Il Falco flies fastest in Seraing

Today in Seraing, 2005 Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli began his title defence in the best way possible, blitzing the entire field in a short but tough opening stage of the 89th Giro d'Italia. The only rider to go under the eight-minute mark with a time of 7'50, Il Falco's average speed was an incredible 47.489 km/h - eleven seconds faster than his closest rival, Australian prologue specialist Bradley McGee, and thirteen quicker than Phonak's Jose Enrique Gutierrez.

It must have been a déja-vu moment for Savoldelli, who began the 2006 Giro d'Italia as he ended the last edition: wearing the maglia rosa. Seemingly stunned, he explained that "I'm really good at these kind of races, but didn't think I could win today. I went all-out on the climb and then I came into that dangerous last turn too fast and almost crashed. But I kept the bike up and now I'm happy to start the Giro with the maglia rosa, just like I left it last year."

Looking like wearing the maglia rosa until the very, very end, it was a cruel way to face facts for Francaise des Jeux's Bradley McGee, but the 30 year-old Sydneysider admitted the best man won today: "I'm really pleased with that result. It was a bit of a surprise really; I thought it might be closer but there ended up being like four seconds or something like that in it - that's bloody huge. I really surprised myself.

"I'm happy with the ride - and it's not bad considering I put it all together in a week! I went into Romandie expecting to do well but got smashed there, so I just kept it quiet coming into this race and did the preparation. To come out and do this today feels really good," he said.

About holding the course in the small industrial town of Seraing, McGee smiled before answering: "I love what the Italians do with this race; we've already got one Tour de France, so we don't need another one."

The day's surprise packet was fourth-placed Gerolsteiner rider Stefan Schumacher, who held the provisional best time till McGee bettered him near the end, prompting the question: "You're almost as fast as your namesake, but on two wheels?"

Blushed this year's winner of the Circuit de la Sarthe: "Oh, I think he'd be a bit quicker than me in a car on this course! I'm good in chrono, but it's not my speciality. I'm think I'm a guy for the classic races," Schumacher said. "But right now, I'm in good form so I rode well today."

Apart from Savoldelli, the rest of the favourites appeared to be close to optimal condition, setting the scene for a battle royal in the high mountains. Big favourite Ivan Basso was solid in today's opener but looked a clearly disppointed with his 13th place, saying: "Today was a very hard race but it was a good test for me. I feel good and although I though I might go a little bit better, but there is still a lot of racing to go."

Crowd favourite Danilo Di Luca, who has openly declared placing his sole focus on winning this year's Giro, also showed he's nearing top form, the Liquigas leader just scraping into the top ten with an 8'09. Last year's runner-up and 2003 champion Gilberto Simoni wasn't too far off the mark, either, just 26 seconds behind Savoldelli and one place behind 2004 Giro champ Damiano Cunego, the Kid's time of 8'15 fifteenth best on the day.

For better or worse, notable others included the T-Mobile pair of Serguei Gonchar and Michael Rogers (5th and 8th respectively), Illes Balears' Francisco Perez Sanchez and José Ivan Gutierrez Palacios (6th and 7th), American Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel, 12th @ 0'21), Colombian flyweight José Rujano (Selle Italia, 46th @ 0'39), Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank, 76th @ 0'48) and Wim Van Huffel (Davitamon-Lotto, 116th @ 0'58).

"Today was okay," said Danielson. "I wasn't really aiming too much for the time trial, but I've been working on it a bit and I'm pretty happy. We've been working really hard on the climbs and that's where I hope to do well."

Asked whether Discovery has the team to get the job done, he said: "The team's great - like our Tour de France team we've got a strong team here and I'm sure they'll work great. It'll be good to get a solid result here and build on that for the rest of the race."

How it unfolded

On a beautiful spring afternoon, the 89th edition of the Giro d'Italia kicked off in Seraing, Belgium, a gritty working class suburb of Liège of 60,000. The last time the Giro started in Belgium was in Verviers, thirty-three years ago and for the kick-off of the 2006 Giro, the Wallonne region of Belgium was hosting the first four stages of the Giro, as the Italian Grand Tour started for the eighth time outside of Italy.

The first rider off was Czech neo-pro Frantisek Rabon (T-Mobile), who departed at 14:34 but it was local lad Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux) who set the early fast time of 8'29, an average speed of 43.85 km/h. Chechu Rubiera (Discovery Channel) bested Gilbert by five seconds, but suddenly Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre-Fondital) powered across the line in 8'10, a fast average speed of 45.5 km/h. Francisco Perez (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) unseated Bruseghin with a 8'06 as the fastest time began to approach the bar of going under eight minutes. Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile Team) posted a respectable 8'39.

