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Rockin' Robbie McEwen sprints ahead of greats

World Champ Bettini and Milram train could not stop Aussie

Australian Robbie McEwen took the 90th Giro d'Italia's first sprint stage. The Predictor-Lotto rider latched on to the wheel of Alessandro Petacchi's Milram train and successfully over-powered the Italian and also kept the emerging World Champion Paolo Bettini at bay. The race leadership moved from Enrico Gasparotto (Liquigas) to his teammate Danilo Di Luca.

"I was pretty far back on the climb, there were maybe another 20 riders behind me going over the top," explained an exhausted but happy McEwen in Italian after winning. "But I was maybe 15, 20 positions behind Petacchi, so for me it was just important to come back to the Milram riders by the bottom of the descent. After that, the tactic was simple – I followed Petacchi and his team.

"They did a really good job to pull the sprint. Today I was stronger and I managed to pass Alessandro. I knew that Bettini was there on my wheel, looking for an opportunity, but there were no problems making it to the line."

His Predictor teammates, although not present in the final kilometre, had made sure the 34 year-old was in place for the finale and to take advantage of Milram's work. Brett Lancaster, Mirco Lorenzetto and then Alberto Ongarato pulled for Petacchi but he could not find the strength to deal with McEwen.

The multiple Giro stage winner remained with Ongarato and Petacchi out of the final turn, a right-hander at 300 metres to go. Once Ongarato pulled off McEwen started moving up with Bettini on his wheel. He was able to hold the Quickstep rider in second while Petacchi was left with third position.

"I can't say that the train did not go, it is Petacchi who did not go," said the Milram sprinter of his ride into Bosa. "I did the last climb up with the best sprinters and I thought I would be fine for the finish.

"I am content after my last year of troubles. Maybe I am still a little down in form but I hope to at least be able to win a stage."

The final downhill run into Bosa contained nothing but smooth roads but it was the nervous finish that caused a crash at 1300 metres to go to the line. Andrea Tonti (Quickstep-Innergetic) came off the worst but the crash also held up the Giro's Maglia Rosa, Enrico Gasparotto (Liquigas). Although the overnight leader did not go down, he lost his jersey to team captain Di Luca, who had stayed with the front runners. 'Gaspa,' now in second overall, will don the Maglia Bianca of the best young rider.

"It was too bad about the crash in the finale but I am happy to have the Maglia Rosa," said Di Luca after crossing the line. "I never saw the crash because I was up front."

How it unfolded

197 riders left Tempio Pausania for stage 2 at 12:10 on La Festa della Mamma (Mother's Day). Under a bright, warm sun with temperatures in the mid-twenties and a light wind, the race commenced, and after a few kilometres of chatting and visiting amongst the Giro d'Italia gruppo, the attacks started in earnest.

After 25 kilometres on the outskirts of S. Maria Coghinas, a quintet managed to escape; the five riders were Frédéric Bessy (Cofidis), Mauro Facci (Quickstep-Innergetic), Simone Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo), Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Arnaud Labbe (Bouygues Telecom). The break was cooperating well and after two hours of racing, the average speed was 43.2 km/hr. After the feedzone outside of Sassari, the gap was over six minutes and Liquigas had begun to chase.

In Alghero, an attractive city originally founded by the Catalans, was the Garibaldi intermediate sprint with 72 kilometres to go, it was cyclo-crosser big Arnaud Labbe (Bouygues Telecom) who beat Simone Masciarelli for the six-second time bonus.

Liquigas led the gruppo through Alghero four minutes behind the break, with the day's main climb up Monte Leone to Villanova, and the GPM (Gran Premio Della Montagna) with 48 kilometres to go. The five riders were still working together as they traversed the beautiful, wild countryside south of Alghero, with the two French riders Labbe and Bessy appearing to struggle. Euskaltel-Euskadi joined the pursuit of the front quintet but it was mostly the acid green and royal blue of Liquigas on the front.

Approaching the GPM in Villanova Monteleone with 48 kilometres to go, Labbe had been dropped from the break and was 1'30" behind the now four front runners, who still had a three-minute lead on the gruppo. Brutt was setting a brutal pace for the others.

