Good afternoon and welcome back! Today we have another of those transitional stages, designed to lull the weary legs into thinking there is something in Italy besides just mountains. There is one climb close to the beginning, but from there on the course just sort of undulates towards the southeast and the expected mass sprint finish in Benevento.
43km remaining from 182km
Here's an update on what is happening in the race: everyone is all together.
We got underway two minutes late, at 12:52. Gilberto Simoni tried an attack right off the bat, at km 3, but the group caught him.
The stage opened with an almost immediate climb to the day's one and only ranked climb, Plano della Cinque Miglia. It is a Category Two climb coming only 22 km into the day. It has an average gradient of 4.6% and a max of 9%.
Points went to: Giovanni Visconti (ISD), ahead of Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step).
On the ascent, the field broke into two large groups, separated by only 40 seconds. They are all came back together again, though.
We had another escape group trying to get away. It was Philip Deignan (Cervelo), Danny Pate (Garmin-Slipstream), Dmytro Grabovskyy (ISD), and Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas). They had a lead of seven seconds before being caught again by the field.
53km remaining from 182km
And another never-say-die rider is off again: Michele Scarponi of Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni. And just as quickly, he is joined by 20 other riders. They have 20 seconds now on the peloton.
The stage started today in Culmona, best known as the birthplace of Ovid. It is also famous for its sugared almonds, called confetti.
Jackson Rodriguez of Diquigiovanni crashed, but is back up and going again.
58km remaining from 182km
Four riders have broken out of that group, including Scarponi. He has been joined by Yaroslav Popovych (Astana), Danny Pate (Garmin), and Gabriele Bosisio (LPR). They have a 22 second lead over the chasing group, with the peloton nine seconds behind them.
Let's change that to make the peloton, including the maglia rosa, 31 seconds behind the chasing group of 16.
55km remaining from 182km
Grabovskyy jumps out of the chasing group and joins the quartet in front, making it now a quintet.
The road today is never particularly flat, but it's the last chance the sprinters will have, so we look for a long escape caught up again at the last minute, with a mass sprint to follow. Of course, the sprint could be interesting since there are very few sprinters left in the race.
We have five former Giro winners in this year's race: Danilo Di Luca (2007), Ivan Basso (2006), Damiano Cunego (2004), Gilberto Simoni (2003, 2001) and Stefano Garzelli.
70km remaining from 182km
The chase group and the lead group have come togther, and the new group of 25 now has 1:30 over the peloton. We will work on getting all those names for you.
Here we go: our leading group consists of: Popovych, Pate, Bosisio, Scarponi, Masciarelli, Zeits, Cardenas, Voeckler, Lopez Garcia, Deignan, Dean, Visconti, Grabovskyy, Gavazzi, Quinziato, Devenyns, Seeldrayers, Bertolini, Ljungblad, LÃ¶vkvist, Siutsou, Petrov, McCartney, Bak, and Vorganov.
74km remaining from 182km
The lead has jumped to 2:20, and Rabobank is leading the chasing peloton.
We are in the province of Isernia at the moment, which can brag about some ancient history. An area called Pineta is considered to be the most ancient site where traces of the use of fire by man have been found.
80km remaining from 182km
And the gap is now up to 3:05. Is this the group of the day, or is it too large?
It's hard to find comments on what to expect today, as most of the riders are still recovering from yesterday's Blockhaus climb and looking towards tomorrow volcano experience. Franco Pellizotti was happy enough with his win yesterday, calling it â��a very important stage, a very strange stage, like Plan de Corones stage last year."
83km remaining from 182km
This group is moving -- it has now built up a lead of 3:45.
The Giro hasn't quite gone the way Team Liquigas has hoped. According to Pellizotti, "Ivan (Basso) and I started with the idea to win the Giro. We have shown strong, even if we are not winning the race, and so this stage win is something for the team."
Who has the advantage in this group? If we count correctly (and we probably don't), then Columbia, Garmin, Astana, Diquigiovanni, ISD, Quick Step and Saxo Bank all have two riders there.
