Di Luca takes day: Rosa and stage

'The Killer' profits from Saunier's efforts

Danilo Di Luca controlled the finale of stage 12 into Briançon, attacking an elite group of five twice in the final kilometre. His last jab distanced his rivals and he won ahead of a re-emerging Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and a stunning Andy Schleck (Team CSC). With the powerful efforts of a strong Saunier Duval many of the favourites were distanced, including previous race leader Andrea Noè, allowing Di Luca to also take the race leader's Maglia Rosa.

"I did not know the descent [of Izoard] and I did not want to risk it. Then others re-entered and I did not want to push harder," said Di Luca, who chose to save his final strike for the short blast to Briançon.

Already knowing the race leadership would be his, 'The Killer' hunted for the stage victory as the parcours kicked upwards in the final 1300 metres to Briançon's Citadelle. Simoni led Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) and Eddy Mazzoleni (Astana) when Di Luca first launched at 900 metres to go. The fifth of five riders, Schleck, immediately latched onto Di Luca's wheel.

"I went at 900 metres to go for the win and to try to distance the others but it did not work." Schleck and then Simoni clawed their way back on to Di Luca's wheel. The 31 year-old rider led the duo over the medieval streets, and following two bridge crossings he powered off the front starting at -450m on a tight fan-packed pavé section.

Simoni was able to remount and vie for the sprint while 21 year-old came in a few seconds later, splendid in the Maglia Bianca of best young rider.

"The giro is still open," continued Di Luca, who has both the Maglia Rosa and the best climber's Maglia Verde. "My advantages are not earth-shaking. ... I hope I will go well in the next week."

Luxemburger Andy Schleck now sits fourth overall, 1'25" behind Di Luca, after finishing with the favourites. The almost unknown rider, younger brother of Fränk, is now emerging as an overall threat. "Schleck is going well, he also goes will in the time trials so I will have to continue to monitor him," noted the Italian, fourth in the 2005 Giro. "Today, what was important is that we narrowed down the classification."

He reflected on Saunier's strength over the Agnello and Izoard, "I was afraid at the beginning on Agnello because [Saunier's Leonardo] Piepoli was nailing the pace and he was really going strong. If he continued like that I don't know what I would have done."

Schleck played down his dominance after arriving at the end of the 163-kilometre stage. "I was not here to win but I am happy with how it went today," noted the only non-Italian from the winning group. "I was there with Simoni and Di Luca on the final pavé in to Briançon."

Regarding the next week, he said, "I still have the legs I will try again for a win in the coming stages. However, I have to try from far out because I don't have the legs for last minute bursts."

Damiano Cunego is one that normally has the legs speed for such bursts, however, today he was seen yo-yoing at the back of the favourites' gruppo. He finished with the front five but hopes to his form improves over the coming days, which includes the Oropa mountain TT, tomorrow, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Sunday, and Monte Zoncolan, Wednesday.

"Today, and also in the previous days, Danilo showed that he is brilliant," said Kid Cunego. "But we are on the first of the big mountains. ... I did not go badly. I am still lacking a little bit but I hope in the next days to go better. There are truly some grand climbs coming in this grand Giro, so, we will see."

Mazzoleni showed incredible strength for such a big framed rider. It was him that shepherded Cunego to his 2004 Giro win, and, thanks to team captain Paolo Savoldelli cracking, he was able to continue on his own. The rider from Bergamo my not be able to take the top step of the podium but he could vie for one of its two neighbours.

Distanced but strong in the first of the big mountain days was Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo). The 2000 Giro Champ fought back leg pains on the Col d'Izoard but held his own to finish solo in sixth.

"I had cramps on the beginning of the climb, and in the last kilometre the cramps became stronger," noted the bald headed rider from Varese. "It was a very hard day but I battled with the big champions, and in regards to the previous two days I feel great."

He commented on his former teammate, Di Luca, "He is strong but we will have to wait for the Zoncolan."

