Petacchi triples - Peloton slides in

Maglia Rosa Noè finishes day on his backside

Alessandro Petacchi, showing some of the sparkling form that propelled him to a record nine Giro d'Italia wins in 2004, used his unbeatable turn of speed to take his third Giro win on stage 11. Petacchi prevailed in a messy dash to the line in Pinerolo that saw a huge pileup behind the first ten riders, besting Italian Gabriele Balducci (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) after 198 kilometres in the saddle.

"I think today was dangerous but my companions did well," noted Petacchi after his 22nd Giro stage victory. "Maybe they went from too far out. I lost a little bit of speed [through the final bend] but I was able to make a great remount."

Just before the finish line, the wet pavement caused Nikolai Trusov's (Tinkoff Credit Systems) to lose control from a top ten position, and his crash caused a domino-like effect that resulted in maglia rosa Andrea Noè (Liquigas) sliding across the line on his backside. World Champion Paolo Bettini was also among the crash victims, but he and Noè were for the most part unharmed. Noè held onto the race lead, keeping his 1'08" advantage over Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre-Fondital).

The day was characterised by a long solo breakaway by Mickaël Buffaz (Cofidis), who nearly cracked under the strain of his efforts and stopped in tears at the halfway point in the stage, but soldiered on until 11 kilometres to go before being caught. With the sprinters focusing on the finale, specifically a dangerous U-turn to the right at 3800 metres to go, the peloton negotiated the tricky bend safely before yet another last-minute attack from the Tinkoff team. It was once again Mikhail Ignatiev, the Russian Olympic Champion, who was pulled back by Petacchi's diminished train of four right under three kilometres remaining.

As the metres ticked down, the fight for Petacchi's wheel was in full fury, with McEwen and Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital) fighting for position while Crédit Agricole's Bodrogi launched Julian Dean off the front. All the while, Petacchi kept his cool, first behind Lorenzetto and then Lancaster while the New Zealand champion rocketed up the road with 600 metres remaining. "I was afraid with the water and I did not want another crash with my knee," Petacchi confessed, "Lancaster went at 600 metres and did a great job. I was happy with his work because I was really scared over the wet pavement."

With Dean reeled in, Napolitano and McEwen continued to fight for Petacchi's wheel in the final left-hand bend at 250m, but when Petacchi fired up his cylinders, he displayed his dominant form that seemed to elude him since he broke his kneecap in last year's Giro, and easily kept McEwen at bay. Acqua & Sapone's Balducci ended up third behind the Italian and Australian.

"Balducci did well to come up. I have known him for many years." Regarding the emerging rivals, Petacchi added, "In a sprint like this, on a slight decent [a 37m elevation drop in the last 3.7km - ed.], it is easy for the others to re-enter, like Balducci."

Thor Hushovd and stage nine winner Danilo Napolitano came across safely in fourth and fifth, but as Nikolai Trusov (Tinkoff Credit Systems) tried to play his cards in the sprint, he lost traction on the wet pavement and slid out, taking down World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quickstep-Innergetic) with him. The crash ricocheted through the peloton as riders tried to brake to avoid the carnage, with Benoît Joachim (Astana) and Alexandre Pichot (Bouygues Telecom) hitting the deck next.

Andrea Noè's pink race leader's jersey and matching shorts couldn't protect him from the force of gravity, and the maglia rosa arrived in a most ungraceful fashion as Noè skidded over the line on his backside. "I arrived, sliding across the line," he recalled. "Unfortunately the sprinters braked on the line but it remains a mystery why," said the 38 year-old.

"Tomorrow we will see. It will be a hard day for [Danilo] Di Luca but also for everyone else," finished Noè.

Having taken nine Giro wins in 2004, six in 2005, and then crashing out before winning any in 2006, Petacchi is uncertain whether he will contend for more wins in this year's Giro or cut his risks. "I still am not sure if I will go on from here. I want to do a good Tour [de France], so I don't know. I will enjoy this victory now and then tonight I will talk to [DS Gianluigi] Stanga. I will think about it."

Of the GC hopefuls who were affected by the maxi-caduta ('big crash'), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), third overall in 2003, seemed to be in bad shape at the finish line, leading to doubts as to whether he will start stage 12 to Briançon. Two-time Giro d'Italia champion Paolo Savoldelli also went down, but was unhurt, while Euskaltel-Euskadi's Aitor Hernandez finished the stage, but was later confirmed with a fractured collarbone, and will not take the start on stage 12.

How it unfolded

Today's stage from Serravalle Scrivia to Pinerolo started at 12:02 when 171 riders rolled out. Flèche Wallonne Champion Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) did not take to the start line.