16 of the 22 teams are represented in the group. Missing are: AG2R, Fuji, Rabobank, Milram, Katusha and Xacobeo.
The highest-ranked rider in the group is Popovych. He is 14th overall, but 16:43 back.
Second-place Danilo Di Luca put in some time on first-placed Denis Menchov yesterday, and is happy with that. "I was able to see Menchov's face, not necessarily his pedalling, and I could see for the first time that he was suffering. I delivered a little bit, but it was not enough," he said.
Popovych was in another long break this week. In Monday's stage 16, he was in a 20 rider group which got away at 20km. He stayed away the longest of them all and for a while it looked like he had good chances to go for the win. But Carlos Sastre flew by him on the ascent with only about two km to go. The discouraged Ukranian came in at 3:21 down.
101km remaining from 182km
The gap had grown to five minutes, but after passing through the feed zone, it has dropped to 4:45.
What happened to the summer sun that baked the peloton for so many stages? The lead group has run into rain!
The peloton doesn't seem to be working too hard. They are all grouped together, taking up the whole road. Stefano Garzelli and Danilo Di Luca are having a little chat. Maybe talking about yesterday's finale?
Stefano Garzelli went up the last few kms of the Blockhaus with Danilo Di Luca, Denis Menchov and Ivan Basso, and at the end he committed a cardinal sin in the eyes of many fans: he outsprinted Di Luca for second place, snatching away valuable bonus seconds from Di Luca. Garzelli was booed and whistled at by the LPR Brakes rider's fans.
"I ride my own race,â�� Garzelli explained. "I don't see why I should let Di Luca go by me. We don't ride for the same team."
There are a number of Milram riders up near the front of the peloton, with the cow-fleck jerseys mixing in with the Rabobank blue and orange.
Cervelo's Volodymir Gustov has quite a bit of gauze and adhesive tape decorating his left shin.
Here is our daily look at who is leading what category: Denis Menchov is leading the GC ranking, 26 seconds ahead of Danilo Di Luca and exactly two minutes ahead of Franco Pellizotti. Di Luca leads the points race, ahead of Menchov and Pellizotti. Only one of those three names pops up in the mountain classification: Di Luca, who is third behind Andriy Grivko and leader Stefano Garzelli.
Columbia-Highroad has two of its bigger names in the chase group. Siutsou of course won a stage this year, stage eight going into Bergamo. LÃ¶vkvist wore the best young rider's jersey for much of the rest, before falling apart on Monday's stage.
LÃ¶vkvist not only wore the white jersey, but also spent some time in the pink leader's jersey. He won it after stage four and wore it for only one day.
115km remaining from 182km
The gap just keeps on growing, it is now up to 6:15.
Here are some more leaders: Best young rider is Kevin Seeldraeyers of Quick Step. Giovanni Visconti leads the T.V. (intermediate sprint) rankings. And Garzelli is at the top of the most combative list. Di Luca leads the Azzurri d'Italia classification. Mauro Facci heads up the Trofeo Fuga Cervelo.
Also in the lead group is the man who took the best young rider honours away from LÃ¶vkvist.
Kevin Seeldraeyers of Quick Step has had a big week. Not only did he take over the white jersey, he also proposed to his girlfriend. And she accepted! Our congratulations to the young couple.
A number of teams are working with Rabobank to try and pull the group back: Milram, Caisse d'Epargne, AG2R, among others.
An ISD rider, Dario Cioni, falls back and signals for help One new rear wheel and he is on his way again.
Over in the Bayern-Rundfahrt, Marcus Eibegger of Elk Haus has won today's stage, ahead of his teammate Stefan Denifl and Milram's Linus Gerdemann.
132km remaining from 182km
50km to go, and the group has a lead of just about five minutes.
The peloton has picked up the pace and is now spreading out single file. Fuji, who has no one in the lead group, has joined in the chase work.
131.7km remaining from 182km
Astana moves up to do its part in the lead work.