2002 and 2005 Giro Winner, Savoldelli, suffered today, and he was already out of the race's picture with nine kilometres to go to the top of the Colle dell'Agnello (-70km to the line).

"My legs felt like they were not going," noted the rider in his Bergamasco accent. "The pace seemed so strong and I just felt like I could not go."

He was bothered from yesterday's finish line crash and, knowing his form, told Mazzoleni to ride ahead. "Even this morning I thought about not riding. After a crash like that you need a couple of days to recover. I hope in the next days to go better; we will see. ... I told Mazzoleni to stay up front and make his own race and that I would look after myself."

How it unfolded

The Alps on the Italian/French border were looming in the dusk to the west of Scalenghe as stage 12 of the 90th Giro d'Italia started to confront the first major climbs of the race. 177 riders departed at 12:15, with US Champion Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Aitor Hernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and sprinters Frosi Förster (Gerolsteiner) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) non-starters.

Perhaps lonesome for their homeland of France on the other side of the mountains two French riders got away after 14 kilometres near Cavour in the farmland west of Torino. Yoan Le Boulanger (Bouygues Telecom) and Christophe Riblon (Ag2r Prévoyance) headed off the front and there was no interest in the break from the gruppo.

By Brosassco, after 55 kilometres, the lead had soared to 17'30", placing Le Boulangerin the virtual lead. In the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, no one was worried as the race unfolded. Saunier Duval was riding hard tempo with 'Litu' Gómez on the front to put the pressure on Liquigas' Di Luca as the first slopes of the 21-kilometre ascent of the Colle dell'Agnello and Cima Coppi.

At the Garibaldi sprint in Sampeyre, after 70 kilometres, Le Boulanger took the sprint with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, led by the yellow of Saunier Duval 16'10" behind.

The status quo remained up the first half of the Colle dell'Agnello, and as the road steepened with nine kilometres to go, Boulanger was still in the lead but solo, having dropped Riblon, who was 1'30" behind, with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 13'.

Behind the two breakaway riders, Cofidis rider Ivan Parra tried to attack from the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, but Saunier Duval just cranked it up a notch and rode him down. Saunier Duval's strategy of making the race hard from the get-go was paying off, as Riccò was climbing beautifully and his pace at the front had ripped apart the Gruppo Maglia Rosa. Boulanger was hanging on out front, as Riccò was raging; out the back of the Gruppo Maglia Rosa were both Savoldelli and Popovych, who were suffering from yesterday's finish line crash, and Maglia Rosa Noè was hurting too.

At six kilometres to go to the summit of the Colle dell'Agnello, Riccò seemed to crack and dropped off the pace, with Piepoli taking over on the front with teammate Simoni on his wheel and Cunego and Di Luca just behind, with just Mazzoleni, Schleck and a surprising Garzelli left in the first chase group.

As David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) slid back, David Zabriskie (Team CSC) had bridged up with Parra, but Piepoli's diabolical pace was killing everybody. At five kilometres to go on the steep ascent it was still the Leo Piepoli show, as he led Simoni, Cunego, Di Luca, Mazzoleni and Schleck, as Garzelli had been gapped by Piepoli's accelerations out of the hairpin turns.

The huge crowds that lined the climb on the lower slopes had thinned out somewhat as the racers left the tree line behind. The temperatures had dropped to the single digits and a strong cold wind had whipped up on the cloud shrouded summit. Le Boulanger was struggling mightily to make it over Cima Coppi, with his former break companion Riblon at three minutes and the Simoni group four kilometres behind at 10'30". Garzelli followed the gruppo Simoni at 15", Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Parra at 30", Panaria climbers Emanuele Sella and Domenico Pozzovivo at 1'30", while Popovych had dropped off this group at 1'45". Riccò was at 2'15", while Savoldelli was at 2'30" with Luis Felipe Laverde (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) and Alessandro Spezialetti (Liquigas).