Two months ago, CSC's Bobby Julich won the prologue TT at Paris-Nice and was one of the favorites. But Julich clearly wasn't going all out and finished in 8'35. His team-mate Jens Voigt has a solid ride for 8'15, while Discovery Channel's Jason McCartney had a solid effort for 8'21. Then T-Mobile's Giro leader, big-gear humper Gonchar had a fast start behind Voigt and once on the descent, pounded his 55x11 across the line with the new fastest time of 8'05. Former world TT champ Gonchar explained after his race that "I thought I would ride well here but the course is a little short for me. But it's a good time for me anyway."

The Ukrainian's fast time didn't last long as Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) then blasted across the line in 8'03", an average speed of 46.211 km/hr to take the lead away from Gonchar. Schumacher explained after that "I'm good in TT's but I'm really an all round rider. Right now, I'm in good form so I rode well today".

Wearing dossard #2, Discovery Channel's Tommy Danielson was back at the Giro d'Italia again and was looking to ride well at this year's edition after his frustrating abandon last year from knee problems. Danielson blasted up the climb and posted an excellent time of 8'11. But just behind the American, world TT champ Mick Rogers (T-Mobile) showed off his beautiful rainbow jersey and his beautiful form with a speedy 8'07, but the Aussie was still five seconds behind leader Schumacher.

Rogers former Quick.Step teammate Bettini then came across in 8'32. Bettini didn't want to lose too much time as the Olympic champion's plan is to stay close and get some time bonuses on Stage 2, then win the third stage to Namur and steal the maglia rosa when the Giro returns to Italy. After the stage, Bettini managed to gasp, "I went all out and didn't hold anything back."

Next up was mini-me super-climber José Rujano (Selle Italia-Serrementi Diquigiovanni), who had a respectable time despite his recent return to racing. The tension mounted as raging bull Jose' Gutierrez (Phonak) rode the new fastest time, just besting Schumacher's time.

With the Phonak rider done and dusted, the next Giro danger man up was Française des Jeux's Brad McGee, who won the Giro prologue two years ago in Genova. McGee's health problems have slowed the speedy Sydneysider of late, but today Brad didn't disappoint, coming in fastest at the end of his run with 8'02 (46.402km/h avg. speed).

As the start list got shorter and shorter, it was now the time for the Giro favourites to exit the start house in Seraing. The tension mounted as Liquigas-Bianchi's Danilo Di Luca streaked up the climb with the fastest time of 5'58 but Killer Dani lost some time on the descent to finish in a strong and surprising 8'08. Next Giro favourite up was Gibo Simoni (Saunier Duval), who was fast up the climb and then bombed the descent and finished with an 8'16. Simoni said afterwards that "it was a good ride for me... I knew I had to go all out and so I'm happy where I finished."

Many tipped Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), resplendent in his Spanish TT champion's jersey to be a real threat. Gutierrez was close but no cigar with his 8'06". Next to finish was 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital), who posted an 8'16". "It was a short fast prologue and in a race like this, it's hard to make the difference so all the favourites are pretty close."

Sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) bested Bettini by seven seconds with his 8'25, an excellent time for the big sprinter. CSC's Ivan Basso looked deceptively slow on the climb and in fact was slow on the speedy course, losing four seconds to Di Luca as he finished in 8'13, but was still ahead of Simoni and Cunego in the overall standings.

McGee was still in the lead, sitting in the Giro hot-seat, but now it was the turn of the only man who could still beat the Aussie, the rider with dossard #1, defending Giro d'Italia champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel). Despite his recent stomach problems that forced him to abandon the Tour of Romandie, Savoldelli threw it down from the get-go, with the fastest splits all the way around the 6.2km course to cross the line with the incredible time of 7'50, 11 seconds faster than McGee at an average speed of 47.489 km/h.

With Di Luca at 0'19, Basso at 0'23, Cunego at 0'25 and Simoni at 0'26, Savoldelli has at least gained a small psychological edge over his key rivals at this year's Giro d'Italia with his dramatic win in today's ITT. Can Savoldelli keep his maglia rosa until Thursday's Stage 5, when his powerful Discovery Channel squad take on the 38km team time trial?

The Discovery Channel rider is 35 seconds ahead of sprinter Petacchi and 0'42 up on Bettini. Each stage has time bonuses with time bonuses at the finish of 20, 12 and 8 seconds and intermediate bonuses of 6, 4 and 2 seconds,. Theoretically, Savoldelli could keep the maglia rosa, but Discovery Channel may choose not defend the precious pink tunic. One thing is certain though after today's opening stage: the baby-faced rider is more than ever a strong contender to win his third Giro title.

Sunday May 7 - Stage 2: Mons - Charleroi/Marcinelle, 203 km

A fast, flat stage for the sprinters from Mons to the grimy industrial burg of Charleroi, with a wide open last 2km on Avenue E.Mascaux that should be perfect for Ale-Jet Petacchi and Rockin' Robbie McEwen to fight it out for the victory.

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