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Stage 20 - Saturday, May 30: Napoli - Anagni, 203km
Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone - Caffe Mokambo) leads the mountains classification.
Try asking a 21-year-old neo-pro - one who isn't a pure sprinter like Mark Cavendish or a pure climber like Carlos Sastre - what sort of rider he wants to be.
Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, you'll be met with the answer, "Give me another few years when I'm a bit stronger, I've done a few more races, and my boss tells me what I might be good at - I don't want to pigeon-hole myself or say I can become something I can't."
For Philippe Gilbert of Silence-Lotto, the winner of the twentieth and penultimate stage of the Centenary Giro, it was never that way.
From the moment Saturday's winner in Anagni signed his first professional contract with Française des Jeux in 2003, aged 21, the Verviers-born Walloon knew what he wanted: to be one of the best Classics riders of his generation.
That he's not Flemish like virtually all the Classics legends from Belgium - previous or current - doesn't faze him. That he spent his first six seasons riding for a French team wasn't a bother, either - his first directeur sportif Marc Madiot is a double Paris-Roubaix champion.
Gilbert's twice won the Classics season opener, Het Volk. Last year, aged 26, he came of age to claim victory in Paris-Tours, his first major Classic, happily penning his name to ride for Belgian squad Silence-Lotto for 2009.
And just as he did on the Avenue de Grammont in Tours last October, Gilbert used that heady combination of strength, timing and cunning to foil the sprinters' plans on a finale tailor-made for this rising star of autumn and spring. BBox Bouygues Telecom's Thomas Voeckler came in two seconds later, with Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone - Caffe Mokambo) taking the bunch sprint for third, seven seconds behind Gilbert.
"I began the Giro with the ambition to win one stage," Gilbert told Cyclingnews, but later revealed he was close to quitting, spurred on by his Italian team manager Roberto Damiani.
"I was really tired after the mountain stages. After, I got better, then I got worse, and it was like this for close to 10 days. I said to myself that maybe it's time to go home. It was never easy for me, but I stayed in the race, and now I'm really happy I did.
"I saw on the first lap [around Anagni] it was a good moment to attack, and I attacked in the same place," Gilbert said of his perfectly-timed move, who took flight a kilometre and a half from the line and never looked back.
Menchov: "If someone creates a war, you have to fight the war"
Largely a consequence of Gilbert's race-winning move and the attacks before that - but also a testament to the maglia rosa's towering strength - LPR's Danilo Di Luca just could not get away in what was his last-chance saloon, the pair of arch-rivals finishing right next to each other in 11th and 12th, respectively.
It's been like that the past eight days.
Saturday being the final opportunity to steal time away from Rabobank's Denis Menchov, it must have been a case of reality bites hard for Di Luca. But even before he crossed the line dejected in Anagni's Viale Roma, the top two riders on the classifica generale fought tooth-and-nail for the last bonus seconds in the 92nd Giro.
Three-quarters into Saturday's 203 kilometre stage, one witnessed a complete role reversal. With the early break's capture a few clicks before the TV (traguardo volante) sprint in Frosinone, Di Luca's teammate Alessandro Petacchi tried to lead his man out for the six bonus seconds on offer. But the ever-attentive Menchov was all over it like a rash and almost ended up beating one of the world's best sprinters.
"It may be the first time in professional cycling I did a sprint like that [on flat roads]," Menchov told Cyclingnews with a wry grin. "I don't like to fight for the bonus sprints - I prefer to fight for real time. But if someone creates a war, you have to fight the war."
In the end, the Russian did enough to beat Di Luca for second place and extended his overall lead to 20 seconds - a lead that will almost certainly grow after Sunday's 14.4km time trial in Rome, where, after 3,456.5 kilometres, the Centenary Giro will end.
"My favourite is [Levi] Leipheimer. Tomorrow, I will ride, stay focused, and it will be not be a quiet walk. The gap [to Di Luca] is very small, and it's important to stay focused until the last finish line," Menchov said.
Napoli perhaps better viewed from Vesuvius
On a muggy Saturday morning along Naples' via Francesco Cararcciolo, the 170 heads of the peloton turned left, and longingly stretched their eyes out to the Tyrrhenian sea before them. It's a different scene in the city centre, where the wind blows swirls of litter around its soot-blackened streets, hawkers sell packet-tissues or offer a lousy windscreen wash for any loose change you might have, and tourists and locals alike often feel less than safe, particularly at night.
So far, it's been a beautiful, exciting, and often magnificent Giro, worthy of a centenary edition. But still, with two stages to go, there was time only for brief respite till the race's conclusion tomorrow in Rome.
In fact, less than 24 hours after riding the beast of Vesuvius Friday, an eight-man group threw respite out to sea and took flight after just four kilometres - Robert Förster (Team Milram), Ben Swift (Team Katusha), Felix Cardenas (Barloworld), Angel Gomez (Fuji-Servetto), Pablo Lastras (Caisse d'Epargne), Anders Lund (Team Saxo Bank), Francesco De Bonis (Diquigiovanni-Androni) and Guillaime Bonnafond (AG2R La Mondiale) looking at a 200-kilometre ride à bloc if they were to stay away.
With this being the last road stage up for grabs, the octet never enjoyed more than four minutes' lead before the teams not represented in the break - namely, LPR Brakes and Silence-Lotto - began to shut down the move earlier than usual. Their maximum advantage of 3:49 came 95 kilometres from the finish in Anagni; a very tenuous time out front indeed.
Shortly after the cheekily-contested TV sprint in Frosinone (km 157.6), Milram's Markus Fothen jumped clear, joined by Valerio Agnoli of Liquigas and Pavel Brutt of Team Katusha, though Agnoli gave up almost as soon as he began. It left the German-Italian duo out front till they neared the final Classics-style circuit around Anagni, the bell rung 18.2 kilometres from the line, where they too were captured.
The recapture sparked a series of counters until a quartet filled with bravura - Bartosz Huzarski (ISD), Anthony Charteau (Caisse d'Epargne), Paulo Tiralongo (Lampre-NGC) and Marco Pinotti (Team Columbia-Highroad) - stayed clear until the final two kilometres.
LPR Brakes desperately wanted the day to end with a victory for Di Luca, but with a difficult uphill finish, there was room for one last move...