Riccò takes his first on mythical Tre Cime di Lavaredo

Di Luca shows tremendous grit to save Maglia Rosa

23 year-old Riccardo Riccò has added his name to a list that includes Merckx and Gimondi by conquering the 184-kilometre stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and in the process has won his first Giro d'Italia stage. He crossed the line with early escape companion, teammate Piepoli, with Ivan Parra (Cofidis) and Julio Pérez (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) following behind.

In the fight for Maglia Rosa Danilo Di Luca reined champion by controlling the dangerous gap to attacker Eddy Mazzoleni. The Astana rider moved up the overall, 1'51" behind Liquigas' Di Luca, but was not able to take the race lead. Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) was not able to put Di Luca into difficulty and ended the day content with his team's success. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) finished sixth, behind his former leader.

"Thanks to Gibo to let me and Leo [Piepoli] go for the stage, I am very happy to have a teammate like him," said Riccò after the stage, complementing his team captain, Simoni. "We did the climb this winter. He called me and said 'come with me and we will ride the hardest stage of the Giro.'"

Riccò was part of the Saunier one-two when his teammate opened the throttle at 325 metres to the top of the cold Tre Cime summit. The stage win moved him up in the GC and closer to his pre-Giro objective, the young riders Maglia Bianca. He is now only 43" behind leader Andy Schleck (Team CSC).

"I am happy to win my first Giro stage, and it was the hardest stage of the Giro."

Eddy Merckx, winner on Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1968, was on hand to witness the moment. "That win was my most memorable," he reflected. "It is hard to make parallels back to my day but this was truly a difficult day," said the five-time Giro winner. "Today was very, very hard and young Riccò did an amazing job. He first did lots of work with Piepoli on the Pellegrino and then was able to win on the Tre Cime. ... I think both Riccò and Andy Schleck are two riders for the future."

Leo Piepoli waved through his young mate in the final 75 metres. The rider from Puglia had worn the Maglia Verde of best climber all day, however it was on loan from Di Luca and Piepoli set affairs correct by moving in the lead with 19 points.

Colombian Parra and Mexican Pérez provide an international mix to the finale but neither of the true mountain-men could match Saunier's aces. Romping towards the line, just under one minute later, was Mazzoleni. The rider who was named after Merckx was at one point the virtual race leader but ended the day satisfied with his seven-place jump in the overall; he is now in second.

After to Riccò, Di Luca's performance shined the brightest on this cloudy, mythical day to Tre Cime. 'The Killer' struck at 2000 metres to go and left behind a dead looking Simoni, Cunego and Schleck. He was out to save his pink jersey that was in the claws of Mazzoleni.

"Mazzoleni had attacked us on the descent of Giau and I just tried to save myself," recalled Di Luca of the taxing moment. "I was without teammates, but, in the end, I was happy with the result. ... At one point I did not have the maglia but I managed my force in the final kilometres."

Di Luca can consider himself luckily to have the lead when his team had disappeared and Saunier was on the hunt. "My team was tired, they had pulled early. Mazzoleni put in a good attack and I had to finish off the work." Di Luca is now looking at the final difficult stages before the race wraps up in Milano, next Sunday. "Mazzoleni is close on the classification and he can go well in the crono. But I am also watching Schleck."

"Di Luca has good form and his team has worked hard," echoed Merckx. "He as enough experience to manage himself over the next days. Tomorrow is a rest day and he will just need to handle the final difficult stages."

Simoni lost another opportunity to dunk Di Luca into the deep end. On home roads, he simply did not have the legs to mount an offensive on Di Luca and join his teammates up the road. "I had good teammates up front and I am happy for them," Gibo noted optimistically. "It was a really hard stage but I am very content. Saunier Duval showed a lot of force today."

He said to his winning teammate, "Complements to you Riccò! I said when he left 'you are crazy!'" ... I am going for the Maglia Rosa, the time doesn't matter, I will go on." He is fourth overall.

Cunego, who is looking tired the tail-end of the Corsa Rosa, was also with out a punch to throw at Di Luca. "We tried but it is like that. I will try everyday, not just wait until Zoncolan. Everyday will be a battle," concluded an exhausted Cunego.

How it unfolded

As the skies cleared from morning rain and church bells rang throughout Trento, 146 riders departed Piazza Duomo at 11:15 this morning for a mythical, monumental Sunday ride through the Dolomiti Mountains to a mountaintop finish on the Tre Cime Di Lavaredo climb. It was to be the big stage, or "tappone" of the 90th Giro d'Italia.

The gruppo compatto headed due north along the Adige River valley with a tailwind, passing through vineyards of Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay towards the climb up to Cavalese and the Val di Fiemme to pierce the hard heart of the Dolomiti Mountains. Along the Strada Statale 12 "Brennero" towards the Brenner Pass, there were attacks and counter-attacks and eventually a big group of the right combination of riders made up the early break which escaped after 21 kilometres. 12 kilometres later, the break had 3'00" after 40 kilometres covered.