In the last kilometre, Piepoli accelerated a few times to keep Garzelli from coming back but at the 2744-metre summit, after 102 kilometres of racing, Garzelli made it back, with Nibali at 1'15", then Zabriskie at 1'30", and a 12-man group containing Sella, Pozzovivo, Arroyo, Wegelius and others at 1'50". That group of 12 then caught Zabriskie as the descent began, with Popovych chasing hard behind.

The Savoldelli group was at 3'30" with Maglia Rosa Noè at 4'05". Popovych was on the attack on the descent trying to take back time and dumped Riccò and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and managed to get back to the Sella group, while Arroyo and Wim Van Huffel (Predictor-Lotto), who had crashed early on the descent had come back to make a four-man second chase group.

At the base of the Colle dell'Agnello descent with 37 kilometres to race, in Chateau Queyras, before the right turn up the southern face of the evocative Col d'Izoard, Le Boulanger was still up front with Riblon at 3'00", the Simoni group at 5'15", with Parra chasing hard at 6'38", Nibali chasing alone at 6'50", the Sella/Wegelius/Popovych group at 7'50", the Riccò/Rasmussen/Rubiera group at 8'30", while at 9'30", the Gruppo Maglia Rosa included Noè, Savoldelli and his Astana teammate Andrey Mizourov.

As the legendary 14.2-kilometre ascent of the evocative Col d'Izoard, Saunier Duval's Leo Piepoli was still hammering at the front of his group as the others could just hang on the ascent that averaged 7.1%. Behind Piepoli was old fox Gibo Simoni, who was just waiting for the right moment to attack Di Luca and Cunego. As Ag2r's Riblon was absorbed and spit out by the first chase group, Simoni dropped back to talk with his diesse Pietro Algeri.

Le Boulanger was still hanging on 2'30" up the road and after Gibo's chat, it was time for the games to begin. With 11 kilometres still to climb, Saunier Duval sent Piepoli up the road to test the legs of the others as Simoni sat back to see who still had juice left. Schleck was right there, and was Di Luca, but Garzelli and above all Cunego showed they were suffering with their slow reactions. The Sella/Bruseghin gruppo had become the second chase at 2'40", with Riccò/Rasmussen group another minute back, and the Gruppo Maglia Rosa containing Noè and Savoldelli at 5'00" behind the Simoni group.

As the climb up the Izoard steepened in Brunissard, with 28 kilometres to go, Piepoli's pace finally popped Garzelli. Piepoli dropped off the pace and halfway up the Izoard.

The race situation saw Le Boulanger still in the lead, with the Simoni group at 2'00", then a big chase group that had formed with Sella, Pozzovivo, Bruseghin at 3'00". On a steep pitch of the Izoard, Simoni attacked, and Cunego got across, then a kilometre later Simoni went again and Di Luca covered this move.

At six kilometres to go to the summit of the Col d'Izoard and less than 30 kilometres to race, on the steep hairpins through one of the most difficult sections of the ascent, Le Boulanger was still 1'00" ahead of the five strong Simoni group, with Garzelli chasing at 40" and the second chase group at 3'00" and Popovych struggling in no mans land at 4'00" ahead of the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 6'00".

The crowds that lined the Col d'Izoard, including Didi "Devil" Senft, and with 4.5 kilometres remaining Simoni went again and Di Luca covered his move, as Cunego was finally popped and dropped. After 125 kilometres off the front, the courageous Le Boulanger was caught by the chase group with 3.5 kilometres to go on the ascent.

Through the eerie lunar landscape, with the overcast spitting a few drops of rain and snow, of the Casse Déserte past the monument to Fausto Coppi and Loiuson Bobet, the sprit of Marco Pantani was strong as Di Luca was leading the race, with Cunego and Le Boulanger chasing 15" behind and Garzelli hanging tough at 1'00".

The Bruseghin led chase group was chasing well at 2'00" and after the spectacular traverse of the Casse Déserte, there was still 1.5 kilometres left to climb and as the rain began falling harder. Suddenly Di Luca attacked hard off the front and left the others standing still.