Cervelo's Deignan is at the race doctor's car, getting some bandages put on his left fingers. We don't know if these are injuries left over from yesterday or whether he has gone down again today.
The gaps now down to exactly five minutes. Will the group make it? Or will one or two of the riders get through?
The stage in the Tour of Belgium is over. Borut Bozic of Vacansoleil won the second stage ahead of Alberto Ongarato (LPR) and Graeme Brown (Rabobank). He also took over the race lead.
The peloton is really tearing along now, single file and many of them up off their saddles.
143.6km remaining from 182km
Is the lead group starting to get nervous? We haven't had a time check lately...
141km remaining from 182km
The lead group approaches the T.V. intermediate sprint in Telese Terme, Actually they have just gone through it and we are waiting to hear the winner's name.
The gap is down to 4:30.
147km remaining from 182km
35km to go. This is going to be a close one.
To recap, we have our large breakaway which several of the players in the minor competitions have been sure to make.
Yaroslav Popovych (Astana), Danny Pate (Garmin), Gabriele Bosisio (LPR), Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni), Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone), Andrey Zeits (Astana), Felix Cardenas (Barloworld), Thomas Voeckler (Bbox), David Lopez Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Philip Deignan (Cervelo), Julian Dean (Garmin), Giovanni Visconti and Dmytro Grabovskyy (ISD), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Dries Devenyns and Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step), Alessandro Bertolini (Diquigiovanni), Jonas Ljungblad (Silence-Lotto), Thomas LÃ¶vkvist and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Columbia), Evgeny Petrov (Katusha), Jason McCartney and Lar Ytting Bak (Saxo Bank) and Eduard Vorganov (Xacobeo) have over five minutes on the peloton.
Visconti took the sprint over Cardenas and Seeldraeyers.
We see Seeldraeyers in this move, which also contains his main contender in the young rider competition, Masciarelli.
Visconti padded his lead in the T.V. classification with that sprint. He leads over Facci of Quick Step who is not in this move.
The Fuga Cervelo classification is the competition which measures how many kilometres each rider has spent in breakaways. Currently Facci leads that classification, but Visconti is closing in on him by making todays' move.
152km remaining from 182km
30 kilometres to go and the break has 3'50... normally a break needs about one minute per 10km in order to have a chance at succeeding, so this will be quite close.
The lead group is still rotating smoothly in a perfect paceline. They're going to need to continue to cooperate if they stand a chance of contesting the stage win. One of the fastest men in the break is Julian Dean (Garmin-Slipstream).
Today's average speed has been quite high - 43.6km/h - which is incredible considering this is the tail end of a three week stage race.
We see Ivan Basso riding along in the peloton looking like this rapid pace isn't exactly agreeing with him. The chase is on medium-high ride now and legs are starting to cook.
The peloton is not completely single file, but the first 50 or so riders are lined out, and then the tail end is spread across the road a bit.
157km remaining from 182km
Up in the break we can see the mountains receding in the distance as they head toward Benevento. Only 25km to go!
It was 3'18 at the last check 5km ago for our gigantic breakaway, now it's down to 3'00. Nobody is threatening the overall classification, but there are teams which have still to win a stage and have an interest in bringing the break back.
Seeldraeyers is keeping a close eye on Masciarelli, making sure he can't attack and get any time on him in that young rider classification. But at speeds like this, nobody is attacking anyone. It's 'a bloc'!
There are two Garmins in the move. Of course Pate is up there to help Dean, and that's a great combination.
Danilo Di Luca is moving up in the peloton, perhaps looking to contest the sprint today and steal some time bonus seconds on Menchov. He's only 26 seconds down on GC.
The leaders have just 2'45" now on the chasing pink jersey group... it will be down to the wire for the catch - if they make it!
162km remaining from 182km
Jonas Ljungblad is up in the break for Silence Lotto in his very easy to spot Swedish champion's jersey. Can't miss it with the huge yellow cross on the blue background.
We're still trying to see which team is bringing this gap down so quickly in the peloton. The breakaway is still rotating through, but perhaps not with the sense of urgency they may need to succeed.
