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Good afternoon and welcome to the Cyclingnews live coverage from stage nine of this year's Giro d'Italia, a 187 kilometre, mainly flat run from Frosinone to Cava de' Tirreni. It's tipped to be one for the sprinters, although with a slight uphill in the finale, an explosive rider could also be in with a chance.
Here's the race assessment, as listed in the stage preview: "Back to flatter roads as the race speeds down to Cava de'Tirreni on the stunning Amalfi coast. There will be little time for sightseeing on what has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Breakaway specialists may get more leeway thanks to the time gaps created by yesterday's first summit finish, but will have to be fully committed to hold off the sprint trains of Greipel, Petacchi and co. The sprinters will want to sort this one out between themselves."
Of course, Petacchi pulled out of the race on yesterday's stage due to bronchitis, so he won't be in the mix today. Normally you'd presume that will make things easier for other sprinters, but it's not always as clear-cut as that. As Lampre - Farnese Vini is now without its main sprinter, there will be less incentive for that team to work to bring back breakaway riders, and thus more pressure on the teams of the other sprinters to do the hard chasing.
Suprisingly, given the prestige of the Giro and the emphasis the home riders put on being ready for the race, there have been no Italian stage winners thus far. Well, that's not strictly true - the team time trial was won by Liquigas, but in terms of individual stage wins, the booty has all been seized by the foreign riders up until now. Damiano Cunego has been trying hard and was second on Saturday; he seems to be in strong form this year and will doubtlessly try again.
Success in the Giro is very important for the Italian teams as the race gets so much media coverage in the country (not surprising, given that it's the national tour). Most of the sponsors have their chief markets in the country, too, so this is the chance for them to really get their names and brands out there. The pressure will also be on from the tifosi.
Of course, Vincenzo Nibali did hold the Maglia Rosa and remains in contention, as does 2006 winner Ivan Basso, Marco Pinotti (HTC Columbia), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), Damiano Cunego (Lampre - Farnese Vini), Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli) and Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Doimo). So there's plenty of reason for those fans to be content with things thus far.
Here's the GC this morning:
1 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 29:01:26
2 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:01:12
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 0:01:33
4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 0:01:51
5 Marco Pinotti (Ita) Team HTC - Columbia 0:02:17
6 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Saxo Bank 0:02:26
7 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Team Katusha 0:02:34
8 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone 0:02:47
9 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 0:03:08
10 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli 0:03:09
11 David Arroyo Duran (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0:04:22
12 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Liquigas-Doimo 0:04:25
13 Valerio Agnoli (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 0:04:42
14 Pieter Weening (Ned) Rabobank 0:05:42
15 Mollema (Ned) Rabobank 0:06:05
So let's bring you up to speed with what's been happening thus far on the stage. After nine kilometres of racing, four riders clipped away - Giampaolo Cheula (Footon Servetto), Tom Stamsnijder (Rabobank), Michael Barry (Sky) and the Russian long-distance break specialist, Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha).
The lead went up to two minutes 50 seconds after 76 kilometres of racing. Chasing by the HTC Columbia and Garmin Transitions teams started to cut that back, and it dropped to two minutes 24 kilometres later.
That has dropped a little more, down to 1'50" now. The sprinters have missed out on several chances for bunch gallops, and so they don't want to let anything get too far ahead today. With the final week being as tough as it is, this week is crucial for the big sprinters in terms of chasing wins.
The four breakaway riders continue to plug along, racing on wet roads and sharing out the work between them. It's quite bright at the finish, but overcast where the riders are. Thus far in this Giro the weather hasn't been great, but hopefully it will improve as the days pass.
By the way, we've got some video from the Tour of California to show you, courtesy of Specialized. Have a look here - the first clip concerns the King of the Mountains leader.
The rain is coming down heavier now, and many of the riders in the peloton are wearing jackets. The naff weather doesn't deter the spectators too much, as they are still out lining the roads.
The gap continues to fall, and is now just one minute 20 seconds. It doesn't look good for this break, although the bunch may well leave them out there a bit longer. Once the move comes back, there is a greater motivation for others to clip away, and so they'll want to avoid that.
As most of you probably know by now, Mark Cavendish won yesterday's first stage of the Tour of California. Prior to the race, his HTC Columbia squad had both its team presentation and also a screening of its new Chasing Legends movie, detailing the 2009 Tour de France. You can see something on both here.
The rivalry between Cavendish and his team-mate Andre Greipel has been well documented, although Greipel has done his bit lately to try to pour water, not oil, on the flames. He's declined to comment when asked about the tension between the two. He hasn't succeeded in landing a stage win yet in this race, so it will be interesting to see if Cavendish's win yesterday will spur him on today.
