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Schumacher comes of age

Disaster for Petacchi as he breaks kneecap

As speedy on two wheels as his namesake on four, Gerolsteiner's young gun Stefan Schumacher came of age atop the Citadel of Namur and made a mockery of his more fancied rivals. On a wet, windswept and cobbled ascent, the 24 year-old bridged to the lone figure of José Luis Rubiera inside the final kilometre, then with 350 metres to go, attacked and immediately distanced himself from the Discovery Channel rider to earn the best win of his career and become the new maglia rosa.

"I wasn't only following my instinct," explained Schumacher, "I knew the climb was good for me at two kilometres [long] on the pavé. I knew I could do a good result. Everybody knew Paolo Bettini was the man for today - Quick.Step was riding [on the front] all day, which was their tactic - so when he attacked two kilometres from the finish, I followed him and that was the key.

"I had a really, really, really good day - I wanted to go to Rubiera and then I was alone... I went to Rubiera and 400 metres from the finish I started the sprint because I was afraid of the others coming from the back. I knew when I won the stage that I had the jersey, so I said to myself that the best tactic was to do the race like a one-day race; I just tried to win the stage," he said.

It was a gloomy day in the Ardennes with rainshowers throughout the entire stage, but for the true Classics rider, it's exactly how they wanted it. Although nowhere near as tough, the Citadel finale was reminiscent La Flèche Wallonne's infamous Mur de Huy, and as expected, it created a natural selection as only the strongest finished up front.

"I think for any rider it's a big feeling to wear the pink jersey and win a stage of the Giro," Schumacher said. "The last year was heavy; it wasn't easy for me because I wasn't guilty at all and it was a strange situation. But now it's over and I've had a good season - and now it's a great day for me."

The names of Davide Rebellin, Paolo Bettini and Philippe Gilbert were considered favourites before the stage, and while they may not have won, their respective third, fourth and fifth placings showed they deserved their status. Today was also an interesting test for those vying high on general classification, where José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) and defending champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) finished three seconds in front of the next pack of six, and seven seconds ahead of a larger group of 50. No big upsets, but interesting nonetheless.

Said Savoldelli: "It was a good stage for me despite the rain... we didn't want to crash or lose time and I even gained some time at the finish. So it went well."

"It was a hard stage today with the rain," said Rebellin. "We rode great and my team-mate Schumacher made just the right move and deserved to win today."

"I wanted to win today and even checked out the finish before," Bettini said, looking more than a little despondent. "It's too bad since my teammates worked hard all day on the front in the rain and the wind. When Rubiera went, I hesitated a second and then it was too late because I was blocked by a scooter from the race organisation and that's when Schumacher went."

One rider who definitely hasn't had Lady Luck by his side is Alessandro Petacchi, whose woes were compounded today after a rider crashed into him. "When a Euskaltel rider crashed about four or five riders ahead of me, I braked hard but stayed up until Cioni slid into me and hooked my handlebars," Petacchi explained. "I fell over on my left side and hit my knee hard. It hurt a lot at first, but felt better at the end of the stage. I'll go back to the hotel and have it checked out... I hope it's okay."

Unfortunately for Petacchi, it wasn't okay. Further examinations at a hospital post-stage revealed that he had broken his kneecap. Petacchi will return to Italy tomorrow, where he will get surgery. It is not known yet whether he will recover in time for the Tour de France.

With the win comes a change of shoulders for that lovely pink tunic, and Savoldelli's team was most likely happy to let it go for a day or two. But whoever wears the maglia rosa after tomorrow's fourth and final stage in Belgium may have trouble holding onto it, for what lies ahead in Italy is an 38 kilometre team time trial on Stage 5. With such a hard final week, the strength of one's team is likely to be a determining factor, and what better way to judge a team's worth than seeing all nine riders racing as one.

"I can't even predict at all how long I will keep the maglia rosa as I've never done a three week race before," said the still shocked though exuberant Schumacher. "Today both Rebellin and I were keen to do well in the final and our team-mate [Andrea] Moletta did a great job for us. So I'm just really happy with today's result."

How it unfolded

Monday's stage was a twisting, nervous affair starting in Perwez, a city in Brabant Province noted for it's extensive wind farms that concluded with a tough 2.5km cobblestone ascent to the famous Citadelle de Namur, a crenellated fortress overlooking the Meuse River. It was a windy and partly overcast midday when 198 riders headed northwest for 18km into a headwind to Wavre.

Then the percorso headed south into the Meuse River valley towards the first GPM at Evrehailles after 101km. Stage 3 was following the traces of the Flèche Wallonne, through the Intergiro 110 at Andenne after 132.5km, then due east along the Meuse River to the second GPM Cote d'Ahin, a 4km ascent. But instead of taking the steep ascent up the Mur de Huy as in La Flèche, the percorso crossed to the north bank of the Meuse and looped back to Namur for the finish.

