Simoni: King of Zoncolan

Simoni and Schleck gain on Monte Zoncolan GC battle - Di Luca saves Maglia Rosa

Gilberto Simoni conquered the Monte Zoncolan for a second time and this time, four years later, it was up the super-stiff gradients from Ovaro. With Saunier Duval teammate Leonardo Piepoli and Andy Schleck (Team CSC) he was not able to force Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) out of the race leader's Maglia Rosa but the 35 year-old succeeded in making the feared 10.1-kilometre climb his and moved into third overall, behind Luxemburger Schleck.

"I said 'I will do it for you, I will do it for you,'" recalled Piepoli of his instance to help Simoni take Monte Zoncolan four years after his first, and for the first time the race ever climbed the 10.1 kilometres from Ovaro. Piepoli powered away from Schleck at 200 metres and then Simoni joined his mate at 125 metres to go. After Gibo's win the two embraced in celebration.

"At one point Leo told me to stop pulling, so he could work for me," noted Simoni standing next to his teammate. The two-time Giro winner worked with Piepoli and young Schleck up the gradients to put race leader Di Luca into difficulty. The Saunier duo was not able to make the distance and it then decided to focus on the stage victory.

Simoni vied for his first 2007 stage victory, eighth in career, and let 'Leo' take over the reins. "I thought it was wise because I saw how strong Schleck looked. I am happy, but I also think that Di Luca could have won today and it would have been merited. ... Nothing against Di Luca but we had to make our race against him."

"I did not know if it was possible to win here again after four years," continued Simoni on his pre-stage thoughts. "I saw that Di Luca was too strong for me [in the overall picture] so to win this stage helps. Leo did a good job and I had also did my work at the beginning of the climb."

31 year-old Di Luca from Abruzzo proved to be as smart as he is strong. He wisely went at his own pace with the artilleries were fired by Saunier's Iban Mayo at nine kilometres to go. "I am satisfied with how I conserved myself," said Di Luca, who is looking more and more likely to be wearing the same pink jersey in Milano on Sunday. "The Giro ends on Saturday. The time trial is long. I have good gap but I will still watch out. I am not a cronoman but I think I can play my cards against Simoni and Schleck."

'The Killer' continued regarding the Zoncolan, "I paid a little bit at first but then I continued at my pace and it went okay." The riders covered the never before raced road up the western slope of Zoncolan. "The first six kilometres never seemed to end. Then after that it was a little easier, you could say.

"Maybe on the first part of the climb I made a few small errors but then I think that I had a good finale." Di Luca passed Cunego for fourth and is now in the lead by 2'24" over Schleck and 2'28" over Simoni. "My advantage is important but it is not decisive."

Piepoli agreed with Di Luca's assessment. "I think that the race is still open. We have to watch Schleck."

"We escaped after 23 kilometres," noted Massimo Codol (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo) who formed part of the day's major escape with the likes of Bettini, Baliani and Cioni . "We had a good move with Bettini, etcetera; men with good condition. I tried to climb at my own pace - we had 3'20" at the base. But the climb was very irregular. Saunier lifted the tempo and maybe if I had a few more seconds then I could have got the stage. It is too bad."

World Champion Bettini concurred with his compatriot but was happy to see Simoni win. "I knew behind the race was being fought and that it would have been hard to stay clear. ... Gibo is my same age; this is his piece of land and I am happy for him."

Simoni is uncertain of his future and the Zoncolan victory could have been his swan song. "I don't know what I will do next year," the day's champion said. "This victory helps me, it makes up for a lot. It gave me and the team a lot of joy. Maybe next year we can have Piepoli be the captain and me gregario," he jokingly concluded.

How it unfolded

It was partly cloudy and cool in Lienz at 13:05 as the riders departed on Pustertaler Strasse in Lienz. Many riders had the lowest gears possible to scale the terrible ascent of Zoncolan, with 34X29 compact mounted on the bicycle of Maglia Rosa Di Luca, and some riders were even using triple chainsets! The gruppo headed back to Italy the same way they came by the day before, except they avoided the Alpenhochstrasse and stayed on the main road along the river. After crossing the border after 33 kilometres, the riders made a left turn in San Candido and started the first climb of the day, Passo di Monte Croce di Comelico. Already on the 10-kilometre wall of Monte Zoncolan, race organizers were saying that there were almost 100,000 spectators along the road.

