The return of golden boy: Paolo Bettini takes stage and maglia rosa

Sprinters foiled on steep final kilometre to Tropea

Up until today, 2005 hasn't been much of a year for Paolo Bettini. Slowed by several tough bouts of the 'flu in the winter, Bettini didn't have a strong spring classics campaign. But Bettini came out of the back end of the classics in ever-improving form as demonstrated by his 4th place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege two weeks ago. But the Olympic champion had seen the finish in Tropea and explained in his new Maglia Rosa, "I saw the climb the other day and knew it was good for my characteristics as a rider. To say (I can win) is one thing, but to do it is another. So I'm happy because I haven't won yet this year."

With an acceleration on the Rocca Nettuno climb reminiscent of his winning move on the Licabetto climb in the Athens Olympic road race last August, Bettini powered away to a satisfying win for the rider nicknamed "Grillo" (cricket) for his explosive attacks.

Paolo Bettini, who had never won a Giro d'Italia stage, and never worn the Maglia Rosa before, achieved two major career goals with one shot today. Bettini added, "My objective at the Giro was to do well here and so far it's good! My wife and daughter were here today and my team rode very well for me." As for his tactics tomorrow on Stage 2, Bettini was noncommittal, saying, "We'll just have to see what happens. Maybe I won't defend it, but will try to get it back later."

Second place behind Bettini was Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), who showed that he had good legs to hold of Petacchi in the tough finish. "I would have liked to have won but Bettini was too strong," McEwen told Cyclingnews at the finish. "He went away on the steep bit...he just went. Then Petacchi and Cookie followed him and we were just dangling on the wheel. Then he just went another gear and said 'catch this'. He opened up a big lead and I saw that we wouldn't catch him. I went from the last corner and I gapped everyone else. Bettini put everything into winning the jersey, but maybe tomorrow..."

As the gruppo exploded on the difficult final ascent to Tropea. Maglia Rosa Brett Lancaster (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) had a respectable finish in 46th, but the finish was just not suited for the Australian rider who lost 0'14. GC favourites Cunego, Savoldelli, Simoni, Garzelli, Gonchar, Garate and Cioni all finished in the front group, but Basso got caught on the wrong side of the split on the Rocca Nettuno finish and he lost 0'05 on the final climb to Cunego.

After his long day out front in the break of the day, Veneberg (Rabobank) took the Maglia Verde as Best Climber, while his break companion Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) donned the Maglia Azzurra as Intergiro leader. Stage runner-up Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) will swap his Australian champions jersey for the Maglia Ciclamino of Points leadership.

How it unfolded

On a beautiful warm and sunny spring morning, Stage 1 of the 88th Giro d'Italia started in the centro storico of Reggio Calabria at the tip of the Italian boot at 11:55. Once the official start was given to 197 riders at 12:04, the first attack that stuck was by Scarselli (Selle Italia). Clearly in search of the first Maglia Verde of the Giro's best climber, the gruppo let Scarselli go alone. After 20km, Didier Rous (Bouygues Telecom) was the first rider to abandon the 88th Giro (stomach troubles) and now there were 196 riders left. Scarselli was gaining time, which provoked a three man counterattack of Veneberg (Rabobank), Zanini (Quick.Step) and Krauss (Gerolsteiner). They chasers caught Scarselli after 32km in Condofuri Marina at the very tippy-toe of the Italian boot and the average speed after one hour was 41.2km/h. After 51km in Capo Spartivento, the front quartet had gained major time to go over 10'00 as the rest of the gruppo dawdled along the Ionian Sea on a sunny spring day.

As Stage 1 headed north around the Aspromonte National Park, the gruppo began to up the pace and the front four hit the Intergiro in Locri after 92km with 8'00 in hand over the rest of the riders. Second year pro Krauss took the sprint ahead of Zanini, with the average speed now increasing to 43.090 km/h. Twelve kilometres later at the Gioiosa Jonica crossroads, the lead quartet made a left turn and began the 6km climb that would cross the toe of the boot on the Statale Tirenno-Ionico to the Golfo di Gioia and head for the day's GPM in Jonadi, then make the tricky, nervous run-in to Tropea on the Gulf of St.Eufemia. Their lead was now down to 6'30 as Fassa Bortolo and Cofidis upped the pace behind.

As the break had a lead of 4'30 at the feed zone in Rosarno, Cofidis was still up front helping to chase with 60km to go. But as the break began to slow, Veneberg attacked on the climb just outside Mileto 5km before the GPM, with Scarselli chasing close behind, then Zanini and Krauss at 1'00 and the gruppo at 2'00. Veneberg had taken everyone by surprise and hung on to take the KOM, Scarselli cruised over at 0'30, while Zanini and Krauss had been absorbed by the gruppo, 2'24" behind. Liquigas had sent Charly Wegelius and Marco Milesi to the front to aid Fassa Bortolo, Davitamon and Quick.Step in the chase.

Veneberg kept pounding along solo as the chase let him stay out front, but on the looping 15km descent to the port town Vibo Valentia, the group gained ground. With 33km to go, the Rabobanker still had a lead of 2'00. As the 27 year-old hit Vibo Marina along the Gulf of S.Eufemia with 21km to go, he still had 1'45" as his sports director Joop Zoetemelk came alongside to check his rider who had been away for 170km. Lampre-Cafitta had moved up front in the gruppo to aid the pursuit of the Dutch escapee.

On the way to the finish in Tropea, the wide-open coast road allowed the gruppo to spot Veneberg and the solo rider was slowed by headwinds. Finally after 175km, the Rabobank rider was absorbed and it was gruppo compatto as Veneberg went to the back. T-Mobile had sent the huge Schaffrath to the front as the manoeuvres began for the sprint set-up. The finish in Tropea was not great for the pure sprinters, as the last 5km had narrow, twisting roads and the final kilometre had a steep initial pitch of 400m up the hill where the Rocca Nettuno castle dominates the Calabrian seaside village.

Gerolsteiner's sprinter Forster had a rear flat with 12km to go, but the German chased back on after 2km. Bouygues Telecom rider Beneteau then made a solo move, but his suicide attack didn't last long. Maglia Rosa Lancaster was up front by himself among the sprinters teams as Quick.Step, Fassa Bortolo, T-Mobile, Davitamon-Lotto, CSC and Liquigas-Bianchi fighting tooth and nail for position.

With 4km to go, a sharp left hand turn left the wide coast road and onto the old coast road over a narrow bridge and down a descent into Tropea that stretched the gruppo into one long Indian file line where it became almost impossible to change position. Maglia Rosa Lancaster had been joined by his sprinter teammate Grillo up front as the Rocca Nettuno loomed above at the entrance to Tropea. The Fassa train tried to keep control on the front under the 1km kite, but as soon as Bettini saw the steep ramp (510m at 15%), the Quick.Step rider took off like a scared rabbit. As the climb leveled out with 400m to go, Bettini had gained 0'05 and went onto win the stage and conquer his first-ever Giro stage and Maglia Rosa.

Stage 2 - May 9: Catanzaro Lido-Santa Maria Del Cedro, 182km

It's a flat, flat, flat stage from Catanzaro Lido on the instep of the Italian boot up the Tirrenean coastline where the Giro's first big sprint will come down on Santa Maria Del Cedro's Corso Tireno after a 13.7km finishing circuit around the Calabrian coastside town. With McEwen just 0'12 and Petacchi 0'14 out of the Maglia Rosa and Monday's stage perfect a wide-open sprint, the generous time bonuses at the stage finish (20, 12, 8 seconds) could change the race lead in the Giro d'Italia tomorrow.

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