Big Bird Lancaster soars to Giro prologue win

Italian poet, daredevil and WWI hero Gabriele D'Annunzio called the Lungomare Italo Falcomata' in Reggio Calabria "the most beautiful kilometre in Italy". For the thousands of spectators who came to see the evening's 1.15km prologue on the Lungomare along the Straits of Messina, with the looming profile of Monte Etna across the Straits in Sicily disappearing in the twilight, the bright lights and spectacle of the 88th Giro, the road along the front in Reggio Calabria offered a beautiful, festive atmosphere. But for the 197 riders who took the start at 18:45, the most beautiful kilometre was a difficult way to start the first ever Grand Tour of the ProTour. Planned for prime-time TV in Italy, the best riders went off after 21:30 under the floodlights and the palm trees along the seafront in Reggio Calabria.

For the second year in a row, an Australian kangaroo leaped into the Maglia Rosa at the Giro d'Italia prologue, as two-time world champion and reigning Olympic team pursuit champion Brett Lancaster (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) powered home to victory in the 1.15km drag race prologue for his third win as a professional cyclist. Nicknamed "Big Bird" and of course "Burt", Lancaster was the only rider to go under 1'21, and the superb ride by the 25 year-old speed merchant from Shepparton, Victoria, near Melbourne, was ridden at an average speed of 51.75 km/h. Lancaster finished just 29 hundredths of a second ahead of Fassa Bortolo rider Matteo Tosatto, with Alessandro Petacchi rounding out the Giro d'Italia prologue podium in third, only 72 hundredths behind Lancaster.

Cyclingnews spoke to Lancaster just after he had crossed the line with the new best time. "Yeah it was pretty good," he said in his dry, laconic drawl. "I might have to wait a while, there may be a few going a bit quicker." We asked him about his gear selection, and he explained, "I had the 15 from the start, then I clicked it down a bit. I don't really know what I went to. Felt good though."

Unlike his compatriot Stuart O'Grady, Lancaster didn't use a single speed bike. "I did give it a bit of thought, but it was a bit hard," he said. "This bike's pretty good. I started full on, made tempo in the middle, and brought it home."

Afterwards, Lancaster was blown away by what he'd done when we spoke to him. "It's pretty incredible," he said. "I don't think it's hit home yet. It was very nervous waiting for the last half a dozen riders to go. With those last few off, there were some really good riders, especially O'Grady. It just shows that now I'm full on road racing and left the track behind, I've had some good results this year. No wins, but this is a pretty good one to start with."

On his chances of retaining the jersey in tomorrow's stage, Lancaster replied, "I was just talking to a few of the guys and they reckon it might not even be a sprint finish. I'll just see what I can do."

Discovery Channel's GC main man Paolo Savoldelli was a surprising 4th in the Giro's Reggio Calabria prologue, finishing ahead of many top sprinters and prologue specialists like Pollack, O'Grady, Renshaw, Escobar and Wiggins on his 32nd birthday. "Il Falco" Savoldelli gained a few precious seconds on Giro favourites like defending champion Cunego and two time Giro winner Simoni (Lampre-Cafitta), Ivan Basso (CSC) and Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi). A smiling Savoldelli said after the finish that, "Today's result won't make the difference in the Giro, but it's good for the morale."

Giro 2005 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Cafitta) was happy after his decent 22nd place today, just 0.04 behind Lancaster. Cunego knows that today wasn't really his kind of race, explaining afterwards that, "It won't be easy for me to win the Giro again. Today was a nice prologue but the short distance wasn't easy! Tomorrow will start the real Giro d'Italia."

Cunego's teammate and winner of the Giro d'Italia in 2001 and '03, Gilberto Simoni joked after the short race today, "The prologue seemed like it would never end!...but it's over anyway!" Simoni finished 0'04 slower than Cunego. Another major player in this year's Giro, Ivan Basso (CSC), had a respectable ride for 53rd; in his first Giro in five years, Basso has prepared meticulously for the Giro and is off to a good start. Another Giro challenger, Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi) was 51st, just 0'02 behind Cunego. The likeable rider from Varese was relieved to get the prologue over, saying afterwards, "This race was hard..a new experience for me!"

Although he wasn't an official competitor tonight, last man off in the 88th Giro d'Italia Prologue in Reggio Calabria was Mario Cipollini, who rode the 1150m on the Lungomare Falcomata' not for time, but for heart. He was clad in a pink and silver glow-in-the-dark bodysuit with his record 42 Giro stage wins printed on the side and the slogan "Sweet Years" on the shoulders. Cipo rode the prologue today not as a competitor but as a symbol of Italian cycling and to provide an addio (goodbye) to his fans worldwide. An emotional yet eloquent Cipollini explained, "Behind these last thousand meters of a career is my whole life. It's difficult to end my career, but everything comes to an end. The affection of the fans is my last victory."

How it unfolded

The 1150m Lungomare Italo Falcomata' is flat as a billiard table, so the only real difficulty Saturday night besides combating the lactic acid build-up that makes the riders legs feel like lead after 800m at full gas, was the 10 km/h crosswind blowing in from the Straits of Messina. Little known French pro Rony Martias (Bouygues Telecom) from Guadeloupe, who went off 41st at 19:28 had the best early fast time of 1'23" (49.879 km/h avg), and maintained the lead as virtual Maglia Rosa until 20:48 when Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo), nicknamed "il muratore di Castefranco", blasted past Martias into the lead with a 1'21.247 to become virtual Maglia Rosa. Tosatto, the first rider to beat 50 km/h average, kept his lead until race favourite Brett Lancaster (Ceramiche Panaria-Panaria) came through with 1'20.958, just three hundredths of a second ahead of Tosatto to become the new virtual Maglia Rosa.

Next up was 2004 Olympic pursuit champ Brad Wiggins (Credit Agricole), but the Brit couldn't touch Lancaster's time. Touted as the world's fastest sprinter, Alessandro Petacchi got within a second of Lancaster, but despite failing to take the Maglia Rosa Saturday, the practically unbeatable Petacchi looks good to take over the precious pink tunic Sunday with time bonuses.

Five years ago, Mark Renshaw (Francaise des Jeux) was Junior World Kilo champ in Italy and despite recent saddle sores, the young Aussie kicked well to post a 1'22.853, which was good for 8th. Next threat to Lancaster was Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis), who was riding a track bike with a 53x14 fixed gear, but Stuey came up a little short and only had enough for sixth. Once the final three riders started, it was clear that Australian Brett Lancaster would come up the winner of the first Maglia Rosa at the 88th Giro d'Italia.

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