Next up was the as the 16-kilometre ascent from Ora in the Adige Valley up to San Lugano where the Val di Fiemme began. The big break, now at 5'00", was composed of World Champ Paulo Bettini (Quickstep) Cannada and Belohvosciks (Saunier Duval), Marzano (Lampre), Totò Commesso, Contrini and Brutt (Tinkoff), Nocentini and Mondory (Ag2r), Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom) Lucky Baliani (Panaria), Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis), Caucchioli (Crédit Agricole), Penna (Euskaltel), Jegou (FDJeux), Krauss (Gerolsteiner), Jufré and Zanini (Predictor-Lotto), Rasmussen (Rabobank), Knees (Milram), Aaron Olson (T-Mobile) and Billy Bileka (Discovery).

The Liquigas team of Maglia Rosa was riding tempo on the front and by Moena at the foot of the first rated climb of the day, the Passo San Pellegrino, an 11.8-kilometre ascent, with a 6.4% average gradient with sections of up to 14 percent, the break had a gap of 6'52" and was collaborating well.

Back in the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, the Saunier Duval strategy di giorno quickly became clear after 84 kilometres; they sent Piepoli and Riccò on a counter-attack after five kilometres on the San Pellegrino climb and, who were quickly who joined by climbers Parra (Cofidis) and Pérez Cuapio (Panaria). This quartet gained ground on the break and the Gruppo Maglia Rosa.

At the feed zone in Cencenighe Agordo after 110 kilometres, the break had 4'27" on the Gruppo Maglia Rosa while the Piepoli counter-attack had joined the big break five kilometres later. On the uncategorized 10-kilometre ascent from ski resort of Alleghe up to the summit of Colle Santa Lucia, Saunier Duval sent Cannada to up the pace and this caused about half of the break to go out the back by the summit of Colle Santa Lucia, where the road descends to the Passo Giau, a 9.8-kilometre ascent at 9.4% average gradient.

As the Passo Giau began in Selva di Cadore, Piepoli then hit the front on the cloudy wet road with temperatures in mid-teens but no rain was falling.

It was the fourth time in Giro history over Passo Giau as only Pérez Cuapio, Parra and Rasmussen could stay with the two Saunier Duval riders. A fifty strong Gruppo Maglia Rosa was at 3'15" with Liquigas riding well with Spezialetti on the front, but after three kilometres of Giau, Paolo Savoldelli moved to the front and notably upped the pace as he was working for teammate Eddy Mazzoleni. This blew the Gruppo Maglia Rosa apart, with all of Maglia Rosa's Liquigas teammates going out the back. Cunego was also isolated, as Bruseghin and Vila were dropped.

Another victim of the Astana attack was Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) who was popped and was struggling to get back on the Gruppo Maglia Rosa with his teammate Branislau Samoilau..

At the front of the race, halfway to the summit to Passo Giau, Piepoli's powerful progression had already popped almost everyone in the break, except his teammate Riccò, magic Mexican Pérez Cuapio (Panaria) and Parra (Cofidis), while the ever diminishing Gruppo Maglia Rosa was at 3'10" with just eight riders left; Savoldelli, Mazzoleni, Schleck, Simoni and Arroyo. As Didi Devil ran alongside the break with three kilometres to the summit of Passo Giau, Pérez Cuapio took the devils trident from him and poked Piepoli, then gave it back to the German! The magic Mexican was pleased with himself and cracked a big smile, as next to him, Colombian Ivan Parra was struggling with the ascent.

Behind in the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 2.7 kilometres from the summit of Passo Giau, Di Luca got tired of Savoldelli's antics and said "basta." The Maglia Rosa accelerated hard and only Schleck, Mazzoleni, Cunego and Simoni could stay with him. Up front, sat the 40-kilometre to go arch, Piepoli slowed slightly and Riccò then took over on the front. The riders put on their wind jackets as the temperature was just five degrees and at the summit of the 2236m high Passo di Giau. Di Luca's pace had personally pulled back 30" to 2'45", with Savoldelli, Petrov and Pozzovivo chasing hard at 3'15", and Garzelli, Bruseghin and others chasing at 4'30".

Parra was gapped by Piepoli and Riccò on the fast 20-kilometre descent to the world famous ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo as was Pérez Cuapio, the break passed through Cortina d'Ampezzo and both Parra and Pérez Cuapio had rejoined the break. As super descender Savoldelli regained the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, he went to the front and attacked with his teammate Mazzoleni on the descent in Pocol with 28 kilometres remaining. It was a brilliant move that would have major consequences in the final outcome of the stage.

