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Stage 18 - Thursday, May 28: Sulmona - Benevento, 182km
Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) is all smiles at the start of stage 18 in Sulmona.
Three days from Rome and on an overcast Thursday afternoon where scores of white sheep clouds smothered the percorso in hazy shades of blue-grey, an escape found success at the 92nd Giro d'Italia as the favourites for the overall title rested their legs as best as they could.
Given the road that lies ahead, where on Friday, after a 164-kilometre slog around the ankle of Italy's boot, the riders finish atop Mount Vesuvius - most likely in ones, twos and threes - the eighteenth stage was a clearly a case of polarised objectives for the 171 remaining soldiers left in this Centenary Giro.
On one hand, there was a bunch of blokes who knew they had no more than two opportunities left to win a stage in a race where, so far, only six teams have tasted the overly sweet spumante that accompanies victory. When sixth stage victor Michele Scarponi of Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni took his second win Friday in Benevento following another 100 kilometre-plus breakaway, still only six teams have tasted success.
Though surely, after two incredibly arduous escapes in a Grand Tour raced at the highest level, it's lopped off a year or two off the 29-year-old's life?
"Haha!" Scarponi first laughed with the shrill of a school-kid - one who has just heard the 3 p.m. afternoon bell ring, allowing him to run home and ride his bike with his friends.
"After [Stage 16 to] Monte Petrano, I had a crisis of sorts and was without energy. But today, my energy returned," he told Cyclingnews.
"I was really good; I had good legs. Today was very special; it was my first stage win in Italy at the Giro, because the last one was in Austria. To win at the Giro has always been a dream of mine, so I'm really happy," he said, whose team manager Gianni Savio later indicated that he's keen to renew Scarponi's contract for another season.
The flip side of the coin
On the other hand, there are six riders at the top of the classifica generale who have a realistic shot of reaching the final podium in Roma. And for some, they will need all the help they can get.
Come the high mountains, Rabobank's Denis Menchov has experienced little of the latter but to date, the week-old maglia rosa hasn't needed any, has done just fine on his own, and intends to keep what he came here for.
"I expect a hard day tomorrow," said Menchov, stating the obvious, but adding he remembers the climb to Mount Vesuvius well, despite having previewed it only once before. Until now, he's ridden the climbs the only way he knows how. It's a defensive style not unlike Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain, where, in each of his five wins, the Spaniard took the race lead after a long time trial, followed his rivals in the mountains, then crushed his lighter-weight opponents in the final time trial. From Friday to Sunday, Menchov's likely to do the same.
But does it bother him that his critics say he's boring, that he rides too defensively?
"I think everybody has to ride their own race," said Menchov. "Until this moment, I've ridden like that, and the situation now is good. I'm not really a specialist [in any discipline]; I'm not really a climber and I'm not really a time trialer, so maybe it's better I have ridden this way."
Lurking 26 seconds behind is 2007 Giro champion Danilo Di Luca. "Il Killer di Spoltore" isn't a man who gives up on a fight, and don't expect Friday to be any different for the LPR leader.
Equally, Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas has shown he, too, has the mettle to put the favourites in a spot of bother, the Blockhaus conquistador two minutes behind Menchov and holding the joker card of teammate Ivan Basso, fourth overall at 3:28.
And at least for a spot on the final podium, it would be erroneous to write off Cervelo TestTeam's Carlos Sastre. Only two seconds behind Basso on the classifica generale and able to cause trouble - though he'd most likely prefer two or three hard climbs before Friday's only real mountain of significance if he's to stand on the podio in Roma - the 2008 Tour de France champ will need to lay down an Open Misère in the vein of his attack on L'Alpe d'Huez last July.
From Sulmona, southwards we go...
Finally, the 92nd Giro d'Italia heads south.
And the further south one goes, the madder the tifosi, it seems, because on an overcast Thursday afternoon in Sulmona, a raucous welcome was awarded to the 172 left in this year's race.
Thursday's only real topographical obstacle, the 15.4km long Cat. 2 Piano delle Cinque Miglia - its KOM coming just 22.5km into the 182km stage - provided the springboard for many an escape attempt, but attempt did not translate to result until some 40 kilometres later, when a sizeable 25 forged their way clear of the peloton.
In the move, Astana, Team Columbia-High Road, Diquigiovanni-Androni, Garmin-Slipstream, ISD, Quick Step and Team Saxo Bank were best represented with two pair of legs each in Yaroslav Popovych and Andrey Zeits (Astana); Thomas Lövkvist and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Team Columbia-Highroad); Alessandro Bertolini and Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni-Androni); Giovanni Visconti and Dmytro Grabovskyy (ISD); Julian Dean and Danny Pate (Garmin-Slipstream); Dries Devenyns and Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step); and Jason McCartney and Lars Bak (Team Saxo Bank).
The rest of the teams were represented by one man each: Gabriele Bosisio (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini), Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone), Felix Cardenas (Barloworld), Thomas Voeckler (BBox Bouygues Telecom), David Lopez Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Philip Deignan (Cervelo TestTeam), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Jonas Ljungblad (Silence-Lotto), Evgeny Petrov (Katusha) and Eduard Vorganov (Xacobeo Galicia).
Generally speaking, such a large group would not have been allowed to go. But with the majority of teams represented (missing were AG2R La Mondiale, Fuji-Servetto, Rabobank and Team Milram), this bevy of 25 was given the freedom to ride, gaining 6:15 115 kilometres in, with 67 kilometres left to ride.
Fifty kilometres from home, they still enjoyed a five-minute advantage, and 30 kilometres out, 3:50 was the gap - swinging the chances of staying away in favour of the breakaway.
Up and over the rolling roads, direzione Benevento, the break's weak links dropped off as a few digs at the front broke the chain that once was, leaving just nine on the final city circuit to fight for the win: Cardenas (Barloworld), Pate (Garmin-Slipstream), Grabovskyy (ISD), Gavazzi (Lampre-NGC), Scarponi (Diquigiovanni-Androni), McCartney and Bak (Team Saxo Bank), Devenyns (Quick Step) and Zeits (Astana).
With 3:38 to the peloton 5 kilometres from home, these riders worried not about the bunch behind catching them, but who was strongest or slyest.
Quick Step's Devenyns was one such strong-man, attacking 2 kilometres out, and McCartney of CSC was clearly riding for his Danish teammate, Bak. But then Pate, who had yo-yoed on and off the back the last few kilometres, stubbornly making the final six, tried his luck through the front door, and only just missed out to a resurgent Scarponi, the American also pipped by Cardenas at the line.