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Stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia, from Feltre to Tirano.
As we pick up the action, a 16 rider break holds a four minute lead over the peloton. The men in front are Christian Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo), Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini), Leonardo Giordani (Farnese Vini), Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), Kanstanstin Svitsov (HTC), Jesus Hernandez (Saxo Bank), Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Mathias Frank (BMC), Fabio Taborre (Acqua & Sapone), Addy Engels (Quick Step), Herve Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Ben Gastauer (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Although nominally another day in the mountains, the opening half of today's stage is over terrain that is more rolling than rugged. The first categorised climb is the 2nd category Passo del Tonale, after 166km. After descending to Edolo, the bunch tackles the 3rd category climb of Aprica, before a sharp swoop down to the finish in Tirano.
Compared to the horrors of the three consecutive summit finishes of last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, today's stage is somewhat more manageable, although the tired legs in the peloton will not have appreciated the rapid opening to proceedings this morning. The bunch covered almost 48km in the first hour of racing, as a number of unsuccessful breakaway attempts were snuffed out.
At the 55km point, on the approach to Levico Terme, the elastic was finally broken, as a strong-looking group of 15 forged clear. Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) was especially prominent in ensuring the break got up the road, and he's got a number of on-form riders for company.
Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo) had a splendid opening ten days to the Giro, and although he paid for his efforts at the weekend, he is clearly on song. Kanstantin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad) is another man who sparkled early on only to cede ground on the entry to the Dolomites, but he is still lying in 12th place overall.
The last man to make it across to the leading group was Herve Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale). He was hugely impressive on the Grossglockner on Friday, and is lying 15th overall. Along with Le Mevel and Sivtsov, he has plenty of motivation to work at the front here. On a day like today, there is a real chance to leapfrog riders in the overall standings.
88km into the stage and the gap is at 4:30. Interestingly, Alberto Contador has placed a teammate in the break today, Jesus Hernandez. As Liquigas have no representative up the road, Saxo Bank will be hoping that Vincenzo Nibali's team will do the bulk of the work behind.
Contador has been careful to form alliances with the Spanish teams during this Giro, who have given his Saxo Bank team some much needed support in keeping the race under control. There have been question marks around the strength of Contador's squad at this race. His trusted lieutenants Hernandez and Daniel Navarro have not been as prominent at the business end of the race as in the past.
That said, Contador's climbing form has been such that he doesn't need the help of any teammates to set the pace on the final climbs. He has been on another planet in this Giro.
Contador is down one valued member of his support crew today, however. His mechanic Faustino Muñoz was expelled from the race after hitting a supporter by opening a car door during yesterday's mountain time trial. Muñoz believed that the fan in question had attempted to punch Contador as he rode past.
Ever the diplomat, Contador moved to downplay the incident. "It's incredible how they are behaving towards me," he said afterwards.
In a way it is incredible. Apart from an occasional banner poking fun at Contador's appetite for steak, the tifosi on the roadside seem to care little for the fact that the Spaniard's imminent overall victory might not stand the test of time in the record books. The only real hostility he has faced came on the Zoncolan, when Contador was jeered - unfairly - by fans frustrated at the cancellation of the Crostis from the route.
Of course, there was also this guy on the Gardeccia. Not a picture likely to feature on any Saxo Bank press releases.
Out on the road, the break have covered the first two hours at an average speed of 46.2kph. A lot of strong men in this move and they're certainly not hanging around.
Michele Scarponi is represented in this break by young Diego Ulissi, who is riding his first Giro. A double world champion as a junior, the Tuscan is finding his feet as a professional, and he showed his talent with a decent 19th place on yesterday's mountain time trial.
Speaking of time trials, the route of the final stage in Milan has been altered so as to minimise disruption to voters in local elections in the Lombard capital on Sunday. It will now be 26km rather than 31km, starting from the Fiera in Rho, rather than from outside the Castello Sforzesco in the centre of Milan. The race will finish as anticipated at the spectacular Piazza Duomo.
