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Hello and welcome back to the Giro d'Italia. Today's stage nine from San Giorgio del Sannio to Frosinone is a short one with only 166 kilometres on the menu, taking place on flat roads perfect for a bunch sprint.
The stage is starting in this very minute. Unfortunately, the weather in southern Italy is not very inviting at the moment, as it's raining at about 14°C. As the stage will unfold, however, we might see some improvement. Hopefully the roads will be dry later on in Frosinone, especially as this stage is bound to finish in a bunch gallop.
This should be a perfect opportunity for the sprinters to battle it out once again before the race moves into the mountains next week-end. But even if the stage profile looks almost flat, there will be a couple of bumps in the finale that might provide some surprises. In any case, breakaways are bound to happen...
San Giorgio del Sannio is the southernmost point of this year's Giro, located east of Naples in the Province of Benevento. From here, the peloton will be travelling up the big boot of Italy again, gradually moving north throughout this week for what will be the race's great finale in the Alps as of next week-end.
Today's stage is pretty straightforward. After 96km, the field will enter the feed zone in San Cataldo. There is only one intermediate sprint, at km 142 in Ceprano (which is only 24km away from the finish).
There are no KOM points today, so Miguel Angel Rubiano (Androni Giocattoli) will keep his best climber's jersey tonight and has nothing to worry about during the stage.
Overall leader Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) should also be on the safe side as his team will protect him from any harm, and a bunch sprint finish is widely expected.
Garmin-Barracuda's chiropractor Matt Rabin told Cylcingnews that the change of weather will have quite an impact on th riders, especially since they've had only very little rest in the race so far, with a first rest day replaced by a transfer from Denmark to Italy early in the event.
There are 191 riders left in the race. Rabobank's Dennis Van Winden, who crashed in the opening week, did not finish yesterday's stage, while RadioShack's Daniele Bennati pulled out before Sunday's stage.
It's a fast start and so far Radio Corsa has not given any information about breakaway attempts. the peloton is racing over wide straight roads.
Finally, a trio of riders has gotten away: Pierre Cazaux (Euskaltel), Brian Bulgac (Lotto-Belisol) and Martijn Keizer (Vacansoleil). They have build up a 3'30" lead over the bunch, which lets them get up the road.
Radio Corsa was apprently delayed as the escape formed already after 13 kilometres. Good we have the information now!
After 36 kilometres of racing, the escape group has an advantage of 4'10".
Looks like they're up for a long day in the saddle...
Bulgac and Keizer have already been on the attack in this Giro. Bulgac has been up the road for 180 kilometres in stage five, and Keizer did 157 kilometres in front in stage three.
But the bunch is not letting them go very far. The first hour of racing is over, and was ridden at 47.8km/h, very fast. The gap has already dropped to 3'16" after about 50 kilometres.
This stage finish in Frosinone has appeared in the Giro before, last time in 2005. Seven years ago however, the finish line was located three kilometres sooner, at the end of the descent of the last little hill. The stage was won by Luca Mazzanti after Paolo Bettini was relegated to last place following an irregular sprint that forced Baden Cooke into the barriers.
The last climb, however, saw several favourites finish in the second peloton, 43 seconds down, including Marzio Bruseghin, Vladimir Karpets, José Rujano, Juan Manuel Garate, Samuel Sanchez, Sandy Casar, Sylvester Szmyd and Paolo Savoldelli, who won the 2005 Giro overall. This year, the finish is located further away and will therefore provide more space and time for the peloton to regroup, if ever it splits up.
Unfortunately, it's currently raining on the percorso. We can only hope conditions will get better towards the finish, but Italian weather forecast is indicating a high risk of showers for Frosinone in the afternoon, too.
If ever it rains in the finish, this could have an important impact on the finale. There is a last little climb at 6 percent gradient, which is not very long (1.2kms) with five clicks to go, but it features a technical descent into Frosinone. Wet roads will make the riders cautious - and perhaps some others will jump at the opportunity to prevent the expected bunch sprint.
The rain has ceased. Let's hope it stays dry.
So, if it comes down to a bunch sprint, who will be the main contenders? A number of sprinters have already abandoned, like Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda), Thor Hushovd (BMC) and Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil). The remaining fast men will do everything they can to hold the field together before the finish line, especially British team Sky.
World champion Cavendish, with two stage wins already on his account, will be eager to demonstrate his domination once again today.
Cav's greatest rival still on the race is former teammate Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), who's already won a stage at the race, too. Another fast man to watch is South African Robert Hunter (Garmin), who wans't far off in the sprints in Denmark, either.
The race is still fast, averaging 46km/h. The trio's advantage has remained the same, just over three minutes, as there are 92 kilometres to go.
Sky, Orica-GreenEdge and FDJ are sharing the burden of the chase at the front of the bunch. They have let the leash a bit looser now as the gap has grown to 3'40".