Trying to work out if Michael Barry is actually wearing a skinsuit...it certainly looks like it. Either that, or the tailoring of his jersey is very slick indeed. Generally the clothing has got far better in recent years - the Cervelo Test Team also had some very snug jerseys last year. The old days of wollen jerseys flapping in the wind are long gone...
HTC's Allan Peiper gave his reaction to Cavendish's stage one win yesterday. Check that out here.
The break has gone through the sprint in Caserta, 50 seconds ahead of the bunch. Stamsnijder took the sprint and six bonus seconds there, ahead of Barry, Ignatiev and Chuela. Graeme Brown (Rabobank) was fifth, the first of the peloton.
Garmin Transitions rider Cameron Meyer crashed a little while ago, along with a rider from the Acqua & Sapone team. Both were moving around, but Meyer looked quite shaken. We'll keep you posted as to wether they can continue or not.
The peloton looks to have sped up now... Actually, I spoke too soon. It put the hammer down but has now eased back, with the riders fanning across the road. Up front, Stamsnijder and Barry lead the break, gliding their bikes around slick, wet corners. Better to be here than in the bunch when the surfaces are slippery...
A couple of minutes ago, the bunch passed through what appeared to be a small lake. They are still on course, though, so we have to presume that it was flooding.
Speaking of which, the break has just gone through another massive puddle, with the water nearly up to their hubs. The danger with that is that you can't see potholes or stones that may be in your way, making it a lottery of wheel placement.
The team washing machines must be working overtime in this race... It's been messy.
The bunch is spread right across the road...despite the soakings, the riders appear to be having a bit of fun out there. The pace is most definitely not on at the moment - a real 'piano' stage. The break is working hard, but the bunch has got close and has now decided to take things a little easier for a while. It'll maintain the gap at less than a minute, though. Currently it's 50 seconds.
The riders will appreciate the chance to have a breather after several tough stages. The final week is particularly brutal, and so they'll have that in mind.
The gap went right up thanks to that stall in the bunch - with 45 kilometres to go, it's soared to 1'55 seconds. The HTC Columbia team is now on the front, giving it a bit of ooomph in keeping the peloton in touch. The bunch has consequently lined out somewhat, and things do look a lot more organised.
Giampaolo Cheula (Footon Servetto), Tom Stamsnijder (Rabobank), Michael Barry (Sky), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha)
Peloton at 1'55".
Greipell had been suffering with stomach problems earlier in the race and his team-mates reckoned this was costing him a bit of his edge. They felt that once he was over the trouble, he'd be able to finish things off a bit better and nab a stage win. Let's see how he gets on today. Tyler Farrar (Garmin Transitions) will also be determined to hit the line first; he was leading the points classification but slipped back a little yesterday. However he's still very much in the hunt for that jersey.
Here's the points classification as it stood this morning:
1 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 48 pts
2 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 47
3 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin - Transitions 43
4 Graeme Brown (Aus) Rabobank 40
5 Jerome Pineau (Fra) Quick Step 39
6 Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quick Step 36
7 Andre Greipel (Ger) Team HTC - Columbia 32
8 Matthew Lloyd (Aus) Omega Pharma-Lotto 31
9 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 30
10 Danilo Hondo (Ger) Lampre-Farnese Vini 30
The BMC Racing team of Cadel Evans has now come to the front, along with its team leader. He wants to stay out of trouble.
The bunch goes under the 40km to go banner 1'50 back. Things are still firmly under control; no need to panic. The biggest thing now is to avoid any problems and to stay upright. It's raining really heavily now and that both reduces visibility and makes things a lot slippier out there.
Many of the riders are wearing bright yellow rainjackets, regardless of their actual team colours. The Astana team of race leader Alexandre Vinokourov is wearing yellow gillets; peculiar how they don't have them made in their team strip designs, isn't it? It certainly would make it a lot easier to keep tabs on who is who.
Up front, there's no need for jackets - they are working plenty hard, pedalling hard as they try, somehow, to keep this peloton at bay. The four riders are guzzling energy gels by the dozen to keep their reserves up. As Robert Millar once noted, on a stage race you are eating as much for tomorrow as today. If you go too deep on one stage and don't put those calories back in, the so-called Man With a Hammer will be waiting to strike.
And once you suffere a bad hunger knock in a stage race, it's hard to get back to one hundred percent. Best avoided!
Of course, one advantage for the riders up ahead is that they have full access to food and drink from their team cars. Those in the bunch have to wait for feedzones, or else drop right back to pick up supplies.
The riders are now inside the final 30 kilometres. That means they are less than an hour away from warm showers, providing they have them on their team buses. If that isn't an incentive on days like this, I don't know what is!