Through Cortina d'Ampezzo the chase was on; the four front riders were still together and Saunier Duval's aggressive strategy was paying off, but Mazzoleni and Savoldelli were coming up fast on the break, and also gaining time on the Gruppo Maglia Rosa. With 20 kilometres to race. as the penultimate ascent of the Passo Tre Croci began, an eight-kilometre ascent with an average of 7.2%, the front quartet was together, with Savoldelli, Mazzoleni and Rasmussen chasing at 1'50" and the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 3'15".

Mazzoleni had gained 1'25" on Di Luca in eight kilometres by the foot of the Tre Croci. Savoldelli had done his work and he peeled off to let his Astana teammate fly away after the leaders.

At the Passo Tre Croci GPM, with 14 kilometres to race, a few raindrops were now falling from the threatening skies as the four front fugitives were still led by Piepoli and Riccò, while Mazzoleni was coming up fast, just at 1'20". Rasmussen was now alone in no man's land at 2'46" behind and closing on the front of the race while, further back, the Gruppo Maglia Rosa contained Di Luca, Schleck, Cunego, Sella, Pozzovivo, Petrov, Arroyo, Savoldelli and Simoni. The gap between the break and Gruppo Maglia Rosa was now 4'00", which meant that Riccò and Mazzoleni had both taken time from Di Luca. There were now three Panaria riders in the Gruppo Maglia Rosa as Luckily Baliani had gotten back on.

The cold rain had increased on the short descent from the Passo Tre Croci and as soon as the road turned back up, Parra attacked but was covered by Piepoli. At 10 kilometres to go, Mazzoleni was 1'24" behind the break, with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 4'24" and Mazzoleni was now just a few seconds out of the Maglia Rosa Virtuale.

It was past Lago di Misurina and then the steep 7.2-kilometre ascent to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo commenced, with its 7.6% average grade and sections up to 18%. Riccò took off solo and quickly gained 15" on the other three. Behind, Mazzoleni's lead had grown to 3'30" on the Gruppo Maglia Rosa and the Astana man was dreaming the impossible dream, as he had become the Maglia Rosa Virtuale. But Mazzoleni's dream lasted only a few kilometres, as Di Luca still had something left.

With three kilometres to go to the summit of Tre Cime Di Lavaredo, there was a mano a mano battle at the front of the break between Riccò and Pérez Cuapio on the terrible, steep ramp of a road, while Mazzoleni had faded a bit and was now 1'20" behind the break. In the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, Cunego had attacked and Di Luca covered, then made his own move 500 metres later that shredded his group when he went. Simoni could only follow 10 metres behind as the Maglia Rosa showed just how strong he still was. The break passed under the one-kilometre kite, Parra made an attack that was countered by Riccò, which dropped Pérez Cuapio definitively. Riccò kept going in the final kilometre and only his teammate Piepoli could stay with him.

Atop Tre Cime Di Lavaredo, Riccò took his first career win at the Giro d'Italia, with Parra third at 10", Pérez Cuapio fourth at 32". Mazzoleni powered home 1'29" for fifth but his rosa dream was ended by the Maglia Rosa himself, as Di Luca flew up the last three kilometres faster than any rider and was sixth, 2'53" behind Riccò and 1'24" from Mazzoleni. Simoni was next across the finish line atop Tre Cime Di Lavaredo at 3'30" and had lost almost a minute to Di Luca, while Cunego was eighth, just six seconds behind Simoni.

The GC picture has changed notably after Stage 15 in the 90th Giro d'Italia. Di Luca is still in command, while Astana man Mazzoleni's audacious move Sunday move him from ninth on GC at 3'15" to second at 1'51".

Best Young Rider Andy Schleck hung tough on a difficult stage to maintain third on GC and lost only 16" to Di Luca. Saunier Duval's Gibo Simoni moved up one place to fourth, but lost 37" to Di Luca. Cunego slid down one place to fifth and lost 43" to Di Luca on Tre Cime Di Lavaredo.

Riccò made a big jump from 13th to sixth and took back over three minutes from Maglia Rosa Di Luca today. Panaria's climber Lele Sella and Tinkov's Petrov swapped places today and are respectively eighth and ninth, while Cunego's Lampre teammate Marzio Bruseghin started stage 15 just 55" behind Di Luca but faded in the mountains and is now 10th, 9'29" behind Di Luca. But Stage 15's biggest loser was stage 14 winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), who finished 36th at 17'29", going from 12th on GC to 17th. Piepoli took the Maglia Verde of Best Climber as a proper leader, while top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi still rules the Best Sprinter Competition for the Maglia Ciclamino.

Stage 16 - Tuesday, May 29: Agordo (Dolomiti Stars) - Lienz (Austria), 189 km

After a well-deserved rest day, the Giro starts again with a sortie into Austria from the eyewear town of Agordo with climbing from the start over the Passo Campolongo.

Perfect for opportunistic stage seekers, stage 16 could be decided by the steep ascent of the Bannberg, 27 kilometres from Lienz.

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