FDJ is working for their sprinter Arnaud Démare. It's his first Grand Tour at 20 years, but the 2011 U23 world champ has already shown he can be there with the world class sprinters as he placed fourth in stage three in Denmark. He's remained humble and insists that he's only at the Giro to learn, but given an opportunity, the FDJ rider won't hesitate to take it.
The whole stage is taking place on wide, two-lane roads, which undulate nicely through the Italian countryside. The peloton is strung out but the pace has settled somewhat. There are some rocky hills on each side of the road but the bunch is driving through the valley.
Cazaux, Bulgac and Keizer are taking turns nicely, but must realize they probably won't last very much further than the intermediate sprint at km 166.
In the bunch, a second lead-out train has formed with Liquigas protecting Ivan Basso.
At the back of the bunch, Theo Bos (Rabobank) is stretching his right thigh by putting his upper foot on the saddle. He, too, could take advantage of a bunch sprint in Frosinone.
They are passing by an WW2 cemetary and memorial site, before riding under a huge suspended pipeline. No more rain at the moment, fortunately, but temperatures are still fresh at about 15°C.
The escape group has reached the feed zone in San Cataldo, while pink jersey Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) is chasing back onto the bunch after trying to tear out the sleeve of his rain jacket of Jack Baur's back wheel brake... Hesjedal must have given the jacket to Baur when the sleeve got entangled in the brake. Baur had to stop to fix the problem.
Time to eat and fill up the batteries. Despite the lunch, the gap to the breakaway has come down a little from almost four minutes to 3'13". 63 kilometres to go.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago), yesterday's stage winner, has a problem with his rear wheel and is now being towed back to the bunch by three teammates.
The small climber is still in the run for general classification, 13th at 55 seconds of Hesjedal. All in all, the top GC contenders are all still within seconds of the overall lead and the race for the final pink jersey is still very open.
The peloton is now passing close to the Abbey of Montecassino, which gave its name to the devastating battle between the Allies and the Italians and Germans during WW2.
The break's advantage has shrunk further, now at 2'27". The bunch is riding at 45 km/h average. Everybody is preparing for a bunch sprint... or a late attack on one of the small climbs within the last 15 kilometres? We shall see.
Lots of riders in the bunch are still munching away at their energy bars, including Fränk Schleck (RadioShack). With 50 kms to go and the break only at 2'30", the riders are taking it a bit easier right now.
As already said, the last time a Giro stage ended in Frosinone, Australian Baden Cooke crashed hard as Paolo Bettini, then wearing the pink jersey, forced him into the barriers and was subsequently relegated. At the time, Cooke made some colourful comments to Cyclingnews...
The sun has come out! What a relief. It doesn't look like it will rain again, and roads will be dry at the finish.
The gap is under two minutes now as there are 42 kilometres to go. Perfect timing for the bunch.
The peloton is takign up the whole two-lane road on its way to catch the break, now a mere 1'05" up the road. Sky, Orica and FDJ are still the main drivers of the bunch but Lampre and Liquigas have also moved up to protect their leaders from any harm.
If the chase continues at this speed, it's not even certain the break will last until the intermediate sprint with 24 kms to go.
In the points classification Matt Goss (Orica) still leads Mark Cavendish (Sky) with 65 over 55 points.
The break is breaking up. Keizer has decided to attack and has dropped his companions. He has 40 seconds over the bunch.
The Dutchman is putting on a good performance, he's opened up a good gap over his two former breakaway mates. Still, with the bunch at only 50 seconds, his stunt may only save his honour but not provide him with the victory.
Bulgac and Cazaux have been caught.
Keizer took the points at the intermediate sprint, followed by Cavendish and Thomas De Gendt.
Keizer will be caught soon, he's got only 20 seconds left.
The pace is really picking up now as the sprinters teams keep it together for a bunch gallop.
A Movistar rider has lost contact at the back of the bunch and is being helped in the chase by a teammate.
Keizer has been caught.
Dennis Vandenert (Lotto) attacks just before the 10km-banner. This must be the first of the last two little hills. He powers down the descent.
But the peloton leaves him no chance.
It's all together. Let's see what happens on the final hill but the way this stage goes, we don't see an attack going clear.
Rabottini (Franese) tries his luck on the uphill. He can't get away significantly but a few other riders have gone, too. It's Joaquim Rodriguez!
He has a teammate with him, Vicioso we think.
Rodriguez now leads on his own as the road is uphill, again. He's got eight seconds.
He's caught. But Fabio Felline is next to attack.
But the sprinters teams catch the Italian, too.
Time for the sprint. Orica leads the bunch out.
Crash in the last curve! Goss is down, Cavedish too
Ventoso takes the win. That last curve was too tight.
All crashed riders get back up. A doctor is there.
The replay shows Goss crashes hard on his elbow, while Cavendish was able to brake down the impact into the barriers.
Felline second, Nizzolo third. Movistar is celebrating while we can be sure there will be comments about the sense of this tight curve with only 300m to go.
Thanks for having joined us again today, look out for tomorrow's Live coverage of stage 10, a medium mountain stage bound to feature more exciting racing. Ciao, a domani!