Finalmente Petacchi - Ale-Jet strikes back

Gaspa re-takes the Maglia Rosa

'Ale-Jet' Alessandro Petacchi has returned to take revenge after a year of suffering. The 33 year-old Italian ended his Giro d'Italia last year with a fractured kneecap but, today, he returned to show that he still has the power to win on the big stage. The Milram sprinter took control in the final 300 metres to hold off an emerging Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner).

"I suffered so much," said Petacchi in tears of joy. "I am so happy. I want to thank everyone that stuck with me for the last year; my wife, my family, my friend Michele Bartoli... Thanks; thanks to everyone."

Milram once again dedicated its men to the chase to recapture the last two escapees. They worked hard to bring back Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Giovanni Visconti (Quickstep-Innergetic) with around four kilometres remaining and then setup the lead-out. But there were still doubts lingering after Petacchi's stage two miss.

Following a counter-attack by Matteo Tosatto (Quickstep-Innergetic), Milram was washed away in the final kilometre. Rabobank and Gerolsteiner moved to the fore before Irishman Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole) launched. The move did not stick and Ale-Jet arrived to the front with 300 metres remaining.

He led down the left-hand side with Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital) on his wheel. The Lampre sprinter faded as Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) moved up alongside the barriers. Petacchi held of the emerging German to win his first Giro stage since May 29, 2005.

"I had to restart my career from the top. I thought I had returned to full strength but to win a Giro stage is another thing. Winning this stage today seemed like winning my first stage," Petacchi continued.

"Today, I really had better sensations and felt that I had better legs. It seemed as it was the best sprint in my career."

Argentinean sprinter Maximiliano Richeze (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) was not able to win but he did have some success. He held off Maglia Ciclamino wearer Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto).

Enrico Gasparotto (Liquigas) tried his luck in the sprint and, although he did not win the stage, was rewarded with the Maglia Rosa. "Thanks to the work of the team and to my teammates," said Gaspa who will trade in the Maglia Bianca of best young rider for the more prestigious race leader's jersey.

"This morning we decided that Gasparotto would try for the sprint," said Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) who passed the leader's jersey back to Gaspa, who had it for the fist day, after the team's stage one win.

A crash marred the finish for big Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole). He noted to a TV reporter that he was pushed by someone into the barriers. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) and Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) were reportedly involved in the crash but both are suspected to be without injuries.

How it unfolded.

193 riders departed the town of Barumini in south-central Sardinia, near the world famous ancient archaeological site of Nuraghe su Nuraxi, constructed 3500 years ago. Quickstep's Andrea Tonti didn't start as he broke his nose in yesterday's final kilometre crash, while T-Mobile's Adam Hansen broke two fingers in a crash and was also a DNS.

Another warm and sunny day greeted the Giro gruppo on Stage 3 as temperatures were around thirty degrees. The action started right from the gun as it was Tinkoff on the move again, as Mikhail Ignatiev and Elio Aggiano attacked and were joined by Frenchmen Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), and Alexandre Pichot (Bouygues Telecom) as well as Bettini's protégé Giovanni Visconti (Quickstep). There was a lukewarm chase but the quintet quickly gained ground on the gruppo as the road climbed east out of Barumini for the first 15 kilometres and the lead quickly jumped to five minutes in Nurri as the road began to descend after 30 kilometres.

Liquigas was on the front taking responsibility for its Maglia Rosa Danilo Di Luca but not chasing all out. At the tiny borgo of Ballao after 60 kilometres at the base of descent in Nurri, the five escapees gained their maximum advantage of 7'40". At the seaside feed zone, after 93 kilometres in Case Picci, the gap was stable at seven minutes. After lunch, the chase speed cranked up behind and with 70 kilometres to go near Camisa, the gap was now under six minutes.

Ignatiev attacked and only Visconti could follow as Buffaz, Aggiano and Pichot were quickly distanced and absorbed by the gruppo. Once the word came back to the gruppo that the break had split up, the sprinters teams from Predictor and Milram hit the front and begin to chase.