Vincenzo Nibali will certainly not be pleased that he has 5km less of time trialling in which to peg back some time on Scarponi.
After coming through the feed zone, the 16 men up front have stretched their advantage out to 5:50.
It's not surprising to see two riders from Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli up here animating the stage. Lacking an overall contender, the men in fluorescent yellow have been constantly on the attack in this Giro. They got their just reward with Oscar Gatto's win in Tropea, but Giovanni Visconti is desperate to put his mark on this Giro. Although he is still suffering the after-effects of a knee injury sustained at the Amstel Gold Race, the Sicilian has been very aggressive, ever since the race left Turin.
The sixteen in front are all still present and correct and working well together. We're still a little way from the day's biggest obstacle, the Passo del Tonale, and it's possible that the group might break up there.
It's not clear what kind of pyrotechnics we'll see from the favourite's group. Neither the Tonale nor the climb to Aprica seem difficult enough to separate the likes of Contador, Nibali and Scarponi, but the descents might offer some excitement. Nibali made a brave but always doomed attempt to put Contador under pressure on the descent of the Giau on Sunday. He might get more change out of making a move on one of today's downhill sections.
Saxo Bank have so far shown no interest in chasing down the break, and the gap is out to 7:30. Considering the calibre of rider in this move and the terrain that is to follow, the sixteen have a real chance of staying clear, especially if the pursuit behind is a lethargic one.
Away from the Giro, the big story of the week has been Tyler Hamilton's accusations of doping at the US Postal Service team. Cyclingnews spoke about the matter with Dr. Michael Ashenden, an independent member of the UCI's biological passport panel, and he was less than impressed with former UCI president Hein Verbruggen's declarations in support of Lance Armstrong.
At the foot of the Passo del Tonale now for the leading group. Leonardo Giordani is pulling hard on the front with Visconti on his wheel.
Liquigas-Canndondale have come to the front of the peloton now and are lining things out to keep the break within touching distance. Saxo Bank had been riding tempo at the front, but Nibali's teammates have hit the front now and the pace has rocketed upwards.
The make-up of the group meant that sooner or later, Liquigas were going to have to take matters in hand, and they've duly snipped over a minute off their lead, it's now down to 6:20.
Meanwhile, Giordani is now struggling at the rear of the leading group as the climb starts in earnest. It seems that team manager Luca Scinto instructed him to put in as big a turn as he could at the foot of the climb, and the Roman has done just that. His teammate Visconti has now put in a tentative dig at the front, he's clearly keen to keep the pace high.
Sivtsov is the best-placed of the break overall, and he'll be aiming to get back into the top ten on today's stage. Not surprisingly, the Belarus rider has been very prominent thus far on the Tonale.
Giordani has sat up and bid farewell to the lead group. Their pace is very high on the climb, especially when Sivstov comes to the front, and it's taking its toll on some of the riders. In spite of this, the gap is coming down under Liquigas' impetus. It's now at 5:50.
The bunch was never going to let a break with Sivtsov gain too much time, but there is the possibility that Liquigas might relent a little once the gap is brought back inside four minutes or so.
The bunch are climbing at 23kph behind, and a lot of riders are being shelled out the back. The Tonale is by no means the toughest climb in this part of the world, but at that kind of pace at this point in a race like the Giro, gaps can open quickly.
That said, the selection should come almost exclusively from the back. It's hard to see any of the big favourites gaining much time by attacking on this climb. But then again, we thought the same thing about Etna...
Fabio Sabatini is leading the line for Liquigas. They mightn't be quite as strong as they were in their support of Ivan Basso last year, but Liquigas are still are formidable outfit, with a lot of experience in this kind of situation.
At the head of the race, Sivtsov seems to be the strongest and he's making little attempt to hide that fact. Visconti is another man who is riding pretty smoothly on this climb.
Christophe Le Mevel is looking a little bit more laboured than he did earlier in the race, but he still stands go move up a step or two closer to the top ten if this break goes the distance.