As the riders hurtle towards those showers, it's worth remembering one of the toughest days ever on the Giro, 22 years ago. The stage over the Gavia climb is the stuff of legend, and saw the whole peloton suffering in hypothermic conditions. Andy Hampsten was the big winner that day, finishing second on the stage behind Eric Breukink but, crucially, taking what would prove to be a Giro-winning lead.
You can read here about the bike he piloted that day, which was badged Huffy, was supposed to be constructed by Serotta, but was built by a different company altogether...
It's all Columbia HTC at the moment, pedalling with a real sense of determination. The gap remains 1'40", so it seems that the break might have played a bit of a trick on the peloton. By feigning fatigue and riding slower than possible, the bunch can be lulled into a false sense of security. The break then hits the turbos, throwing the carefully-calculated plans of the sprinters' teams out the window.
Cervelo's team leader Carlos Sastre is currently chasing hard to get back on after a puncture. He's in the cars and should make it.
Ahead, Vinokourov takes off his rain cape and looks like he means business. Things are certainly heating up here, with the riders getting closer and closer to the finish. Don't forget that uphill near the end - it's not huge, but it could catch a few riders out.
Ignatiev is really driving this move along. He's got a great style - low, very aero. He's also not afraid to give it a real go. Barry is also very active, while the other two look a little more tired.
There's now a split in the peloton! Vinokourov is in the front half, which is being driven along by the HTC riders.
Farrar is in the second half, but is trying to bridge. The Astana team of Vinokourov are now driving things along, recognising this as a chance to steal some more seconds. Nibali and Basso have also made it. Who has missed out?
Evans is in the second half - his BMC riders are driving hard, trying to close this gap. It's perhaps seven or eight seconds now...
Gasparotto (Astana) is driving this along...the hammer has really gone down!
Farrar and Pozzato are also in the Maglia Rosa group... However the gap is closing now, with the two bunches looking set to come back together.
Thomas Nilsson got in contact with a interesting point. It's in relation to the intermediate sprint earlier, where Graeme Brown picked up a point. He said the following;
"I saw that Graeme Brown found it worth while to sprint for one point today. And looking closer at the standings: In case Farrar drops out due to the Tour preparations, GB stands a good chance of getting the jersey if Evans and Vino have other priorities (which they have I guess)."
Interesting point...let's see how things work out.
Meanwhile, Ignatiev has clipped away alone! The Russian has decided that it's all or nothing, and he's fired off one of his trademark moves. He's flying along, throwing caution to the wind, and nearly creamed himself on a right hand bend when he got it wrong and went very wide. He's okay, though, and continuing along.
Barry has now got across to him...he too looks very strong. Both were doing the bulk of the work in the break, so they've thinned it down to the important parts.
Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Loddo (Androni Giocattoli) got it wrong on a corner and nearly came a cropper. They ran wide but stopped before they ploughed into the spectators. The Italian tifosi are famously passionate about their cycling, but that might have been a stretch too far...
The leading duo are pushing hard as they go under the 5km to go kite, but it's all over...they have been caught by the HTC-Columbia led peloton.
Vinokourov sits near the front, as does Pozzato.
Ouch...Sastre never made it back to the leaders...he's chasing hard, leading a group along... He's really having a race to forget..
Now Vinokourov leads the bunch, albeit briefly...looks like it's going to be a sprint
The images are breaking up here, so bear with us...the riders are hurtling towards the finish ...last kilometre now..
It's a big windup on this hill....Rubens Bertogliati jumps with about 700 metres to go, getting a gap.. Vinokourov and Evans go after him,and Evans leads out for a long, long way, looking strong. However a rush on the far side of the road sees Matthew Goss (HTC Columbia) come through and take the win - what a finish!
Goss beat Filippo Pozzato (Team Katusha), Tyler Farrar (Garmin - Transitions), Robert Förster (Team Milram) and Federico Canuti (Colnago - CSF Inox) to the line.
Bad news for Carlos Sastre, unfortunately - he lost 1'49" and his run of disappointment continues. He really must be getting frustrated at this point.
That final kilometre really was dramatic... Evans and Vinokourov were there, fighting for the bonuses, but then the sprinters took over. The GC will stay more or less unchanged - don't think any other big names missed out, with the exception of Sastre. But that will be confirmed when the full results are in.
Will be interesting to see if Farrar's high finish puts him back into the points lead...Evans held it today, but finished outside the top ten in the end.
We'll leave things there for now, but full results should be available shortly and will tell if Farrar does indeed take the points jersey. What's certain is that Vinokourov holds on at the top, in terms of the Maglia Rosa. He didn't have much to worry about today, unlike several of his rivals who missed out on the split in the bunch. Cue lots of hectic chasing until the gap was bridged.
Thanks for reading today, and don't forget to check out the stage end report elsewhere on the site. A full, detailed report will of course be available a little later on, plus full results.