Two of the most talented young riders in cycling were away; 21 year-old Ignatiev, Olympic track gold medallist at 19, U23 World TT Champ and winner of Trofeo Laigueglia this season, and 24 year-old Visconti, originally from Palermo, Sicily, was Italian and European champion in 2004. Both riders were making their Giro d'Italia debuts in grand fashion.

At the Garibaldi intermediate sprint in Villasimius, near Capo Carbonara on the southeast tip of Sardinia, Ignatiev rolled across ahead of Visconti with the gap to the chasing gruppo at 5'30". The next 30 kilometres headed west towards Cagliari and were up and down with a tailwind on a beautiful coast road along the Gulf of Cagliari.

The temperatures were hot and the racing even hotter; the clear cool blue waters beckoned the riders but there was still a job of work to do for the two escapees and the chasing gruppo. Big Stefano Zanini of Predictor, the 37 year-old hammer-head, was pounding away on the coast road as the wind became a side-wind from the left.

At Solanas, with 37 kilometres to go, the two young talents were still hammering away off the front, but they had lost one minute, and with 13 kilometres to go they were now only 4'30" ahead. At the back of the peloton, an ailing Graeme Brown abandoned.

With the wind now favourable along the coast road and only 30 kilometres to go, the two escapees had a lead of 3'30" and Zazà Zanini was still humping hard on the front to keep Ignatiev and Visconti in check. With 23 kilometres to go near Flumini, the coast road finally flattened out and the chase pace behind cranked up again, but the lead was still over 3'00".

Crédit Agricole, CSC and Euskaltel-Euskadi had now joined the chase and the gruppo was lined out in Indian file at almost 60 km/h. With 20 kilometres the gap was 2'45" but the side-wind slowed the break while a double pace line was pulling back time - at 15 kilometres to go the gap was at 1'45", with one minute pulled back in five kilometres by the chase.

With Cagliari looming, the two front riders tried to hold off the thundering herd. At 10 kilometres to go, their lead was at 1'06" and falling fast as Milram and Liquigas were powering away on the front of the chasing gruppo. Ignatiev's power was starting to tell on Visconti as the Italian was skipping some pulls on the Tinkoff Russian.

As the break passed Poeto beach with eight kilometres remaining, the gap was now down to 40" and Ignatiev was going all out, with Visconti hanging on for dear life. But the Milram-led gruppo had the duo in their sights on the wide beach road and at five kilometres to race the gig was up. Visconti and Ignatiev sat up with four kilometres to go and the fireworks were about to begin. 33 year-old Matteo Tosatto (Quickstep) made a solo move at 3500 metres to go but the orange crush of Rabobank reeled him back after one kilometre of liberty.

As the last kilometre began, it was Caisse D'Epargne that was trying to come up on Milram, with T-Mobile's Greg Henderson in the mix. As Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole) gapped off the front in a blown lead-out for his team leader Thor Hushovd, there was suddenly a crash which involved Hushovd, Cunego and Simoni but everybody was fine except the big Norwegian who lost some elbow skin.

As the sprinters hit the granite paving blocks, Roche was caught and the Milram train functioned perfectly again. Lampre's Napolitano tried to anticipate Petacchi, but Petacchi was ready and moved left on the smoothest part of the road to begin his inexorable progression towards the finish line. Unlike yesterday's sprint, where the Milram man was using his 53x12, stage 3 was classic Petacchi, where the La Spezia speedster found his 11 tooth gear and his championship legs to win the stage.

Petacchi took over the Maglia Ciclamino of points leader from his rival McEwen while taking his 20th career stage win in the Giro d'Italia.

Stage 4 will start south of Naples in Salerno, the capital of Campania province, and then it will head due east on the beautiful, dramatic roads of the Amalfi Coast. It will pass through the Soprano Family's home town of Avellino before the final climb to Montevergine di Mercogliano. The twisting final ascent over 17.1 kilometres is where Damiano Cunego won in 2004 and once again, the Lampre-Fondital rider could be the man to beat on the day but watch out for Stefano Garzelli.

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