Triumph over tragedy; Sprinter's Round 1: Victory McEwen

On August 8, 1956, Marcinelle was the scene for a tragic mine accident that took the lives of 262 workers. But 50 years on, one could only find triumph in this suburb on the outskirts of Charleroi, as Davitamon-Lotto's pocket-rocket Robbie McEwen won the first round of the battle between the sprinters - and in convincing fashion.

"This win is obviously very important for me because it's in the Giro; it's not just the Giro but the Giro in Belgium, which is very important for our sponsors," said a beaming McEwen. "But it's again more confirmation after Romandie last week that I'm going in the right direction and I seem to be fully recovered from my rib injury I suffered in March."

"Any sprint you win is perfect," he said. "The lead out was perfect - I was able to follow the Milram train for the last five kilometres but I knew there were lots of roundabouts all in a row, so I was able to ride a good position and stay on the wheel of Petacchi.

"It was just in the last 200 metres that it became a bit more complicated. When Alessandro swung around and saw me on his wheel, I think that made him a little uncertain that he wanted to ride a tactical sprint instead of just blasting off like he often does from 200 [metres to go]."

After what looked to be a perfect lead-out by his Milram boys - still four strong at the front with one and a half kilometres remaining - Ale-Jet Petacchi just didn't have the legs to prevent T-Mobile's Olaf Pollack from preempting his own move. McEwen wasted no time in grabbing Pollack's wheel before powering past on the inside, winning by more than a bike length from the fast-finishing German. Third place went to Quick.Step-Innergetic's jumpy cricket Paolo Bettini, while a disappointed Petacchi rolled in for fourth.

"I'm very satisfied," said Pollack. "The finale was pretty hectic. Graeme Browne took risks at a roundabout three kilometres before the finish, which caused three riders to crash. This also opened a gap for me, which I used right away."

Bettini said he proved himself today. "They explained the stage to me and I knew that it was for pure sprinters, but when the road is slightly uphill I always want to mingle. With the third place, I even recovered a little time lost yesterday. Was there a risk? Yes, a little, but that's normal; it was a calm stage, with a well-controlled break, so everybody wanted to be in front in the finale. Plus, it was the first stage so it was normal that there was some tension. I'm sure it won't be as crowded tomorrow, when we climb the citadel of Namur - I'm going to go all out for the stage win."

Said McEwen on Petacchi: "He waited very long and didn't start when Pollack started - so he then had to gain some free space and I could just go through between him and Brown because he went from the front, away to the right and I was able to get through a very small gap and open my sprint for real.

"I think I'm maybe the only rider who can force Alessandro to make small mistakes and try and change his tactics," he mused.

"He also realises I change my tactics in every sprint, but I know that Alessandro is one of the strongest and always hard to beat. Of course, I do fear him and his train when it comes to just the sprint itself, but I focus on my own tactics and look at him like any of the others.

"It's also about experience as a sprinter - this is my eleventh year as a professional, and having always been a sprinter and sprinting in that way, all that experience keeps building; when I'm in a position like I was today, eight times out of ten I can make the right decision. But to be a good decision maker you also have to have good legs."

Petacchi was of course disappointed with fourth place, but resigned himself to the fact. "Sprints are like that - sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. They waited for me in the last metres but I couldn't finish my sprint like I wanted to. I took a risk, I didn't go at 200 metres because the road went uphill and we were at 50 km/h. I had McEwen on my wheel and if I had jumped I would have led him out in the sprint. On top of that, I suffer at low-speed sprints. I thank my teammates who worked so well for me, but unfortunately the ascent of the road did notmake it possible to sprint at the speed I prefer. But my condition is really good. There will be other occasions."

Apart from McEwen igniting the sprinters' bagarre, the stage was relatively uneventful. 23 kilometres after leaving Mons, a breakaway containing Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia), Mickael Delage (Française des Jeux), Beñat Albizuri (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Arnaud Labbe (Bouygues Telecom) set the scene for much of the gloomy day's proceedings. Unsurprisingly, it amounted to exactly nothing 155 kilometres later, other than the four finding themselves back in the peloton 19 kilometres from the finish.

From that point on, no-one was able to break the grip of the sprinters' teams as a showdown on Marcinelle's Avenue Eugène Mascaux became the inevitable conclusion, and with a slight uphill finish, Robbie McEwen the inevitable winner. Heading into tomorrow's third stage from Perwez to Namur, maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli maintains his eleven second advantage over Francaise des Jeux's Bradley McGee.

How it unfolded

After a spell of super spring weather in Belgium, Sunday dawned wet and cool in the Wallonne region for the second of four stages of the 89th Giro d'Italia. But the wet weather couldn't put a damper on 2005 Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli's 33rd birthday, as the Discovery Channel rider from Bergamo was starting in the maglia rosa he won yesterday. After a bite of birthday cake, Savoldelli and the other 197 riders started out six minutes late from Mons on the long loop to Charleroi-Marcinelle at 12:31.

