Tomas terrific: Vaitkus takes Giro stage win

Bettini's strategy backfires in Termoli

Paolo Bettini has been seeking a stage win since the 89th Giro d'Italia started and today he played his cards almost perfectly to beat up the pure sprinters over the last 30 kilometres of the stage. But although he raised his hands in victory just after the finish line, the Quick.Step rider lost by a tire to a big, strong 24 year-old AG2R rider Tomas Vaitkus, the first Lithuanian to ever win a Giro d'Italia stage. It was the first win for Vaitkus this season, his first ProTour win and his 7th career pro win. Originally from Klaipeda, the ex-pistard and former World U23 TT champ (2002) lives in Gent, Belgium, and is a rare talent that can both sprint and time trial well. An emotional Vaitkus could barely talk to the media post-stage, but managed to blurt out in decent Italian, "I don't know what to say...this is such a big deal for me but I'm really happy."

Not so happy was runner-up Paolo Bettini, who was sardonic when he explained post-stage that, "At least I didn't crash this year!" referring to his Frosinone crash last year with Baden Cooke. "Let's see if they (officials) apply the rules. But I'm happy that at least I have good condition." Bettini raised his arms after he passed the finish line today, but it was more out of frustration than confusion. "I went to pass (Vaitkus) along the barriers, but he blocked me slightly and I hesitated. I'll try again tomorrow."

Bettini's fellow Tuscan Manu Mori (Saunier Duval) confirmed that the Stage 9 sprint in Termoli was not the usual rush to the line, explaining, "Yeah, it was a competitive sprint. And funny because as it was uphill and the riders behind were coming up fast." But not fast enough, as Pollack (3rd) and McEwen (4th) came from well back as Vaitkus led out the sprint for victory.

On his first day in the precious pink tunic, maglia rosa Basso was his usual phlegmatic self, saying, "Yes, it was hard today and that's what we expected. But there are still two weeks left to race, my team is strong and they're all ready to help me win." Basso is certainly looking forward to Thursday's Pontedera TT, as is Discovery Channel's defending Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli. After a bad day at the office yesterday, Paolo said, "I'm looking forward to the time trial Thursday, to take time from the climbers if possible. Today, I was just quiet. Yesterday on the climb to Maielletta, I had some trouble breathing that my team doctor thinks may be due to allergies. So I hope to improve as we go along. What happened is not due to my condition."

How it unfolded

It was a late start Monday as the Giro d'Italia riders slept in after Sunday's tough mountain top finish. At 14:05, the riders departed the seaside start in Francavilla Al Mare for a fast ride south to Termoli. After a few dust-ups on the way out, it was AG2R's Yuri Krivtsov who made an attack that stuck and was quickly joined by 22 year-old Cyril Monnerais (Française des Jeux). This duo was chased by Selle Italia's Illiano and after 6km, the front duo already had 0'42 on Illiano and 2'19 on the gruppo. Illiano realized he wasn't going to bridge and sat up after 12 km of chasing and was absorbed after 18 km. After 27 km, the duo hit an advantage of 4'05 in Fossacesia Marina. Quick.Step then got on the front to keep the break in hand as Paolo Bettini was looking to make some trouble in the finale.

After one hour of racing, the average speed was 43.1 km/h, and at the intermediate 110 Gazzetta sprint in Vasto after 63 km, the halfway point in Stage 9, it was Monnerais who beat Krivtsov, while 3'45 behind, Delage took the third place points. 17 km later at Petacciato Mare, the percorso took a right and began to climb inland towards the high point of the day at the GPM of Guglionesi with 23 km to go. As the road climbed up to Petacciato, Krivtsov dropped Monnerais and the Ukrainian TT champ tried to keep his pace high and stay away.

But the Ukrainian's task to stay away would be difficult, as Bettini was pushing his Quick.Step train, yelling 'alé, alé' to up the pace as the sidewind stretched the gruppo into indian file. Monnerais' teammate Brad McGee was just hanging on the back as last wheel as his bad back was acting up again, eventually losing contact with 42 km to go. As Krivtsov passed under the 40 km to go banner through the beautiful and bucolic Molisano countryside, the fast tempo of the blue train of Quick.Step had pulled back a minute and a half in just 10 km.

Monnerais came back with 38 km to go, while Krivtsov was pounding away alone, hoping to stay away as long as possible. With the crosswind and infernal pace dictated by Bettini and his Quick.Step men, the gruppo split in two for two kilometres, but with 35 km to go, it came back together again with Krivtsov just 0'45 ahead.

Just after 23 km go, Krivtsov was caught after 99 km off the front and it was gruppo compatto with the GPM just ahead. Garate hammered up the climb and his pace exploded the peloton as Robbie McEwen and most of the sprinters went out of the back. Phonak's raging bull Gutierrez took the GPM points, while McEwen was riding tempo as his group of 20 passed under the GPM 0'50 behind the front.

After the GPM, the road descended to the flats on the way to Termoli and with 20 km to go, McEwen's group was 0'30 behind the front group and closing. It was a funny mutt and jeff moment as huge Bert Roesems was leading his petite Davitamon-Lotto teammate in the pursuit of the gruppo maglia rosa. But it was a dead serious chase to get back on so Robbie had a shot at winning in Termoli.

With 15 km to go, gruppo Robbie got back, but an attack had already gotten off the front on the final small climb up to Portocannone. Clement (Bouygues), Serpa (Selle Italia), Scheirlinckx (Cofidis) and Davis (T-Mobile) got a 0'15 gap, then Chechu Rubiera (Discovery Channel) made a sweet counter move. Davis attacked the break and went solo, but halfway up the ascent, it was Liquigas-Bianchi rider Franco Pellizotti who took off off the front and blasted up the front and caught Davis easily. Behind the front duo, Bettini was making his move but this caused Cunego to follow, so naturally Basso and CSC brought it all together again.

Under the 10 km to banner, it was gruppo compatto again into the headwind as T-Mobile was on the front controlling the pace into Termoli, but Quick.Step and Lampe-Fondital were up there too. McEwen was in the gruppo, but was he was in the back trying to recover from the sprint. Now Milram was up front for Ongarato, and like a bad penny, Robbie McEwen had turned up on the wheel of Pollack with 5 km to go.

One kilometre later, Matty White (Discovery Channel) had a go and was joined by Kolobnev (Rabobank) and Pauriol (Bouygues) as the road reached an overpass, but the Lampre-Fondital train led by Petrov pulled them back after 1.5 km. Next it was Caisse d'Epargne and Credit Agricole who made a move but nothing doing. Into the last km, Milram took over. Robbie was on Pollack's wheel, but both riders were too far back when the sprint started. Gutsy Vaitkus led out with a powerful surge up the middle with 200m to go. Bettini went by the big Lithuanian on the left between the barriers and almost got by, but there was too much Vaitkus to pass. The AG2R rider threw his bike perfectly to win, as Bettini passed him after the line with his hands raised in a non-existent victory. Pollack punched the air a frustrated third while McEwen, only fourth, could just shake his head as he passed the line in Termoli.

Tuesday, May 16 - Stage 10 Termoli-Peschici / 190 km

The hill Gargano Peninsula sticks out from the Italian boot like a bunion and the tricky, technical second half of the Stage 10 crosses this particular promontory for a testing uphill finish in Peschici could cause time gaps. Look for Paolo Bettini to finally sprint home victorious on the 1200m finishing ascent.

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