At the 2360-metre summit of the Col d'Izoard, Di Luca took the GPM with Schleck, Simoni and Mazzoleni at 13" Cunego at 25" and fading, while Garzelli was going all out at 1'44" to stay ahead of the Bruseghin group at 2'40", with Pellizotti at 3'45", gruppo Savoldelli at 5'40", a suffering Popovych struggling at 7'30" and the Gruppo Maglia Rosa of Noè at 8'30".

On the steep descent to finish in Briançon, Simoni's superb descending skills enabled him to bring everyone across to Di Luca and Cunego had gotten back on quickly so there were now five riders together up front with 15 kilometres to go. Garzelli had made up some time.

The Giro riders were descending the wide open descent at over 100km/hr towards Briançon and the steep final ascent to the Citadelle. The gutsy Le Boulanger had managed to descend fast enough to join Garzelli on the road to Briançon with 10 kilometres to race.

As the descent finished and the front runners hit Briançon with two kilometres to race, they passed through the lower town, then turned onto the final steep ramp to Citadelle and passed under the one kilometre to go kite. Garzelli and Le Boulanger were together but the Italian then rode away from the French rider. Up front, Di Luca attacked on the steep ramp at 900 metres and Schleck came across to him.

It was like a replay of Liège-Bastogne-Liège for a moment as both made the right hand turn into the Citadelle, with Simoni following. Di Luca went again on the steep narrow pavé road through the old town of Briançon, as Simoni then surged past Schleck in pursuit. Gibo gave it his all to get past Di Luca but the Liquigas rider was just too strong for him and won his second stage in the 2007 Giro d'Italia and took over the Maglia Rosa from his teammate Andrea Noè.

Mazzoleni and Cunego came in at 15", Garzelli dumped Le Boulanger in the last kilometre in Briançon and finished 6th at 2'17", while the courageous French rider merited a "chapeau" as he was 7th on the stage at 2'33", just holding off Saunier Duval's Riccò and Lampre's Marzio Bruseghin, who held on to his second place on GC.

Discovery Channel's Yaro Popovych had a bad day after his crash yesterday and lost over 7'00", thus ending his chances of Giro d'Italia overall glory for 2007.

Danilo Di Luca traded his Maglia Verde of Best Climber for the Maglia Rosa, with Marzio Bruseghin of Lampre-Fondital in second and Caisse d'Epargne's David Arroyo maintained third, while Team CSC's Best Young Rider Andy Schleck moved to fourth on GC.

Lampre-Fondital's Patxi Vila is now fifth, just ahead of his team leader Damiano Cunego, so Lampre-Fondital will still have some cards to play for Cunego in the upcoming mountain stages of the Giro. Ceramica Panaria-Navigare's climber Emanuele Sella moved up to seventh, as crafty three time Giro winner Gibo Simoni of Saunier Duval-Prodir is now eighth, just 2'34" behind Di Luca.

Although it's clear that Danilo Di Luca is the strongest man in this years Giro d'Italia, his Liquigas team left him alone today while Simoni's Saunier Duval-Prodir was very strong. Di Luca wanted to wrap up the Giro d'Italia in Briançon but he is still only halfway there.

Stage 13 - Friday, May 25: Biella - Santuario Di Oropa (Mountain TT), 12.6 km

Short, steep and tough, Friday's uphill time test from the textile city famous for Ermengildo Zegna's fine wool fabrics will be unlucky for some riders after Thursday's tough mountain stage. Uphill all the way, Stage 13 gains 734m at an average grade of 5.8% and the steepest pitches of 13%.

This is a tough climb but the short distance will limit the time differences between the Giro contenders, and it's a perfect opportunity for Cunego and Simoni to take some time back from Di Luca if they can. Watch out for 21 year-old Andy Schleck to make his mark in the uphill TT as well.

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