Piepoli's big day out

Confirmation for Basso, consternation for rivals

Hooking up with the maglia rosa is rarely a bad thing. So when Leonardo Piepoli locked himself onto Ivan Basso's wheel on the steep slopes of the Colle San Carlo, leaving everyone else behind on a bruttissimo first day in the high mountains, the 34 year-old veteran Italian was destined to take his greatest stage victory ever. As the two crested the summit, Basso took caution to the wind - but the Saunier Duval man threw away the key and bombed the descent, finishing 44 seconds in front with his fists pumped in delight.

"I'm really happy to win and especially to be able to dedicate this victory to the memory of a friend, Diego Pellegrini who died thirteen years ago in a crash on the descent of Colle Sancarlo.

"[Gilberto] Simoni told me this morning that if I had the legs to win, to go - he said, 'If you feel it, go for it' - and that's what I did," said Piepoli, originally Swiss-born but now residing in Monte Carlo.

Asked about the time last Sunday, when he also had an opportunity to win on the ascent of the Maielletta but instead chose to stay with Simoni, he said: "No, it's not my problem - my job is to help Simoni, and I'm happy about what I do.

"In this Giro, I'm here to help Simoni, so now in the next stages, including the Plan de Corones, I will help Simoni to reach the highest position possible on general classification. For the [final] podium, I see Basso, Simoni and Savoldelli; Savoldelli, it seems he's not good but he always comes back."

For the rest, it was a case of minimising their ever-increasing losses to what appears to be an unbeatable, unstoppable Basso. Phonak's José Gutierrez Cataluna and Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) were the next pair into La Thuile, 1 minute and 19 seconds behind Piepoli, the former consolidating his second spot on GC and the latter jumping six places to fifth overall. The next couple, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Michele Scarponi (Liberty Seguros-Würth Team), finished another minute behind but also improved their position at the head of the classifica generale, now sixth and 23rd respectively.

Said Basso: "I'm really happy about how things went today; I had very good legs, so I decided to make the race. On the descent, I didn't want to risk crashing, so I rode my own pace."

But Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) and defending champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), who lost over two and a half minutes, are making their task of a podium finish in Milano more difficult giorno per giorno (day by day). If it wasn't for his famed descending skills, it would have been a further forty seconds, and with four uphill finishes next week, it appears 'Il Falco's' wings will be clipped short and hung out to dry.

The dominance and style by Basso so far is said to resemble the beginning of the Indurain era, but given his strength shown in the chrono and mountains - not forgetting the 'Classic Lance' manoeuvre last Sunday on the Maielletta - it is more akin to the latest of the greatest: Lance Armstrong.

"It's still not over; let's wait until next Saturday to talk about general classification. Today, I rode well, but there are a lot of mountains to come, and we all know the big mountains can create big gaps," Basso said.

How it unfolded

176 riders started Stage 13 under a warm, sunny sky at 11:47 in Alessandria's spacious Piazza Garabaldi, and non-starters were Australians Robbie McEwen and Mick Rogers, plus Marcos Serrano. The good news was that it was 25 degrees in Alessandria and the bad news was that it was 5 degrees and raining at the finish in La Thuile. The start was superfast with constant attacking in the first three hours but CSC covered everything. The first hour across the flat plains of Piemonte, where Italy's famous riso carnaroli superfino is grown, the gruppo compatto covered a speedy 53.2 kilometres. Finally near Lago di Viverone after 87 km, a six man group including Poilvet, Bruseghin, Serpa, Bonnaire, Julia Cegarra and Knees got away.

At the 110 Gazzetta intermediate sprint after 103 km in Ivrea, the break had a lead of 2'28 as Poilvet took the sprint. The road began to climb slightly as it entered the Val d'Aosta along the turbulent Dora Baltea river. At Pont St.Martin, the break had gained another two minutes to 4'30 with 97 km to go. Grey, threatening skies swirled above as first raindrops began halfway up Val d'Aosta in Chatillion. After three hours of racing, almost 150 km was covered at the average speed of 46.6 km/h. The wind had switched to a headwind which slowed the break. CSC was riding the tempo in the gruppo maglia rosa where Stage 9 winner Tomas Vaitkus abandoned. As the riders took time to put on rain jackets, it was 15 degrees in the valley, while atop the climb, it was 3 degrees with mixed rain and snow.

With 50 km to go in Villefranche, Saunier Duval had hit the front for Gibo Simoni and Liquigas-Bianchi joined them in the chase. By the 30 km to go point in Arvier, the break's lead had dropped to 2'51 as they passed the monument dedicated to Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour de France in 1903. Born in Arvier, Garin won Paris-Roubaix twice with an Italian passport before he changed his citizenship and became a Frenchman. Liquigas-Bianchi was still on the front under the cold rain and 12 km later in Morgex, as the break turned left on the bridge over the raging Dora Baltea river and headed up the valley of Piccolo San Bernardo, it had come back to a minute.

