Taking his best ever career result, Italian rider Matteo Priamo (CSF Group Navigare) out-sprinted Alan Perez Lezaun (Euskaltel – Euskadi) to the line in Peschici to take his first Grand Tour victory, and the Giro d'Italia's longest stage.
The duo were part of a twelve-man escape group which went clear just after the 50 kilometre point and which built a maximum lead of sixteen minutes, and was still twelve minutes clear as the finale approached. American rider Jason McCartney turned on the gas on the climb of Bosco della Risega, eleven kilometres from the end, but his effort was then countered first by Priamo and then Pérez.
As the pair built up a 30 second advantage, Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream) set off in pursuit but was unable to close on the final climb to the line. Priamo showed his strength by putting eight seconds into Perez in the final few hundred metres, while Nikolay Trusov (Tinkoff Credit Systems) finished a further nineteen back in third place. Paul Martens (Rabobank), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) and Daniele Nardello (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli) completed the top six, with Backstedt fading to ninth.
"It is difficult to realise now what has just happened," said Priamo afterwards. "It is my first Giro d'Italia and I didn't think it was possible to win a stage. I crashed two days ago and I wasn't sure if I would be able to start the following day. I suffered a lot. After the crash I couldn't move my leg, but yesterday it was very important to finish the stage."
He clearly felt a lot stronger today. Once clear, he realised they had a chance. "There were twelve of us in the group," he said. "I knew if we worked together, it would be difficult to catch us. Then on the final climb, I attacked. It was difficult because everyone was tired. The only one who followed me was the Euskaltel rider and we got 30 seconds. I was quite confident on the climb because I knew after my stage wins in Turkey [he took two stages in the Presidential Cycling Tour], I knew I was quite fast in a small sprint. So with 200 metres to go, I made my sprint and it was quite easy."
Visconti angles into pink
Italian national champion Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step) came home 40 seconds behind Priamo but, with the main bunch crossing the line 11 minutes and 34 seconds down, he became the new race leader. The day's heartbreak went to Gerolsteiner's Matthias Russ, who spent the better part of the day in the 'virtual' magila rosa, but just missed out on taking over the general classification when Visconti put in enough time to sneak into pink in the final 350 metres.
Visconti crossed the line and almost collapsed, having to be held upright by team staff. He was shattered but his efforts paid off. In the post race press conference he mentioned his hobby was fishing; prior to the start of the race, he had a ten-kilo catch. Today's was considerably bigger than that.
"With 400 metres to go I thought it was impossible to get the pink jersey," he admitted. "But then I took big risks on the turn with the 300 metres to go and got the last seconds I needed.
"I want to keep this jersey as long as possible, for me and for my girlfriend and for my parents. And also for all the sacrifices I have made in my career. I'd like to hold onto it until the time trial. But I know I can also do well in the time trial because last year in the final time trial of the Giro I was 12th or 13th. I am good at that."
Visconti is from Sicily but said that he was too stressed when the race started there to perform well. "I had a lot of pressure and responsibilities there," he said. "That made it hard for me. In Agrigento all the best in the GC were competing so it was too hard to do something. The important thing is to be patient and do your own race.
"Today I am very happy because I did the intermediate sprint for the bonus and that was very decisive," he added. He has more ambition left: "I would like to win a stage with the pink jersey, but also holding onto it as long as possible is important for me. It gives you visibility and also helps with the morale."
Slipstream curse continues
After David Millar was frustrated in his bid for a stage victory yesterday, Slipstream Chipotle team-mate Backstedt tried today. However, an early mechanical sapped a bit of the strength he could have used in his last-ditch effort to bridge to the leaders, although the uphill finish arguably did not favour one of the peloton's largest riders.
"It was basically survival of the fittest in the last part, and it wasn't really my kind of finish," he said. "I did what I could. I was already keen on getting into a break yesterday, but it is just a question of who is lucky enough to be up there. Starting today, I got into that really big group that got away, but as soon as I got onto the back of that – I was pretty much the last guy there – my seat-bolt snapped and I had to do the next seven or eight kilometres with my saddle all the way down. I had to stand up for that long. Finally I changed bikes, got back on, and got straight into the break. So I was a bit cooked when I got there."