5:45 the gap now, with Nibali sitting 6th in line in the peloton, behind five of his teammates.
Nibali's former Liquigas stable mate Roman Kreuziger is sat on his shoulder in the white jersey. The Czech had a fine start to the Giro, before struggling during the weekend's climbing fest. He steadied the ship during yesterday's time trial, however, and is within striking distance of a place in the top 5.
The break is now approaching the summit of the Tonale. Johan Tschopp won here on the Giro's penultimate stage last year, while Chepe Gonzalez shored up the green jersey by winning up here in 1997.
Addy Engels has also lost contact with the lead group. Visconti and the Ag2r duo of Dupont and Gastauer have been the men setting the pace in the last couple of kilometres, but now Sivtsov has come to the front once again.
News reaching us that maglia nera Matt Wilson (Garmin-Cervelo) has abandoned the Giro. The Australianwas suffering from a virus
and from the after-effects of a crash on the stage to Tropea.
The two Ag2r men are dragging the break towards the top of the Tonale, and in spite of the pursuit from Liquigas behind they don't seem to be losing too much of their advantage on the climb.
Vorganov had dropped back to the Katusha car, but he's safely back up among the rest of the break. Robert Kiserlovski zips up his gilet as the group comes within sight of the top of the mountain.
Gastauer leads the break over the summit of the Tonale. We'll get a clear idea of the gap when the Liquigas-led bunch get to the top, but it seems as though the break's lead will be less than four minutes by that point.
Valerio Agnoli is doing the work for Liquigas at the front of the reduced peloton. Jose Rujano is sitting comfortably in the wheels. There is no sign of Contador at the head of the bunch, but presumably he will move up over the top of the climb to keep an eye on Vincenzo Nibali. The Sicilian will surely try something on a descent today.
After reducing the advantage 5km from the summit, the Liquigas-led bunch has clearly eased up again. The gap has actually climbed again to 6:10.
The bunch has only just passed the dropped Leonardo Giordani at the top of the descent of the Tonale, which gives an indication of how the bunch's speed dropped on the upper portion of the climb.
Up ahead, the break is negotiating the descent of the Tonale and continuing to work fluidly.
The roads are quite wide and it's not especially technical on the way down the Tonale. Even if Nibali tries something here, he'd have his work cut out to stay away.
The riders are also descending into a headwind, which is another fact that might discourage attacks on the way down.
Le Mevel, meanwhile, appeared to be struggling to stay in touch with the break on the early part of the descent, but he's back in the thick of the action now.
A couple of other abandons to catch up on. Matt Wilson's teammate Murilo Fischer has also called it a day, while Francesco Masciarelli (Astana) did not start this morning.
The Italian was one of the unsung heroes of the Giro's opening fortnight, as he did sterling work for his leader Roman Kreuziger on Montevergine, Etna and Grossglockner, all while holding down a place in the top 15. Unfortunately, he was hit by a car door on his way to the team bus after the Grossglockner stage, and after struggling on for three more stages, he opted to pull out this morning.
Liquigas have only pegged back 5 seconds on the descent so far. The fourteen remaining riders up front will start to fancy their chances of going the distance at that rate. That said, once they start attacking each other on the climb to Aprica, the peloton should start to close in.
So far so good for Alberto Contador and Saxo Bank. After getting a big dig out from Euskaltel and Movistar at the weekend, they've had Liquigas to drill on the front for much of today's stage.
The bunch has come under the 50km to go banner with a deficit of 5:45. Liquigas are still forcing the pace at the head of the peloton. Fabio Sabatini had been dropped on the climb, but he got back on over the top and is now pulling the Liquigas train once again.
The two Ag2r riders are very active on the front of this break. The French team, and John Gadret in particular, have been one of the surprise packages of this race.
Before the Giro, Christophe Le Mevel was the man fancied to be the first Frenchman since Sandy Casar in 2006 to make the top 10 of the Giro, but it looks as if Gadret will beat him to it. Indeed, Gadret is on course to better Casar's 6th place of that year.
