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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Stage 6 - Thursday, May 14: Bressanone/Brixen - Mayrhofen (Aut), 248km
Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni) shows the effort of a day-long break.
One last look behind, a zip of the jersey, before a smile as wide as his outstretched arms.
Didn't we say this Giro was the race to which the formerly suspended would return in a big way?
Wednesday in the small Austrian town of Mayrhofen, it was Operación Puerto refugee Michele Scarponi's turn, reversing what appeared at first to be nutty odds into a 200-kilometre display of bravura.
Despite the 29-year-old's chequered past that included a confession he was a VIP customer of the infamous doctor Fuentes – Scarponi even had a nickname, "Zapatero" – the doping administrator at the centre of the still ongoing Puerto affair, wily Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni team manager Gianni Savio saw his potential and took him on for two years, beginning this season and most likely, at bargain basement prices.
He repaid the trust as recently as March, on the sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico. Over another 200km-plus leg not dissimilar in difficulty to that Wednesday's sixth stage of the Giro d'Italia, Scarponi bested his better-known breakaway companions Stefano Garzelli and Ivan Basso to capture the stage and a day later, overall victory.
Knowing their team would not be invited to the Tour de France or Vuelta a España, Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni knew the Giro would be their race. It always is, and whenever and wherever possible, the silver-haired, Italian-suited Savio encourages his riders to attack.
This fine Wednesday, and after two consecutive days in the mountains, Scarponi chose to do just that in the second-longest stage of the race. Why?
"Yesterday, I was disappointed with my effort because I lost five minutes, and it will be difficult to come back to finish high on GC," said Scarponi. "I wanted to go for the stage and to get some time back."
Added Savio, "This morning, I saw Scarponi looking dejected. With the whole team there, I said: 'Today, one guy has to get in a break" – then I pointed at [Scarponi] and said, 'You!'"
Like most that have been caught or suspected of doping, the good-humoured Scarponi, once a favourite of the Italian cycling press, had little to say that hasn't already been said about him. "It's very difficult not to race when you love cycling. I only think about the present; the past is behind me," he said.
"For me," said Savio, "Michele made a mistake and he paid for it, but you have to remember he was in the wrong team [Liberty Seguros] at the wrong time, and he was in a systematic doping program that was far bigger than him."
Top 10 unchanged, Armstrong loses more time
The stage had no effect on the classifica generale's top 10 riders, but for maglia rosa Danilo Di Luca (LPR), it was no walk in the Austrian park.
"It was really difficult," said Di Luca, "because in the beginning, everybody wanted to break away.
"In the finale some of the teams started to believe they could catch Scarponi, so the speed was really high [in the peloton], it was like we were going for the stage finish. I had to stay in the front; I didn't want to risk losing time."
The man most talked about at this Giro, Lance Armstrong was one of those caught out, finishing 43 seconds behind the second-placed finisher, Columbia-Highroad's Edvald Boasson Hagen. The past three days, the Texan's had a tough time of it.
"Armstrong didn't race for three years and broke his collarbone just over a month ago. I think he's doing a really good Giro; he's really been part of the race, and making big efforts to be there," said Di Luca, who said his team's targets are the final maglia rosa in Rome as well as the maglia ciclamino of best sprinter.
"They're big targets," commented one Italian journalist.
"But we are Di Luca and [Alessandro] Petacchi!"
Just for something different…
Continuing the unusual and rather inexplicable modern Grand Tour tradition of traversing national borders, the second-longest stage of this 92nd Giro chose to enter Austria on Wednesday, just for something different (and probably because the Austrian town of Mayrhofen waved a lump of cash in front of the Giro organisers' faces).
55km into this 248 kilometre-long jaunt, Guillame Bonnafond (AG2R La Mondiale), Vasili Kiryenka (Caisse d'Epargne), Oscar Gatto (ISD), Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni) and Kasper Klostergaard (Saxo Bank) became the break del giorno; by 105km, Scarponi, by some margin the best-placed rider on GC at the start of the day, became the virtual maglia rosa courtesy of a near-seven-minute advantage. Unfortunately for Milram's Thomas Rohregger, the only Austrian in the Giro, he missed the move.
Reaching a maximum eight-minute lead with a century of kilometres remaining, the quintet forged on with confidence, but a combination of two previous days in mountains, a pair of 1,600 metre-high climbs, the length of the stage, and a tightly controlled LPR-Columbia-led peloton slowly put paid to their chances.
Actually, that would just about kill any one's chances. But not Scarponi.
Unsurprisingly, the cracks in the woodwork of the escape began to appear on the Hochkrimml, the second of these two climbs, Scarponi and Kiryienka pulling away with around four-and-a-half minutes' lead around 60km from home. The news must have come through the airwaves, because not much later, the number one dossard, Acqua & Sapone's Stefano Garzelli, shot out of the pack in pursuit.
Trying to forget his poor showing on Tuesday's finish to Alpe di Siusi, where he lost almost five-and-a-half minutes, the 2000 Giro champion tried valiantly, but didn't get close to his target, the lead pair 1:50 ahead as the peloton passed the 15km to go banner.
Scarponi, clearly the stronger of the two, left his remaining companion 10km from the line and with just a minute-and-a-half's advantage, the odds were against him. In the last three years, however, one could say the odds have always been against him, and maybe that's the way he likes it.