Ale-Jet flies to fourth victory

Petacchi goes solo - Di Luca stays pretty in pink

A crash in the final 800 metres of today's stage of the Giro d'Italia to Riese Pio X meant that Alessandro Petacchi was left solo for the sprint finale. The Milram fast-man held off Maximiliano Richeze (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) over the closing metres to win his fourth stage this year and the 23rd in his career; Matti Breschel (Team CSC) finished in third. The general classification battle stayed status quo with Maglia Rosa Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) waiting for Saturday's big appointment, a 43-kilometre time trial to Verona.

"It was a long sprint," said an out of breath Petacchi, sitting on the ground after conquering Thursday's finale. "I was able to move up but it was hard. Another crash. I did not understand."

French squad Ag2r Prévoyance moved to the front to start the final kilometre for its leader Alexandre Usov. The boys took the left-hander onto Via Sarto from the inside and they proved to be moving too fast; Usov crashed when trying to avoid his lead-out man who slid into the barriers. The crash also involved Luca Mazzanti (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) and Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre-Fondital).

Hometown rider Matteo Tosatto (Quickstep-Innergetic), who had been sitting third wheel before the incident, was now out in front with Petacchi, Julian Dean (Crédit Agricole) and Richeze chasing, followed by three Gerolsteiners supporting local rider Oscar Gatto. Petacchi closed on Tosatto through the right-hander at 500 metres to go to begin the finale on Via Montegrappa with Richeze on his wheel. He pressed hard and held off the Argentinean and a fast-charging Matti Breschel.

"Everyone was at their limit. I was on the wheel of Lorenzetto and Lancaster up to the last curve [800m to go]. I saw AG2r going fast... there was the crash. Tosatto was off the front, but I knew I had to go from that point. I saw I had a good advantage with only Richeze for company."

Petacchi commented on the aggressiveness of his rivals. "Those riders thought they could handle it in the curve but it was a disaster," he said. "I hope Lancaster was ok [he stayed upright - ed.]. We don't have many men left so it is hard for us to control the final."

33 year-old Tosatto lives only 300 metres from the finish and he had been given the freedom from his team to vie for the win, even having the support of teammate and World Champion Paolo Bettini. Unfortunately, Tosatto did not have ideal position to take victory in front of his friends and family. "The two AG2r riders anticipated the curve and unfortunately I was left out too early," he commented post-stage. "It was too bad I was not able to win in my hometown but I will try again in the coming stages."

The young, 22 year-old Gatto also lives near the finish but could not shine. With Robert Förster out of the race, he had the Gerolsteiner team at his disposal but he was unable to benefit from his three-man Gerolsteiner lead-out. "It was hard, hard today," he noted. He will wait until the last day, Sunday, to try again. "I will to be a protagonist again in Milano."

All of the GC men arrived to Riese Pio X safely, and they will now be focusing their energies on surviving tomorrows 179-kilometres to Terme di Comano and riding Saturday's time trial.

"I never thought I would be here, at this point in the Giro with an advantage like this," said maglia rosa wearer Di Luca, obliviously happy with his 2'24" lead over Andy Schleck (Team CSC). "The race is not over, and I have to watch out for Schleck."

He is prepared for Saturday's run. "I have done the complete 43 kilometres in training, and I know the parcours."

Schleck issued a warning to Di Luca. "I feel very, very good and recuperated. It is true that he has a gap but I go faster in the time trial, so watch out," Schleck half-jokingly said towards Di Luca. "I am used to these types of 'threats' and I will be ready," responded Di Luca.

How it unfolded

The riders rolled out from Udine, just south of yesterday's mountaintop finish on Monte Zoncolan, at 12:23. All 142 riders that finished yesterday were present to start today on a dead-flat run from Udine to Riese Pio X. It is a westerly parcours skirting north of Treviso, home of Pinarello bicycles, and finishing just north of Castelfranco Veneto, home of Ronde van Vlaanderen Champion Alessandro Ballan, with two finishing circuits of 16.5 kilometres.

The altimeters would never jump above 90 metres today for the 203-kilometre push to Riese Pio X, a far cry in elevation from the 1730-metre heights of yesterday's finish on Monte Zoncolan.

The sprinters, Koldo Fernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Alexandre Usov (Ag2r Prévoyance), Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), Maximiliano Richeze (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare), Nikolai Trusov (Tinkoff Credit Systems), and local-yokel Matteo Tosatto (Quickstep-Innergetic), were ready to spread their wings with only one of two stages left for sprint finishes.

In the first 17.5 southerly kilometres, it was attack after attack. Chicken-man Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) opened up affairs with an attack in the first kilometre. Laszlo Bodrogi (Crédit Agricole) was hungry and countered the Dane, but by kilometre six, just short of S. Stefano Udinese, they were tacked back to the Gruppo Maglia Rosa of Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas).

