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Stage 15 - Sunday, May 24: Forlì - Faenza, 161km
Leonardo Bertagnolli (Serramenti-PVC Diquigiovanni) takes his first Grand Tour stage.
Old School: A day where radios were thrown out the window; top three GC intact
As the Centenary Giro d'Italia grows longer, it grows harder, and if the past three days are any barometric indicator, hotter, too. But some, perhaps even many or most, like it hot. Because the way the Giro was raced today, and the way the faces of the riders high on the classifica generale arrived at the finish in Faenza, one witnessed an old-school cycling race in which race radios appeared to be dumped in the trash can, and the laws of logic were thrown out the window.
Just 161 kilometres in length, but for its entirety raced à bloc (all out), the fifteenth stage was both a rarity and blessing in today's technology-driven, big-budget-driven cycling world - driven by sponsors, causes and directors, and often not by a rider's nous, impulse, and will.
It was all the things that post-war cycling used to be – unpredictable, exciting and entertaining – but after a tainted past decade filled with chronicles and confessions of doping, hopefully it was a stage without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Though we can't say for sure – it's been less than a year since Riccardo Riccò's EPO-induced confessions during the 2008 Tour de France.
It's fitting, then, that the winning rider Leonardo Bertagnolli from the team Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli, hails from the longest-running (and longest-named) team at this tour of Italy. Actually, with its inception a quarter-century ago in the year 1985 and still managed and directed by its founder, the inimitable, linen-suited Gianni Savio, it is cycling's longest-running team, period.
There were no major changes at the top of the GC. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) retained his lead in the overall classification and will wear pink for another day in the mountains tomorrow. However, Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), who was eighth, dropped out of the top 10.
Just like the day before
As Cervelo's Simon Gerrans did yesterday, 31-year-old Bertagnolli from nearby Russi won after a long breakaway that began with more than a dozen men. Like the stage 14 stage victor, he won what became a fiercely-fought battle of attrition under the luminous Emiglia Romagna sun, glowing Sunday coalface-bright and enshrouding the percorso in shades of gold and vermilion.
And by riding as strong as he did, reducing an original group of sixteen to seven, to two, and then just himself, Bertagnolli deservedly won in the style of an old-school protagonist who first defies logic and then beats it. Fifty-four seconds later, Serge Pauwels (Cervelo Test Team), Marco Pinotti (Columbia-High Road) and Lars Bak (Saxo Bank) rolled across the line.
"I was here to help [Gilberto] Simoni and win a stage, so I'm really happy I won near my home," said Bertagnolli, who was only taken on by the team the Tuesday before the Giro began after Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni picked up a new sponsor and dumped an old rider, replacing Davide Rebellin, who had tested positive for the latest-generation EPO Cera at the Beijing Olympics.
"During the stage, I wanted to stay with [breakaway companion] Marco Pinotti (Columbia - Highroad) because he's a good man to have in a break. But when Pinotti was dropped, I had to go on my own. By the bottom of the descent [of the final climb of Monte Trebbio], I thought that if we're together [he and Cervelo's Pauwels - ed.], I would prefer we wait for the three other riders behind because he's too dangerous on his own."
"I didn't understand Pauwel's tactic [of sitting up and waiting for his teammate Carlos Sastre]," said Bertagnolli. "When I was alone, I was quite calm, but when the gap came down to thirty seconds, I became nervous again; thank goodness I managed to hold the gap."
Basso goes for broke with Garzelli, but seems to lack friends
Unbeknown to Bertagnolli, Liquigas' Ivan Basso, written off by the majority of the Italian press corps as an impossible overall winner, tried to blow apart the gruppo maglia rosa on the penultimate - and on paper, viewed as innocuous with a category three rating - climb of Monte Casale.
On its 8.7km, 4.7 percent-average slopes and taking only Acqua & Sapone's Stefano Garzelli with him, the two former Giro champions attempted to imperil their better-placed rivals, hoping panic would kick in. However, Basso and Garzelli appear to have not so many "friends" in the peloton, as the gruppo maglia rosa largely stuck together (minus Lance Armstrong (Astana) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre - NGC), who had been dropped) and steadily chased them down, catching the pair on the run-in to Faenza.
Isolated during most of this and prone to counter-attack, the maglia rosa of Rabobank's Menchov seems to have a few friends of his own, finishing amongst a group of favourites 1:56 behind Bertagnolli.
"I have a few other friends," Menchov said, smiling his humble smile that gives away nothing except puzzlement. "In a situation like today, it's difficult on your own. Sometimes, it's important."