He said that there might have been a benefit, though. "It might have helped me to fire up a bit. Anyway, you have got to try…even if it wasn't my day in terms of how the finish was. Who knows, if you play your cards right you might make it. Unfortunately I wanted to try to get away a bit earlier, but I couldn't find the right spot to attack. There is always tomorrow."
Last year's race leader Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld) finished just behind the Maglia Rosa group, but said he was satisfied with how things went as regards his team leader. "Today was hard because of the parcours and also because of the weather….it was very hot today. We did the first hundred kilometres so fast, with an average of 48.9 km/h. The breakaway was composed of strong guys, and for us in the group it was a rest day. For me it was good and also for Mauricio (Soler) – it gives him another day to recover from his injury."
As for the other race favourites, they were content to mark each other and bide their time. Tomorrow will be a tough day; they will have a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses after the mountainous 180 kilometre race to Pescocostanzo.
How it unfolded
Despite being shortened, the now 231.6 kilometre route from Potenza to Peschici still is the longest haul of them all and takes the riders to the spur on Italy's boot on the Adriatic Sea. The Corsa Rosa came here twice before; Franco Pellizotti won in 2006 and Danilo Di Luca in 2000.
190 riders rolled out from Potenza at 10:39 under cloudy skies. The first hour was run at a leisurely pace. However, after a little more than an hour, Enrico Poitschke (Team Milram) and Kevin De Weert (Cofidis) retired from the race as it headed up the single classified climb at Rioniero.
Attacks continued up and over the climb at kilometre 47, where mountains leader Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) padded his lead. On the decent, the winning breakaway began to form. Rene Mandri (AG2R La Mondiale), Alan Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Paul Martens (Rabobank) moved free at kilometre 53. The trio was soon joined by nine others – Nikolai Trusov (Tinkoff Credit Systems), Jason McCartney (Team CSC), Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle - H30), Daniele Nardello (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre), Matthias Russ (Gerolsteiner), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) and Matteo Priamo (CSF Group Navigare) – and the 12 escapees had 1'20" at kilometre 66.
Mandri's bib number 13 proved unlucky, as he crashed out of the break at kilometre 76 and was forced to retire from the race. The others pushed on, and had 2'53" at kilometre 93, near the entrance of the province of Foggia. The gap rocketed up to 10'50" by the feed zone in Cerignola, kilometre 124.
The escape looked promising as it pressed on, holding 15'28" as it was led through the intermediate sprint on Corsa Roma in Manfredonia by Italian Champion Visconti. The gap reached a maximum of 16 minutes, and after four hours of racing, the average speed was a brisk 44.3km/h. While the gap of the leaders continued to fall slowly as Barloworld set tempo with 45 kilometres to go, it became clear that the pink jersey would change hands at the day's end.
Germany's Russ, the highest rider in classification of the escape, looked set to take the maglia rosa from Pellizotti at the end of the day. However, he would have to deal with Visconti at 13" further back on the overall.
On the rise of Bosco della Risega at 11 kilometres to go, USA's McCartney revved up the pace to stretch out the group. Italy's Priamo took pace up and went free, being joined a moment later by Pérez. After the top of the rise (221m) the duo held onto 15" over the remaining nine, scattered down the road.
In the valley of Peschici, on Viale Kennedy, Backstedt played his cards, launching from the remaining escapees and chasing down the Priamo/Pérez duo. The pair – Priamo looking the better – started the final 1200-metre long rise (gradient 7.9%) with Backstedt in pursuit, followed by Trusov, but the big Swede was unable to close down the gap, and faded to the back of the group.
After five hours and 24 minutes, Priamo opened up the sprint with 200 metres to go, but Pérez had no answer and had to be content with second. Russian Trusov trailed in for third place.
Italian Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli) led the gruppo maglia rosa to the finale at 11'50" back, but it was Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) to cross the line for 12th – best of the chasing group ahead of Alberto Contador (Astana).
Stage 7 - Friday, May 16: Vasto - Pescocostanzo, 180km
Crossing the Apennine, from east to west, will be felt in stage seven, a never-before run into Abruzzo's Pescocostanzo. The riders are slated for a 180-kilometre romp that will be highlighted by the final 22 kilometres that feature a 9.2-kilometre rise to Pietransieri and the final 2.85-kilometre kick to Pescocostanzo.