Temperatures had reached 30°C degrees for the first really hot day of 2007 European racing and so many riders up front and in the gruppo were drinking a lot of water. At 500 metres before the GPM, Brutt blasted off the front with sheer brute force and pounded away from the riders in the break to take the first Maglia Verde of best climber at the 90th Giro d'Italia.

Norwegian Thor Hushovd had been dropped on the gentle ascent as Tonti of Liquigas led the gruppo through the GPM 2'40" behind.

Labbe was caught in Villanova Monteleone while Masciarelli dropped off the pace and was also absorbed. With 40 kilometres to go on the descent of the Valico di Pedra Ettori, a crash slowed T-Mobile's Adam Hansen who got a front wheel change from his team car and got back after a hard 10-kilometre chase.

Predictor-Lotto had now joined the chase, but the front trio was still going hard with Facci beginning to cramp. With 30 kilometres to go, the front trio had a two-minute lead as they commenced an uncategorized climb of four kilometres, where various riders like Hushovd and Juan José Haedo (Team CSC) were gapped.

Just before the descent to Bosa with the gruppo one minute behind, once again, Brutt gave a demonstration of brute force as he attacked his break companions. Solo, he headed down to the circuit of Bosa, with a 1.9-kilometre climb at 10 kilometres to go.

With 20 kilometres to go, Brutt was riding hard down the descent to Bosa with his blond mullet flowing in the air. The gruppo was now at 45 seconds and closing on the tough Russian.

Facci and Bessy were caught with 10 kilometres to go as the final ascent began, while Brutt still had 20 seconds. Miniscule climber Emanuele Sella (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) made a perfect counter-move and jumped off the front in pursuit of the Rockin' Russian, as Rebellin, Bettini, Garzelli and Maglia Rosa Gasparotto upped the pace behind. Sella got across to Brutt but the Russian hung tough on his wheel, even though the Tinkoff rider had been away for 185 kilometres.

Suddenly Caisse d'Epargne's Pablo Lastras came across with eight kilometres to go and gapped Sella and Brutt, who were absorbed by the chase, while the gruppo split in half.

The lean Spanish speedster had a gap of five seconds as Quickstep led the chase with six kilometres to go and he was caught with 5.5 kilometres to go. Liquigas and Lampre came to the front for Gasparotto and Cunego as George Hincapie also brought his stars and stripes jersey to the front. At 3.5 kilometres to go, Tinkoff's Evgeni Petrov attacked with Sella on his wheel as the Milram train hit the front for Petacchi.

In the hustle and bustle of the finale, Andrea Tonti (Quickstep-Innergetic) got jammed against the right barriers with 1300 metres to go. The crash took down Tim Klinger (Gerolsteiner), Charles Wegelius (Liquigas) and Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and also delayed Maglia Rosa Gasparotto.

Up front, with 500 metres to go, Mirco Lorenzetto (Milram) was on the front. The race made a right turn and Ongarato took over with 300 metres to go. He peeled off at 200 metres to go and Petacchi launched his sprint on a slight uphill. But right behind the Milram man and his lovely lead-out was lurking McEwen.

He lacked the explosive progression that he had before he broke his kneecap in last year's Giro, and he couldn't hold off the Predictor-Lotto man and ended up giving the quick Queenslander a perfect lead-out for the win. Petacchi sat up and was also passed by World Champ Bettini.

Predictor-Lotto's McEwen donned the Maglia Ciclamino with his sprint win, while Russian mullet-man Brutt was first over the day's only GPM and put on the Maglia Verde of best climber.

Starting in south-central Sardinia in Barumini, near the famous ancient archaeological site of Nuraghe su Nuraxi, stage 3 loops southeast to the seaside, then races west to finish in Cagliari. A tricky run-in through the city and the final 400 metres over rough granite pavé favours Predictor's Robbie McEwen once again. After the stage, the Giro d'Italia caravan will transfer to the Italian mainland by ferryboat.

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