Does what happened today make him more wary of tomorrow's epic Stage 16 to the devilishly steep Monte Petrano? Will he ride differently, Cyclingnews asked him?
"At the moment, I have a lot to think about. In my opinion, it's the most important stage. I'll race more or less race like I have till now; nothing has changed. Two or three riders, I have to follow them, and they are dangerous.
"I have to race a little bit different," Menchov finally conceded.
"Today, I had to follow [Danilo] Di Luca, [Levi] Leipheimer (Astana) and [Franco] Pellizzotti (Liquigas), because they were the dangerous guys [on general classification]. Tomorrow, [Carlos] Sastre could be the dangerous guy."
Some like it hot - but this hot?
Come the 13:05 kick-off in Forlì's Viale dell'Appennino, the mercury was well into the 30s Celsius, and given what lay ahead Monday where the peloton faced a 237km ride to the mountaintop finish of Monte Petrano, it certainly wasn't what the rest doctor ordered.
Sunday's course wasn't an easy one, either. Four categorised climbs in the relatively short space of 161km beginning with the Cat. 2 Passo dell'Eremo was the menu del giorno.
Without Garmin-Slipstream sprinter Tyler Farrar and Fuji-Servetto's Eros Capecchi Sunday morning, 178 riders took off from Forlì, destination Faenza, around 20km away as the crow flies.
Unfortunately for the peloton, their route was far longer and more arduous, which appeared to suit a sweet sixteen just fine after 30km: Bertagnolli and Jose Serpa (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), Lars Bak (Saxo Bank), Daniel Navarro (Astana), Eduard Vorganov (Xacobeo-Galicia), Andriy Grivko (ISD), Pinotti (Team Columbia-Highroad), Pablo Lastras (Caisse d'Epargne), Marco Marzano (Lampre), Pauwels (Cervelo Test Team), Nikita Eskov (Katusha), Gorazd Stangelj (Liquigas), Mauro Facci (Quick Step), Matteo Montaguti (LPR Brakes Farnese Vini), Alessandro Donati (Acqua & Sapone - Caffe Mokambo) and Hector Gonzalez (Fuji-Servetto).
With Diquigiovanni's Serpa the most dangerous at 9:52 down on the maglia rosa of Di Luca, the lead group's advantage never grew to more than six minutes, with the gap of 4:40 at the crest of the Colle Carnevale, 72.1km in. Curiously, with 56km left to race, the gap grew to around five and a half minutes as the break traversed two uncategorised pinches en route to the penultimate climb of Monte Casale, its GPM coming at km 125.3.
Basso, Garzelli turn the screws, leaves maglia rosa behind
And on that rather anonymous Cat. 2 slope, both the break and peloton exploded as Liquigas' Basso turned the screws in the bunch, Garzelli of Acqua & Sapone the only man who chose - or could - follow. Menchov, Danilo Di Luca and Carlos Sastre responded at first, though moments later, gave up the ghost.
By the GPM, Basso and Garzelli were around two minutes in front of a reduced gruppo maglia rosa, consisting of Di Luca, Menchov, Sastre, Pellizzotti, Levi Leipheimer (Astana), David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne), Michael Rogers and Thomas Lövkvist (Columbia-Highroad), Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre - NGC) and six or seven more - though noticeably, minus Armstrong (Astana) and Cunego (Lampre). A further three minutes in front, Navarro (Astana), Pauwels (Cervelo), Marzano, Bertagnolli and Serpa, Pinotti and Bak were the only seven left out the original 16-man breakaway.
With a short descent and little respite, the leaders were straight onto Monte Trebbio, the day's final climb and its crest just 25.9km from the line. By that latter point, seven became two as Pauwels of Cervelo rode away and only Bertagnolli could follow, 2:15 ahead of Basso/Garzelli and 3:15 on the gruppo maglia rosa.
20km out, our lead pair held their advantage to Basso and Garzelli, who found themselves another duo tagging on for the ride, Bertagnolli's teammate Serpa and Marzano of Lampre, both part of the original break.
Bertagnolli then freed himself of Pauwels on the descent, who, on team orders it appears, reluctantly sat up, and five clicks from home there was just one man out front chased by four - Pauwels, Pinotti, Bak and Marzano, 36 seconds behind. They in turn were chased by the gruppo maglia rosa, 1:53 in arrears. Behind them was another small though significant trio, comprised of Armstrong, Yaroslav Popovych (Astana) and Cunego.
And that's the way their positions stayed. What a day.