The last Frenchman to finish on the podium was Charly Motter, all the way back in 1990, when he was second to an unstoppable Gianni Bugno. Their best result since then was Laurent Jalabert's 4th place in 1999.
The Giro passes tantalisingly close to the Mortirolo today, but somehow Angelo Zomegnan resisted the temptation to stuff the fearsome climb into this year's route.
Christophe Le Mevel leads the break as they approach the base of the descent. We haven't had an official time gap since the halfway down the descent, but it seems as though they still have at least 5 minutes in hand. There'll be a bonus sprint at Edolo, before the short climb to Aprica.
The veteran Pablo Lastras is another experienced man in this break. The Spaniard has won stages in all three of the Grand Tours, albeit between 2001 and 2003. Along with Simon Gerrans, he is perhaps one of the few non-climbing or sprint specialists to have completed the "set" of Grand Tour stage wins in recent years.
The break are passing through Edolo, and getting ready for the long, steady 3rd category climb to Aprica. It's average gradient is only 3%, although there are stretches of 10% along the 15km haul to the top.
Geox-TMC have come to the front in numbers. How often have we written that this season?
Denis Menchov's teammates are helping out Liquigas in keeping Svitsov under control. 4 minutes the gap to the break.
Le Mevel is the first man to attack from the break up front, and although he is soon brought to heel, the pace has raised a notch again.
Pablo Lastras is putting in a huge turn at the front of the break now.
Sivtsov puts in a long, seated acceleration and opens a small gap. The break scrambles to get back on his wheel.
Sivtsov appears to be the strongest man in the break, but if it all stays together, he'll be a heavily marked man in the finale.
9km to the top of the climb for the lead group. Le Mevel and Gastauer have been dropped from the break.
The break has stopped collaborating and seem to be more concerned with attacking one another. Sivtsov in particular is very keen to ride himself of his companions, and has attacked on three occasions.
Apparently the break have reached speeds of 47kph on the flatter sections of the "climb."
At that rate, it's hard to see anybody trying anything in the peloton behind.
Visconti seems to be getting a bit frustrated with the stop-start nature of the break. The Italian champion wants the group to continue working steadily together. Behind, Liquigas are back setting the pace, and the gap is inside the four-minute mark.
Dupont attacks and is the first man to open a significant gap in this phase of high speed cat and mouse.
Taborre and Lastras have made it across, but the rest of the lead group is stretched out.
That trio are brought back, and now it's Mathias Frank who is on the offensive. Lastras is again leading the chase, the Spaniard is clearly strong today. Meanwhile, Ulissi is suffering at the back.
The lead group is fragmenting now as legs are wilting under the ferocity of the pace.
Dupont has reeled in Frank and tries to go solo again, with Svitsov and Kiserlovski battling to get on terms.
Sivtsov has come to the front now and steadied the pace a little. If he looks around, he'll see that the break has reduced in number.
Now Sivtsov attempts to forge clear alone. The lead group is tearing itself apart on this climb, but it's always the same names on the attack now. Lastras and Dupont are marking themselves out as the other strongmen outside of Sivtsov.
Again, Sivtsov tries and again it's Dupont who is the first to chase him down. Visconti is also riding a very intelligent race. He's never the first man to mark one of these moves, but he always eases his way back into contention.
Dupont is hyperactive on this climb, who knows where he's getting the energy from. The Frenchman has been following every move as well as putting in a few digs of his own.
Sivtsov puts in another long, long acceleration, but he only succeeds in stretching things out rather than ripping clear.
And when he swings over, Pablo Lastras goes over the top of him with Visconti on his wheel.
The pair briefly appear to have a gap and lead over the top of the climb, but they are closed down at the top of the descent.
The bunch are 3:51 down, and the men up front are certain to carve up the stage. Astana are lending a hand to Liquigas now.