Key points were the 110 Gazzetta at Morlanwelz after 98.4km and a GPM at Silenrieux after 144 km. After 23km on the outskirts of Mons, four riders managed to escape after an initial flurry of attacks, with Mickael Delage (Française des Jeux), Arnaud Labbe (Bouygues Telecom), Moises Aldape (Panaria) and Illiano (Selle Italia) off the front. But after 1km away, Aldape and Illiano crashed out of the break on the wet roads, but Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia) and Benat Albizuri (Euskaltel-Euskadi) then came across to form another quartet.

The rain eventually tapered after about an hour of racing, but continued on and off. After 55km in Rebecq, Missaglia took a cash prime and after 65km, the quartet had gained a lead of 6'18 outside of the village of Tubize at the day's northernmost point, but Discovery Channel moved to the front to ride a steady tempo along with some Davitamon riders. in In 60th place at 43 seconds at the start of the day, Missaglia became the virtual maglia rosa.

After 81km, Albizuri took another cash prime in Ardennes with the gruppo cruising 6'00 behind, with the first 84km covered at an average of just over 39 km/h. Just outside this tiny Walloon village, the break was stopped by a train passing at a level crossing and lost about 1'30 to the chasing gruppo. With 88km to go in Ressaix, the gap was 4'35 and at the "110 Gazzetta" intermediate sprint, Delage bested Albiziru and Missaglia.

After the sprint, the percorso headed southwest along the French border to the feed zone in Merbes-le-Chateaux with 80km left to race; rain showers had picked up again, with the break still working well together and keeping a lead of four and a half minutes on the peloton.

After three hours of racing, the average speed was 39,8 Km/h and the leaders gap was just 3' with 60km to go as Discovery Channel had now left the moderate chase pace to the sprinters teams Milram and Davitamon. At the GPM at Silenrieux after 144km with 52km left to race, big Arnie Labbe took the points atop the gentle rise and would don the maglia verde of best climber after the stage.

The rain had stopped again and gruppo was still riding at a moderate pace, passing the GPM 2'32 ahead of Roberto Laiseka (Euskaltel) who had jumped away looking for KOM points that weren't there. The two groups traversed the wide open farmlands in the deep south of Belgium, soon to make the turn back north towards Charleroi.

With 40km to race, Delage took what he thought was a sprint prime but was actually the 40 km to go banner, and the pace was still moderate, with 39.3km covered after four hours. The break had 2'00 left from their original advantage while Davitamon and Milram had upped the chase pace again. In Florennes with 35km to go, the gap had tumbled to 1'25 as the Milram and Davitamon-led chasers had the bit between their teeth as they quickly pulled back the break. As the leaders gap fell below 2'00, the team cars were pulled from the break and Delage, Labbe and Albizu sat up, while Missaglia kept on going by himself, passing solo under the 30km to go banner with a lead of 1'37. But Missaglia was joined by Albizu, who had second thoughts and the duo kept riding hard up front.

Through Mettet with 26km to go, the front duo was still 1'15 out front as they headed northwest towards Charleroi, but Milram had hit the front and was cranking it up to begin the set-up for Petacchi's sprint. Davitamon was up there too, not wanting to have their fast man McEwen left out of the party. But the break didn't make it back to the Province of Hainaut from where they had started four hours previously, as they were finally brought to heel with 17km to race after 140km of liberty.

Now it was gruppo compatto on the way home with Milram and Davitamon leading the way on the rolling roads into the southern suburbs of Charleroi towards the finish. All the top teams were now struggling for elbow room at the front of the peloton. Big Chris Knees of Milram was humping away at the front as the gruppo crossed the Sambre River with less than 10km to go and luckily the rain had stopped, as there were many twists and turns on the city streets. No team was taking control in the delicate phase of the race between 10km and 5km to go, so there were constant changes up front.

With 4km to go, the gruppo was led by Milram and Petacchi, with Davitamon and Robbie McEwen, Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) and Olaf Pollack (T-Mobile Team) tagging along. As they slalomed through the roundabouts and tight curves of Charleroi, Michael Rasmussen had to make a major effort to get back from a puncture with 6km to go, but ended up losing three minutes by the day's end.

As the gruppo hit the last 1500 metres, the road was a long gradual uphill drag to the finish line. Milram's Rigotto was second to last man for Petacchi, then Ongarato. In the last 300 metres, Milram's penultimate man Ongarato seemed to slow and with 200 to go, both Pollack and Bettini sensed that Petacchi's lead-out was slow and tried to jump Petacchi.

When Ale-Jet finally went with 170 metres remaining, his afterburners didn't light and Robbie McEwen came off Petacchi's wheel, making his trademark move to take the victory and a 20 second time bonus. No change in the classifica generale, with Discovery Channel's birthday boy Paolo Savoldelli still in the maglia rosa of Giro d'Italia race leadership.

Monday, May 8 - Stage 3: Perwez-Namur, 202km

Stage 3 to Namur has that Classics feeling, with the Cotes d'Ahin from Fleche Wallonne on the program with 50km to go and to wrap things up, a tough cobbled climb from the Meuse River up the last 2km up to Namur's famous Fortress make Stage 3 decidedly not for the sprinters. Look out for Olympic champ Bettini to hit out on this challenging uphill finish.

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