Three hundred metres out, victory seemed within striking distance. But as the road kicked up again toward the finish, the pink Arrivo banner seemed to hover tantalisingly out of reach, and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) was left grappling for Francisco Ventoso's coattails at the end of stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia.
In the final 50 metres, an exhausted Petacchi realized his Spanish rival was best today and all but freewheeled to the finish. Upon crossing the line, the big Italian unclipped immediately and stretched out his calves, before sitting against a crash barrier on the roadside to undo his shoes.
For over a minute, Petacchi was unable to do anything other than pant at the phalanx of microphones proffered to him, the exertions of the uphill sprint having taken their toll. When he managed to compose himself, he found himself in a position normally alien to the sprinting fraternity as he expressed his pride at his second-place finish.
"After 10km of climbing, even if it was manageable, for me to do a sprint like that in a place like this was very difficult," Petacchi said between deep breaths.
The pace was high during the steadily rising run-in to Fiuggi, and most of Petacchi's usual sprint rivals were eliminated from contention. However, as he had already shown in the Tour of Turkey, a spell of altitude training with Michele Scarponi ahead of the race had clearly worked wonders for his climbing.
Nonetheless, in the final 500 metres, the gradient pitched up a notch or two more, and Petacchi was forced to make two mammoth efforts, first to shut down the sprint of Danilo Di Luca and then to respond to Ventoso.
"They didn't succeed in dropping me before the finishing straight," he said. "Then Di Luca went very hard and I took Bozic's wheel. I thought he was the man to beat as he still had teammates up there. I let Ventoso come past initially as I had already made the effort to follow Di Luca, but then I went."
Although he succeeded in closing down Ventoso at first, Petacchi found that he had nothing but lactic acid left in his legs for the closing metres. He explained that the light climb ahead of the finishing straight had drained more from his reservoir than from Ventoso's.
"Ventoso always had a little bit more," he said. "On the climb he probably used up less energy."
When pressed about why he had launched his sprint from so far out, given the severity of the finish, Petacchi explained that had he slowed down in the finale, he would never have succeeded in getting his big gear going again.
"If you wait in a finish like that, you risk slowing down too much and not being able to get going again," he said. "When I chased Ventoso down, I was hoping that he would slow down, but in the last 30-40 metres, I understood that I wouldn't be able to catch him.
"That said, I'm very happy with my result today. I honestly didn't expect to do the sprint today, so I think I've done something quite different than normal."
With bunch finishes at a premium, sprinters have to make their own opportunities in this Giro d'Italia. Petacchi may have fallen short in Fiuggi, but to his mind, railing against those odds was already a victory of sorts.
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.