Milram missed the move, as has Fuji. They each have one man up front in the chasing peloton followed by the Rabobank train.
The breakaway is heading up a little rise and now we can see the results of nearly three weeks of racing - tired legs and little splits starting to form.
Today's finish actually looks to be a nasty little uphill to the line, and we're remembering a magnificent solo effort launched in the Tour de Georgia by one Jason McCartney. He also won a stage of the Vuelta a Espana.
As if to validate our comments, McCartney marks a move by Grabovskyy and they have a little gap.
On another little roller, the break is shattering. Seeldraeyers is looking for help getting up to Masciarelli, who has gone across to the front group - which has swelled.
Actually, Masciarelli is back with Seeldraeyers.. The front group is 2'35 on the peloton, only a few seconds on some chasers. The two Columbia riders were caught out, as was our Cervelo man.
Both Saxo Bank men are up front, as is Pate.. a total of eight riders.
Cardenas is the man in red for Barloworld. The chasers are trying to take advantage of the motorcycles to get back on terms.
Bak attacks! He's marked by the Quick Step man Devenyns. Less than 10km to go.
The two aren't getting a gap on the other leaders and are now inside Benevento as one group of eight riders - or is it nine?
Last lap for our leaders and McCartney put in a little counter.
FÃ©lix Cardenas (Barloworld), Danny Pate (Garmin - Slipstream), Dmytro Grabovskyy (ISD), Gavazzi (Lampre), Michele Scarponi (Serramenti) and Jason McCartney and Lars Bak (Team Saxo Bank), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Andrey Zeits (Astana) are our first riders.
Pate tries to make a dig and is marked by the ISD man.
Grabovskyy gets a little gap and now Bak tries to chase.
This is a difficult finish - cobbles, climbs... and now Bosisio is attacking the chasing group as they come under the banner 31" behind the leaders with one lap to go.
McCartney attacked and Devenyns is trying to get across with Cardenas.
In the peloton Rabobank has control of the chase and come under the banner over two minutes behind. Looks like our break will succeed!
176.2km remaining from 182km
The Saxo Bank men attack again and Pate is jettisoned, as is Scarponi. It's Cardenas and McCartney alone at the front.
Cardenas is pouring on the gas and McCartney is having trouble... but he gets back on the wheel. Pate attacks from the chasers.
177km remaining from 182km
3'38 to the peloton as our leaders hit 5km to go. The two men can't mess around now - they have a heated chase behind.
33" to the chasing group, but Pate has come across to the leaders with Bak!
Great teamwork by Saxo Bank, but Cardenas attacks!
Scarponi is coming across to the four leaders, as is Devenyns.
178.5km remaining from 182km
3.5km to go and we have five, no, six men in the lead and another attack from Saxo Bank!
The six are now back together and Grabovskyy has managed to make it across to the leaders.
Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) gives a dig with 2km to go.
Devenyns is floating over the cobbles like a Belgian should. But the chase is too strong.
Cardenas takes the lead as they head toward the final kilometre.
181km remaining from 182km
Now Saxo comes to the lead, and his teammate behind Cardenas. It's McCartney in the lead.
It's more cobbles and it's made for the Belgian, he's holding his lead.
The Quick Step man powers away and the rest are looking at each other...
Cardenas is launching the chase.
Oh and the Belgian is caught and dropped!
Pate goes - he gets a gap!
But Scarponi is on his wheel and gets in front.
Oh! Pate can't hold on and Scarponi hits the line to take his second stage win.
The Garmin rider may have taken second.
The peloton still has 2km to go, with Rabobank leading the pink jersey home for another day in the overall lead.
Rolling in over the cobbles, there is no urgency to the peloton's arrival.
Cardenas got ahead of Pate in the sprint, with Bak barely being edged for third place.
There will be no changes to the top of our leader board for today. Menchov and his band of orange and blue men finished four minutes behind our winner, Michele Scarponi.
It could all change tomorrow as the riders face the final mountain stage which finishes atop the volcano Vesuvio.