Just as on Stage 8, Bruseghin started the forcing immediately as the tough 10.5 km climb began and only Serpa could hold his wheel. In the gruppo maglia rosa 0'45 behind, it was Liquigas-Bianchi's Spezialetti on the front. CSC took control immediately, sending Cuesta to the front to ride a hard tempo just ahead of Basso, and the remains of the break were caught on the first ramps. As the group exploded, former maglia rosa Gonchar dropped immediately, suffering from his sore back. Bruseghin and Serpa were already in sight of gruppo maglia rosa after 1.5 km of the ascent and José Rujano then moved up to attack.

Up front, Serpa dropped Bruseghin while Rujano made his move. The Selle Italia super squirrel passed Bruseghin, went after his teammate Serpa, and caught him as Selle Italia boss Gianni Savio's plan was unfolding. Behind, there were still 15 riders left in gruppo maglia rosa, while Lele Sella dropped off the pace, still tired from being in Friday's break and his two crashes. CSC's Cuesta was on the front, and Savoldelli was in trouble after 2 km. Pedaling in a small gear as the CSC train rode away, Savoldelli caught Danielson, who was there to help his leader.

Rujano had attacked too early and was caught after 2.5 km as Cunego and Di Luca came off the back. Basso had hit the front and with 15 km to go, the maglia rosa decided to play his cards. On the 15% gradient after 3.5 km, Basso accelerated and Phonak's raging bull Gutierrez Cataluna just couldn't hold his wheel. Only Simoni's teammate Piepoli could get across to Basso and this duo began to gain time on the others. With 2 km to the summit of the tough Colle San Carlo ascent, Basso and Piepoli were riding away from the others under a cold rain, with Simoni at 1'15, Gutierrez Cataluna at 1'20, Scarponi and Perez Cuapio at 1'50, tough cyclocross rider John Gadret and Pellizotti at 1'55, Belli and Rujano at 2'00, Cunego and Caruso at 2'05, while Savoldelli and Di Luca were almost 3'00 behind.

At the summit, with 6.5 km to the finish in La Thuile, it was Piepoli who crossed first as the duo scaled the 10.5 km ascent in 33'51. 1'25 behind, Gutierrez Cataluna was trying to drop Simoni, who tenaciously followed his wheel towards the descent. Scarponi and Perez Cuapio crossed 2'05 behind the maglia rosa, with Belli and Pellizotti at 2'25, Cunego and Perez at 2'40, while Savoldelli and Di Luca were at 3'10. Over the top, Piepoli attacked immediately while Basso was taking no chances and was super cautious on the steep, slippery, twisting descent to La Thuile.

On the descent, with about 3 km to go until the end, Rujano suddenly climbed off and abandoned. It's still unclear exactly what happened the Venezuelan. His team director Gianni Savio said, "Yes, Rujano abandoned about 3km from the top of Colle Sancarlo [on the descent]. He said he was frozen and couldn't move, that he felt bad and his stomach hurt. Rujano was with Belli for a while and then disappeared. So I'm very suprised what happened."

Halfway down the descent with 4 km to go, Piepoli had a 0'40 lead on Basso, while Cunego was coming up fast with some crazy descending on the wet roads. As the road flattened out near the bottom, Basso went all out, with raging bull Gutierrez Cataluna and Simoni chasing hard to pick up time. At the finish in La Thuile, the 34 year-old Piepoli took his 28th career win 0'44 ahead of Basso, who hammered home solo. Guti and Simoni were at 1'19, and then Scarponi took the sprint from a group of four including Pellizotti, Gadret and Perez Cuapio at 2'09.

Next in was a quintet of Cunego, Savoldelli, Belli and Caruso at 2'45; the Discovery Channel rider had lived up to his nickname of il Falco (the falcon) as he swooped down the wet twisty decent 30 seconds faster than Cunego & Co. Di Luca and Tom Danielson came in at 3'30 as Basso further solidified his grip on the maglia rosa. Phonak phenom Gutierrez Cataluna is now the only rider within striking distance of Basso, while Savoldelli managed to hang on to third at 5'30. Belli and Simoni are respectively 7'35 and 8'00 behind and hope to maintain their GC positions over the next week, while ever-improving Pellizotti is looking to move closer to the podium. Danielson is having a good, consistent race supporting Savoldelli, while Cunego (8'58) and especially 2005 ProTour champ Di Luca (10'36) are now out of the running after an unlucky Stage 13.

Stage 14 - Sunday, May 21: Aosta-Domodossola, 223 km

A transitional mountain stage that starts in Aosta, climbs up the Gran San Bernardo, descends to Switzerland, climbs up Passo Sempione and descends back into Italy for the finish in Domodossola. This stage may be a sleeper, as the long climb up Passo Sempione could create a selection in the gruppo.

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