198 riders left Perwez at 12.16 and the average speed for the first two hours was 38.7km/h. While on the outskirts of Perwez, maglia rosa Savoldelli had a puncture and his entire team waited and easily escorted him back to the gruppo. Just as on Stage 1, Mexican rider Aldape (Panaria) was active in the first phases and on the streets of Wavre, a group of three joined the Panaria rider to make a front quartet; Moinard (Cofidis), Irizar (Euskaltel) and Illiano (Selle Italia) extricated themselves from the gruppo, which was no longer tutto compatto.

This was the right combination for the break to work and within 10km, the front quartet had gained almost three minutes. At first, Discovery Channel was riding the tempo on the front of the gruppo, but eventually Quick.Step hit the front with Scarselli and Bramati keeping the break close in favour of their team captain Bettini, who was looking for a win atop the climb to the Citadelle di Namur. The gap had stabilized at about four minutes but with big Brama humping on the front, the gap was down to 3'45 approaching Sosoye after 85km.

As a weather front rolled across Belgium west from the English Channel, rain began to fall and temps drop for yet another typical day of lousy weather. At the first GPM at Evrehailles after 101km, it was Irizar who took the climbing points ahead of Aldape, with big Brama and Scarselli of Quick.Step riding tempo on the front of the gruppo 3'45 behind.

At the Intergiro 110 in Andenne, it was Irizar gaining the points with the peloton 3'15 behind. On a slippery roundabout entering Huy, the Basque rider crashed but the rest of the break waited for him and he rejoined as the second GPM of the Cote d'Ahin began. The front quartet rode steadily until the last kilometre, when the tactics began and they began to lost time. Aldape won the KOM from Moinard and had gained enough points to take the maglia verde from Savoldelli. The lead for the escapees had fallen under two minutes and as they dropped into Huy, the wind blowing up the Meuse River valley.

With 50km to go, Illiano dropped off the pace of the break as the Quick.Step train continued to pound away on the front of the gruppo, 1'05 behind, but on the long descent to Huy, he came back to the front group. Di Luca punctured on the bumpy descent and got back on after a short chase, while Petacchi then crashed with Cioni at 60km/hr on the wet road and then had to make a hard chase back with his entire team for 10km across Huy to get back into the main gruppo . Petacchi was clearly in pain as he gritted his teeth, struggling to hold the wheels of his Milram team-mates.

With all the drama at the back, the breakaway had gained some time as the peloton and were now 1'45 ahead as they crossed the bridge over the Meuse River and began the gentle climb back towards the finish in Namur 45km ahead along the twisty Burdinneal road. Quick.Step was on the front, keeping the pace strong and steady behind the break while the escapees maintained a lead of 1'30. The rain had tapered off somewhat with 35km to go as the weather front moved further west. Garrido had taken over on the front for Scarselli, as big Brama rode third wheel with Bettini tucked in right behind. Petacchi was hanging on at the back of the gruppo as he continued to hang tough, occasionally touching his painful left knee.

With 30km to go, the break was still leading by 1'30, but it looked like Quick.Step was just letting the escapees hang out front. Suddenly Petacchi and two teammates stopped with 27km to go outside Burdinne and race doctor Tredieci stopped to check Petacchi's bruised left knee. After a quick application of ice, Petacchi took off again, but continued to ride next to the race doctors car to get his knee examined. Five kilometres later, the gap was down to 1'05, while the peloton was just cruising along at 35km/h. Petacchi, who had put on his rain jacket, and his three team-mates were already one minute behind the gruppo and were certain to lose more time as the break was absorbed and the pace cranked up.

Just after they passed over the A15 Motorway, the break was caught after 160km of freedom and it was once again gruppo compatto with 20km to go. The rain and pace had picked up again as Namur approached, but no team in particular was taking the initiative on the front. As the 10km to mark approached, CSC was on the front led by Gustov to keep Basso out of any trouble. Brad McGee (Francaise de Jeux) was up there too, as he was looking to have his chance of taking the maglia rosa if possible. Down, down through Namur under the pouring rain the gruppo was flying as CSC and now Gerolsteiner were up front. Schumacher was lurking near the front as there was a crash by a Euskaltel rider that brought down T-Mobile's Kessler and split the gruppo in half. CSC was riding hard on the front for Basso, but right up front with 3km to go was Paolo Bettini, Cunego and Rebellin.

As the suspense mounted, Selle Italia's Loddo got a gap at the beginning of the ascent to the Citadelle with 2km to go, but Chechu Rubiera (Discovery Channel) made a great counter with 1700m to go. Suddenly a light blue Gerolsteiner jersey blasted off the front of the chase group to bridge up to Rubiera with 1300m to go. It was Stefan Schumacher, who went right to the front and was never bested. Rubiera was a superb second, while Schumacher's Gerolsteiner teammate Rebellin was third. With his 20 second time bonus, Schumacher took over the maglia rosa by 13 seconds over Savoldelli, with Rebellin third overall. A grim faced, hurting Petacchi came in with his teammates 14'36 behind the winner and headed straight to his team car without any comment.

Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 9: Wanze-Hotton, 182 km

A hilly stage south of Liege with two climbs from the Ardennes classics, Cote de Wanne and Stavelot-La Haute Levèè in the first half, but things could come back together in the rolling last half for Robbie McEwen to take his second stage win at the 2006 Giro.

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