Alberto Contador is at the front of the bunch for the first time all day as the pink jersey group crosses the summit of the climb. He's here to keep a close eye on Nibali.
3:38 the gap to the break at the top of the climb.
If the stage were to finish now, Sivtsov would be lying in 5th place overall. For now, however, the HTC man will be thinking only of the stage win. Pablo Lastras is leading down the descent, and putting the pressure on.
Lastras, Visconti and Taborre are the men who are most enjoying this descent, although they haven't managed to slip away.
The more technical section of the descent begins with 10km to go. If Nibali is going to try and put Contador under pressure, it should be there.
The road is noticeably narrower now as the break enters the final 10km of the stage.
Lastras is doing everything he can to shake off the rest of the break on this descent, but Visconti and Bakelants aren't giving him an inch.
Back in the main bunch, Nibali and Scarponi were attempting something on the descent, but now it seems to be Popovych who is leading.
Lastras has led virtually all of the way down this descent. The canny Spaniard knows it's chance to slip away.
As the road flattens out slightly, Lastras has allowed Sivtsov, Visconti and Taborre do some work at the front.
Kiserlovski and Vorganov had been struggling to stay in touch, but now they have made it back up to Lastras, Sivstov et al.
The pace drops in the lead group now at the bottom of the descent. One of these riders will win the stage, and they know it too well.
Bakelants launches an attack with 3km to go. Ulissi closes and brings Visconti and Lastras across.
The four in front have 12 second over the rest of the break. Sivtsov and Dupont are leading the chase behind.
Lastras takes advantage of a brief lull and accelerates but Visconti is smartly onto his wheel.
They can't afford to hang around, Sivtsov and Dupont are chasing hard behind.
900 metres out and Ulissi takes a flyer, but Visconti is the man to chase once again.
Bakelants is set to lead out the sprint.
Ulissi leads the sprint and Visconti appears shut in.
Visconti pushes Ulissi out of the way to come past between the young italian and the barriers!
Visconti crosses the line in first place, but the judges will be having a close look at this one...
Visconti led Ulissi and Lastras over the line, but expect appeals here....
A bizarre sprint. Visconti tried to go where there was no space, and raised his right arm to push Ulissi out of the way.
He crossed the line in first place but gesticulating at Ulissi as he did so.
Visconti is not a happy man. He's just told RAI that he had shouted at Ulissi several times not to shut him in. He also claimed that Ulissi could have put him into the barriers. And that he didn't like the young Tuscan's attitude all day anyway. So there.
We're still waiting to hear if the judges are reviewing this sprint, but it's hard to see how Visconti could possibly keep this win.
Ulissi deviated very slightly from his line, but it would be harsh if he too was declassified.
Visconti has been declassified and the stage has been awarded to Diego Ulissi.
The revised finish order is: 1. Ulissi, 2. Lastras, 3. Visconti.
Meanwhile, Oscar Gatto led the main bunch home around three minutes down.
Farnese Vini manager Luca Scinto has accepted that Visconti was in the wrong, but he reckons Ulissi should also have been disqualified.
1 Diego Ulissi (Ita) Lampre - ISD 5:31:51
2 Pablo Lastras Garcia (Spa) Movistar Team
3 Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Farnese Vini - Neri Sottoli
4 Jan Bakelants (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:00:04
5 Fabio Taborre (Ita) Acqua & Sapone 0:00:08
6 Eduard Vorganov (Rus) Katusha Team
The big winner on the overall front today was Kanstantin Sivstov. He moves up to 5th on GC.
General classification after stage 17
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard
2 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre - ISD 0:04:58
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:05:45
4 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:07:35
5 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 0:09:12
Thanks for joining us on another controversial day at the Giro d'Italia. While the anticipated fireworks from Nibali on the descent to Tirano never materialised, we still had our share of drama thanks to the duel in the finishing straight. We're back tomorrow with live coverage of stage 18. In the meantime, full results, reports, pictures and news from the Giro will be here on Cyclingnews.