ricco, who appeared to have injured his left hand.
The race turned the corner, so to speak, and started heading west along the island's northern coast where the sun finally came out to welcome them. With 30 km to go, the peloton decided to stop playing around with the breakaway group and reeled them in.
There was another crash, with more serious consequences, with about 20 km to go. A Tinkoff rider's front wheel slipped away and he went down with his airborne bike flying into the peloton. A number of riders were slow to get going again, and one had to drop out. CSC's Bradley McGee was taken off in an ambulance with a suspected broken collarbone.
With four kilometres to go, the sprinters started moving to the front, not willing to take a chance on being left behind in the narrow, twisty roads leading up to the finish line. Daniele Bennati of Liquigas opened the sprint after much work from Erik Zabel's Milram team. The veteran German had no answer to Bennati's strength and dreams of his first Giro stage win remained just that.
The riders quickly headed off after the stage, taking the ferry which brought them to the Italian mainland. With the three openings stages in Sicily now completed, the race will continue tomorrow with a lumpy 183 kilometre leg from Pizzo Calabro to Cantanzaro Lungomare.
Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 13: Pizzo Calabro - Catanzaro-Lungomare, 183km
The Giro d'Italia is back on the country's mainland for stage four, where it will stay for the remainder of the race. Kicking off from Italy's toe is a stage of 183 kilometres from Pizzo Calabro to Catanzaro-Lungomare. The Corsa Rosa has arrived in Catanzaro five times, but the last time was in 1996 when Pascal Hervé took top honours.
The last kilometres are flat, but that 300-plus-metre riser to the city's centre will break up affairs. It is likely strong men like World Champion Paolo Bettini will be battling over the Viadotto Morandi that spans the Fiumarella valley at the chance of a stage win along the Ionian Sea.