All early moves by usual suspects like Schwab (Quickstep) and Le Boulanger (Bouygues) were covered by Liquigas of Maglia Rosa Di Luca and Saunier Duval of Gibo Simoni who were riding fast tempo to keep the gruppo compatto and avoid any breaks getting away after 25 kilometres in Aftenbach. There was a move that got away which contained Cioni and Aerts (Predictor), Cano (Rabobank), Codol (Acqua & Sapone), Facci & Engels (Quickstep), Lucky Baliani (Panaria), Naibo (Ag2r), Le Boulanger (Bouygues Telecom), Irizar (Euskaltel) and Finnish champ Jussi Veikkanen (Française Des Jeux). When Bettini bridged he made it a dozen and after 30 kilometres in Sillian the fugitives had 30" and the double pace line was making time as everyone was working well. At the Austrian / Italian border the gap was already 2'30" and after 40 kilometres in San Candido, the break was gaining ground, but Liquigas and Saunier Duval were not giving them too much leeway.

At first GPM atop Passo di Monte Croce di Comelico, it was the ever opportunistic Lucky Baliani who took the points, with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa led by Saunier Duval's Litu Gomez at 4'10". Predictor's Cioni Aerts and Quickstep's Engels were driving the break hard. Aerts had won Flèche Wallonne and the skinny Belgian like steep climbs, while his teammate was really looking for a result on stage 17. At the Garibaldi intermediate sprint atop Cima Sappada with 52 kilometres to go, it was the rainbow jersey of Paolo Bettini that flashed across the line ahead of Le Boulanger and Codol with the stage pace over 20 minutes faster than the fastest (35km/hr) time schedule, with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 5'23".

The fugitives then descended the same road where Steven Roche attacked in 1987 with Ennio Salvador and his Carrera teammate, Maglia Rosa Vinsentini, whocracked on the ascent and ended losing the pink tunic at the stage finish that evening in Lido di Jesolo. The descent from Cima Sappada was a fast 15-kilometre run to the penultimate ascent of Tualis that commenced with 30 kilometres to go.

The 3.5-kilometre ascent was short but steep, with an average gradient of 9.4%. Then after the summit of Tualis there was a short descent, then a long gradual false flat ascent to the summit of the Ravasceltto climb with 21 kilometres to race. The final phase of stage 17 was about to begin as over 100,000 tifosi were waiting for the spectacle of riders racing up the terrible ramp of Monte Zoncolan from Liaariis. The gap between the escape and the Gruppo Maglia Rosa was 5'00" and falling as Lampre had joined the chase behind. Zabriskie (CSC) had a front flat in the Gruppo Maglia Rosa with 35 kilometres to go but got back in after a wheel change.

As the break began the ascent to Tualis, Cioni was making the tempo but as the grade got steeper, Codol hit the front. Behind the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, the serious players were swarming at the front as Liquigas, Saunier Duval and Astana were all there. Cofidis climber Parra had a flat at the base of the steep climb, got a wheel change from his teammate Buffaz and still got back before the summit, while one kilometre later, Dupont (Ag2r) had a flat and got an awkward wheel change. There were only 10 left up front as Irizar and Naibo were dropped and at the Tualis GPM it was that Lucky man Baliani again who took the points ahead of Cioni and Codol.

In the Gruppo Maglia Rosa 4'15" behind, Liquigas was still in control with Mikhailov and Spezialetti riding tempo. Everyone was waiting for the Monte Zoncolan ascent to begin. The sky was overcast with a cool mountain temperature of 20 degrees, a perfect afternoon for racing. On the descent to Comeglians and then Ovaro, Baliani, Cioni and Codol continued their action from the GPM and had a gap of about 10" on the eight other riders, with Irizar and Naibo at 45". Caucchioli and Petrov both had flats at the base of descent and had to work hard to get back to the front of the Gruppo Maglia Rosa, led by Liquigas.

The escape hit the base of the climb with Finnish champ leading with the Gruppo Maglia Rosa at 3'30" and closing. Veikkanen was leading on the first steep slopes, then Codol and Cano took over on the front. There would only be neutral service from motorcycles on the steep, narrow ascent of Monte Zoncolan. As the road became steeper after one kilometre, then went through the village of Liariis and then started the climb. Cioni moved his big frame to the front and started forcing the pace, exploding the front group, with only his teammate Aerts and Baliani able to maintain contact.

In the Gruppo Maglia Rosa two kilometres behind, Liquigas was still in command until Saunier Duval's Iban Mayo went to the front and upped the pace. But Liquigas still had Nibali and Pellizotti riding tempo and Mayo faded fast with eight kilometres still to climb. Their forcing dumped many riders as the road climbed to the sky, with Savoldelli, Rasmussen, Petrov and others going out the back.

With seven kilometres to go, Cioni was alone in the lead, 2'30" ahead of the Gruppo Maglia Rosa which was now down to 10 riders. Pellizotti was still there for Di Luca as the chase group was picking the remains of the break one after another. In the next kilometre as Pellizotti peeled off, Simoni then hit the front and started his own forcing.