Through small Italian cities, like Novi Ligure and Ovada, the riders stayed 'gruppo compatto' (meaning the peloton was all together). After the first hour of racing the pace was at 30 kilometres per hour, a completely different story than yesterday's stage, where the pace was an amazing 51.2 km/h.

Shortly after this first hour there was an attack by Frenchman Lilian Jegou (Française Des Jeux) and Belgian Pierre Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom). The former took the sprint at the line in Cremolino (kilometre 37.8).

This duo was absorbed by the peloton and, by kilometre 38, there were to more riders off the front, Frenchmen Carl Naibo (Ag2r Prévoyance) and Mickaël Buffaz (Cofidis). Two kilometres later, Naibo had faded gone and his compatriot had taken 50". This time gap turned into 1'48" by kilometre 45.

In Acqui Terme, kilometre 50.8, the lone rider had 3'55", and by Bubbio, kilometre 68.3, he had 5'10". The riders continued at a gentlemen's pace; the average was 32.5 km/h after two hours of racing.

After three hours of racing, in Borgomale (kilometre 94), the gap reached 8'14" but then the 28 year-old had a moment of crisis. At 15:15 the Frenchman, born in Geneva, stopped on the side of the road. While the cameramen did their jobs, taking photos, he was crying in the arms of his directeur. He only took back on his bike after some encouraging words by his directeur sportif.

This stop dropped the gap down to 3'16" at kilometre 101. But due to the Gruppo Maglia Rosa putting on the brakes and having a relaxed day, the gap to Buffaz had shot up to 7'05" at 75 kilometres to the finish (kilometre 123). Buffaz was seen waving to the camera and, now, enjoying the day and not really 'trying' to build his gap. He must have been thinking that the day would belong to the sprinters' teams of Milram, Predictor and Crédit Agricole.

In Bra, where it was 34°C at 69.5 kilometres to go, Buffaz's gap had gone higher than the pre-crisis time of 8'14", to 9'15". This started to fall as Danilo Napolitano's Lampre men moved to the front. By 60 kilometres to go Milram added its men and the gap was falling further, to 6'15".

With fifty kilometres remaining Buffaz was clinging onto a gap of 5'55". It was looking bad for the Cofidis man; Milram, Lampre and Predictor were adding coals to the chase-fire while clouds and winds were making the going tough.

Buffaz took the Garibaldi sprint in Saluzzo (-38.1 km) and the peloton passed, led by Nicolas Crosbie (Bouygues Telecom) and then Simone Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo), 4'15" later. The race started to fall at the same moment. By 30 kilometres to go, with rain hitting heavily in Pinerolo, the gap had fallen to 2'42".

Tinkoff was moving some of its men to the front to prepare for a counter-attack. By 20 kilometres to got Buffaz was barely holding on to a one minute gap. Petacchi was tightening his toe-straps and ordering his Milram milk men to the front, like Mirco Lorenzetto. But there was also Hushovd's Crédit Agricole men moving to the front.

The gap had dramatically tumbled to 24" only five kilometres later. The sprinters teams were gearing up and ready to fire over the wet roads. Slightly up the road Buffaz was waving goodbye to the TV viewers. His dramatic day ended at kilometre 187 and the 'gruppo compatto' had 11 kilometres remaining for counter-attacks.

One had the sense that Oleg Tinkov's Tinkoff boys would fire as they had been amassing at the front over the final few kilometres. They were joined by Acqua e Sapone, who were setting up for Balducci. The water and soap team slowly led through the U-turn that Mikhail Ignatiev used as his launch pad.

A relatively quite Tinkoff day became animated but it did not last long. Milram, washing out Acqua, caught the 22 year-old Russian after the road curved right onto Via Giustetto. Off of this road, slighting turning onto the Stradale di Fenestrelle, Milram led for the eventual Petacchi win.

Stage 12 - Thursday, May 24: Scalenghe - Briançon (Francia), 163 km

The first major mountains of the 90th Giro d'Italia loom to the west of Torino in the Alps on the Italian/French border. The antipasto is the heavy duty Colle dell'Agnello, a 21.3-kilometre beast that rises to 2744 metres after 102 kilometres of racing. At the summit, the road plunges into France and at the famous road junction in Chateau-Queyras, turns right up the southern face of the evocative Col d'Izoard.

This legendary Tour de France ascent covers 14.2 kilometres at an average of 7.1% and the last few kilometres traverse the picturesque section called the Casse Deserte. Once over the 2360-metre summit, it's a steep descent to finish in Briançon. Look for the Giro strong-men to emerge on Stage 12.

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