To make up for a lack of Tinkoff representation in yesterday's mountainous romp, Pavel Brutt pulled the throttle back like he was Valentino Rossi on a MotoGP course. The long-haired Russian resisted, from kilometre seven, for a few minutes but was not allowed his space. However, Brutt's brutish efforts made way for an attack by teammate Elio Aggiano and Josep Jufré (Predictor-Lotto) at kilometre 10.

French Bouygues Telecom nailed the two men back after four kilometres but it could not stop the counter-manoeuvre by Leonardo Scarselli (Quickstep-Innergetic), Marco Marzano (Lampre-Fondital), Koos Moerenhout (Rabobank) and YAT (Yet another Tinkoffer) Ricardo Serrano. The four held a 10" advantage for a couple of kilometres but then were nailed back at kilometre 20.

This capture set off a new round of artilleries. Giuseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo) fired at kilometres 25 and then by Bouygues Telecom's Nicolas Crosbie at kilometre 30. Charles Wegelius (Liquigas) even had a slight moment of freedom, however, both he and Crosbie were captured before seven riders blasted away at kilometre 37.

The men, Addy Engels (Quickstep-Innergetic), Maxim Gourov (Astana), Patxi Vila (Lampre-Fondital), Franck Renier (Bouygues Telecom), Eric Berthou (Caisse d'Epargne), Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank) and Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems), built a gap of 20" in one kilometre and 1'18" by kilometre 46.

The fuga del giorno appeared to be bidding its time off the Gruppo Maglia Rosa. The sprinters' teams were full of angst after yesterday mountain romp and did not take "escape" for an answer. Lead-out men, like Aussie Lancaster and Irishman Roche, wanted to work like mad to ensure their captains were ready for the kill on the two 16.5-kilometre clock-wise circuits that ended the stage.

The magic seven had 2'00" over the Milram-controlled peloton by kilometre 52. This gap jumped up to the day's maximum of 2'30" by S. Vito Tagliamento, just after Wegelius pulled out of the Corsa Rosa. Wegelius' departure broke the Liquigas green machine down to eight men and meant that the race no longer had a squadra with a full complement of soldiers.

The riders went under the 40 kilometre banner with 1'36" in hand. Milram, for Alessandro Petacchi, and Euskaltel, for Koldo Fernández, were on the front of the peloton and they had it completely lined out. The seven's harmony on the tree-lined road near Ballan's home town of Castelfranco Veneto went south. The boys had far-away looks in their eyes and this was confirmed by a jab from Eric Berthou (Caisse d'Epargne). The Frenchman's move was followed by an attack from Kazakh Gourov 1,500 metres before the start of the final two circuits.

Eric Berthou (Caisse d'Epargne) chased and joined with Franck Renier (Bouygues Telecom). Addy Engels (Quickstep-Innergetic) had the legs and closed the gap right on the line, 33 kilometres to go, which made four; Engels, Gourov, Renier and Berthou, with Misha Ignatiev, Horrillo and Vila were chasing. Frenchman Franck Renier dedicated himself to the move with compatriot Berthou, Dutchman Engels and Kazakh Renier. The Renier hammered passed signs for sprinter Oscar Gatto and that was a bad omen.

The four hung on, keeping about 53", as their old partners were caught at kilometre 176 after enjoying 139 kilometres of freedom. Berthou led the four to the line marking the ultimo giro. They passed under the ringing bell and at 36", the Gruppo Maglia Rosa passed under the control of Milram, Euskaltel and Crédit Agricole at 16.5 kilometres to go.

The gap of 36" dropped quickly and at five kilometres remaining, they were caught. The four had 161 kilometres of freedom but it was not time to turn the race over to the sprinters. Crédit Agricole put big Laszlo Bodrogi on the front for Angelo Furlan but he was washed away by four Tinkoff men working for Nikolai Trusov.

The Russian-Italian squad of Oleg Tinkov held its position before a solo missile was fired by Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), which did not get far, and the subsequent surge of AG2r. The white-yellow-blue boys took control under the one kilometre to go kite, but then they lost it and caused chaos when they took the left-hander at 800 metres too fast.

Alessandro Petacchi proved he could handle 800 metres alone by holding off Tosatto and then Richeze, Breschel and Dean.

Stage 19 - Friday, June 1: Treviso - Comano Terme, 179 km

June opens at the Giro d'Italia with a transition stage from Treviso, the hometown of Cicli Pinarello that heads due west on the flats, then up and over the Pasubio valley and the Pian delle Fugazze climb over to the Adige River Valley, then over the Passo Ballino north of Lago di Garda to finish at the thermal resort of Comano Terme.

With the crucial time trial the next day, opportunistic riders who still have something in their legs will go on the attack in search of a Giro stage win.

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