Mazzoleni and Garzelli dropped off and his Saunier Duval teammate Riccò began to lose metre after metre. At the halfway point of the ascent of Monte Zoncolan, on a road lined five deep with tifosi, the race situation had become crystal clear. Predictor's Cioni was still in the lead, 40" seconds ahead of Codol who was closing on the big Anglo-Italian, while 2'00" behind, Simoni was putting pressure on Di Luca in the Gruppo Maglia Rosa. They were coming up fast on the race leaders as Cioni was slowing and a few hundred metres later both Di Luca and Cunego dropped off the pace. With four kilometres still to climb as a long, steep straight part of the climb began, Cioni was still hanging on out front, with Codol at 20" and closing, while Simoni was at 1'40" with his Saunier Duval teammate Piepoli and a surprising Andy Schleck, while both Maglia Rosa Di Luca and Cunego were hanging tough 20" back.

There was still one steep, hard kilometre left to climb of Monte Zoncolan before the flatter, easier final two thousand metres and Codol had caught and passed Cioni, who had blown sky-high with 3500 metres still to race. The Simoni group was chasing at 30", while Maglia Rosa and Cunego were at 50". Cunego was trying to dump Di Luca but the Maglia Rosa was hanging tough. As the steepest part of the ascent of Monte Zoncolan ended with 2000 metres to go, Codol was just ahead of the gruppo Simoni, with the Maglia Rosa and Cunego at 20".

Codol hung on for a while but with 1500 metres to go, there were just three riders left, as Codol had been caught after 115 kilometres away. Piepoli was now riding hard to set up Simoni for a final attack and as the front trio rode under the one kilometre to go kite and approached the three tunnels in the final 1000 metres. There were three riders chasing them; Maglia Rosa Di Luca, Cunego and Codol. Piepoli wound it up and with 200 metres to go, the incredible Schleck finally popped and the two Saunier Duval riders headed to the finish line together.

After 39'05" of climbing at an average speed of 15.05kmh, Gilberto Simoni conquered the ascent of Monte Zoncolan for his second career win atop the terrible ascent, this time on the harder side from Ovaro. Simoni won the Giro stage atop Monte Zoncolan in 2003 and was very happy to win his first Giro d'Italia stage since 2004 at Corno del Scale. It was the 36th career victory for the tough little Trentino mountain man. Maglia Verde and super gregario Leo Piepoli was runner up and got a huge hug of thanks from Gibo after the stage.

The 21 year-old Andy Schleck was third at 7", while Di Luca dumped Cunego and came fourth at 32" with the Lampre rider 6" behind him. Codol had a great ride as the last rider out of the day's break for sixth at 58", while the best of the rest was magic Mexican Julio Pérez Cuapio who had a superb ride to finish stage 17 in seventh at 1'19", while Di Luca's Liquigas teammate Franco Pellizotti was eighth at 1'40" after working for the Maglia Rosa all day.

Di Luca kept his Maglia Rosa and lost some time, but the Liquigas rider may be worried about Saturday's time trial, as Andy Schleck has now moved into second on GC at 2'24" after gaining 32" on the Liquigas man today. Gibo Simoni also moved up the rankings into third at 2'28" behind the Maglia Rosa. Schleck is an excellent time trialist and should gain time on Di Luca, but it's unlikely that the Liquigas rider will lose the race lead in Saturday's 43-kilometre TT.

Can Simoni hang on to his podium spot, 1'01" ahead of Damiano Cunego, who is at 3'29" from Maglia Rosa on GC? Cunego did ride a superb final TT in last year's Tour De France and Simoni is in real danger of losing his podium spot to arch-rival and former teammate Cunego. Astana's Eddy Mazzoleni slipped from second to fifth today and although he is a good TT man, he'll have to recover almost 2'20" on Simoni to arrive on the podium at this year's Giro.

Ricardo Riccò lost some time today but still hung on to his sixth place on GC, while Caisse d'Epargne's Arroyo is still seventh on GC even though he lost almost 4'00" today. Despite some bad luck today, Tinkoff's Evgeni Petrov managed to move up one place on GC to eighth as Panaria climber Lele Sella had a bad day at the office and fell out of the top 10 on GC, while Di Luca's teammate Pellizotti moved into the top 10 with ninth place and Cunego's teammate Bruseghin moved back into the top 10 in 10th place.

Stage 18 - Thursday, May 31: Udine - Riese Pio X, 203 km

Speedsters to the fore on stage 18 from Friluian capital Udine across the flat Veneto roads to the small town of Riese Pio X, birthplace of Pope Pius 10. With two finishing circuits, look for Milram's Ale-Jet Petacchi to be the first across the line in Riese Pio X, the hometown of 2006 Tour stage winner Matteo Tosatto who is racing for Quickstep at this years Giro d'Italia.

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