Things are starting to wind down now as we head into the next-to-last stage of this year's Giro. Normally this would be a sprinters' stage, but a nasty climb to be faced twice at the end will probably put a stop to that idea.
The end is in sight! The exhausted men in spandex shorts have only two more stages to go and then they can claim, "We have survived the 2009 Giro!" Today's stage should supply some more fireworks, though, as there are only 18 seconds separating first and second, and second-place Danilo Di Luca is determined to take back the pink jersey. But Denis Menchov is equally determined not to let it go.
61km remaining from 203km
The race got underway at 12:40, and the peloton waited all of 4 km to get an escape group together. Robert Förster (Milram), Ben Swift (Katusha), Felix Cardenas (Barloworld), Angel Gomez (Fuji), Pablo Lastras (Caisse d'Epargne), Anders Lund (Saxo Bank), Francesco De Bonis ( Diquigiovann) and Guillaime Bonnafond (AG2R) have taken off and built up a lead of 3:43.
The bad news is that David Lopez of Caisse d'Epargne has had to leave the race in an ambulance. He and Matthieu Sprick of Bbox crashed at km. 46, and only Sprick was able to keep on.
Naples appeared in the first running of the Giro 100 years ago, as the finishing town of a relatively "short" stage of merely 242 km. It has hosted a start or finish many times since then.
66km remaining from 203km
So what are we going to see today? Will the group come through to the end? Will Di Lucas snap the stage win for himself and get enough of a lead to take over the pink jersey? Or will we see a sprint? You can talk about it in our forum.
This is actually a relatively flat stage, with only some minor bumps along the way. Until the end, that is. In Anagni the riders take on a circuit course which takes them up a climb twice, with the finish being at the top of the second climb.
75km remaining from 203km
The lead has dropped slightly, to 3:21.
77km remaining from 203km
Hmm, the lead continues to fall, coming down now to 2:49. Is the peloton putting down the hammer or is the group too weak?
The race started today in Napoli, the capital of both the region and the province. It has the rather dubious honour of sitting halfway between two volcanic areas, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields. Vesuvius was very well behaved yesterday as the peloton climbed up it, thank goodness.
Danilo Di Luca picked up a precious eight seconds yesterday to cut his deficit to 18 seconds, but he knows he needs to pick up a lot more than that today. Tomorrow's closing time trial is short, only 14.4 km, but Denis Menchov is demonstrably the better time trialist. Today, Di Luca said, "I’m going to try to win the stage or be there in the sprint. The finish suits my characteristics."
85km remaining from 203km
The gap is really jumping around, from three and half to two and half minutes. Now it is back up to 3:07. The peloton is flyng along in single file, so it looks like they aren't wiling to let this group go.
Who has won here at this year's Giro? Not counting the team time trial, we have 11 different winners for the 19 stages so far. Leading the ranking is Columbia's sprinter Mark Cavendish, with three. Five riders have won two stages each: Alessandro Petacchi, Danilo Di Luca, Denis Menchov, Michele Scarponi, and Carlos Sastre.
91km remaining from 203km
Not quite halfway through the day, and we have a gap of 3:15.
Team-wise, Columbia has the most stage wins with six. They won the team time trial, got three from Cavendish and one each from Edvald Boasson Hagen and Kanstantsin Siutsou. LPR has four wins, and Diquigiovanni and Cervelo both have three. A total of six teams have won stages.
We apologize for the lack of race reporting so far, but -- and you know what is coming -- it is a little hard at the moment to come by information. We'll try to keep you amused in the meantime!
Five different riders have worn the pink jersey so far: it started out with Mark Cavendish (two days), then to Alessandro Petacchi (one day), Thomas Lövkvist (one day), Danilo Di Luca (seven days) and Denis Menchov (nine days).
Carlos Sastre had perfect timing with his attack yesterday, according to teammate Serge Pauwels. "He showed he picked the right moment when the favourites were looking at each other and I was in a good position to slow down the chase group containing the favourites."
100km remaining from 203km
The lead group is now approaching the feed zone in Cassino, best known as the site of the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II, which resulted in many casualties on both sides.
The mountain jersey here is green and has rested on the shoulders of four men at this year's Giro. David Garcia (Xacobeo) and Mauro Facci (Quick Step) both wore it for one day before it drifted over to Danilo Di Luca for six days. Since then it has been worn by Stefano Garzelli.
108km remaining from 203km
The gap is now at its biggest: 3:49.
Four riders have passed around the white jersey for best young rider. Cavendish got it first (two days) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) wore it one day. Thomas Lövkvist (Columbia) had it the longest, but won't take it home. Kevin Seeldraeyers has worn it now for four stages.
113km remaining from 203km
And the lead yo-yos down again, to 3:11.
121km remaining from 203km
Whoops, lets make that 2:57 now!
The jersey for the rider with the most points in the maglia ciclimino and has been worn by only two riders so far. Petacchi wore it for four days before handing it off to Di Luca, who has had it the last 14 days.
The sun is shining again today. A variety of teams are sharing the lead work: Barloworld and Columbia are the first two we see.
131km remaining from 203km
The lead seems to be plummeting -- it is down to 1:47 now.
Menchov has the lead and has defended it rather easily the last few days, despite Di Luca's best efforts, but the Rabo Russian isn't counting his chickens before they hatch. "I’ve got to be attentive," he said. "We’ve got to wait until the final finish line in Rome."
The peloton is really speeding along now, and, surprise surprise, we see those gray LPR jerseys near the front. At the other end of the field is Lance Armstrong, who has dropped back to talk with whoever is driving the team car.
1:33 now for the group in front. De Bonis drops back to pick up a can of Coca-Cola.
The leaders go through the town of Ceprano with a lead of only 1:21. They don't look quite as well organized as they did earlier.
Milram's Björn Schröder and Robert Förster had quite an adventure after yesterday's stage. After riding back down Vesuvius, the bus driver told them it wasn't far to the hotel and they could ride their bikes to it. First they got lost and then they couldn't remember the name of the hotel. The driver of a neutral material car gave them the hotel name, but it turned out to be the hotel for tonight – 160 km away.
A big day for the Germans in the Bayern Rundfahrt today. They faced a time trial, and as expected, Linus Gerdemann of Milram used it to jump into the overall lead. The TT was won by Columbia's Tony Martin ahead of his teammate, World Champion Bert Grabsch. Gerdemann was third.
139km remaining from 203km
Only 1:05 for the leaders now.
A Liquigas rider is ferrying water bottles up to Pellizotti, Basso and Co. -- he looks quite deformed!
What was Vesuvius like? "It was a really crazy stage with a very dangerous run-in to the climb," said Garmin's Tom Danielson. "Cobbles, cars, dogs, holes, and people running into the road made for a very scary approach to the line."
41 seconds now with the peloton tearing along at 51 km/h.
37 seconds and the maglia rosa group will be able to see the escape group soon. And catch them soon.
Silence-Lotto has led the chase. This is the most we have seen of them so far in this year's Giro.
154km remaining from 203km
It's over now for the escape group. In a few minutes we will have our intermediate sprint, and the winner gets bonus seconds. We also see that Danilo Dl Luca is hanging on to the rear wheel of super sprinter Alessandro Petacchi. Will LPR try to slingshot Di Luca into the lead at the sprint?
It was a Belgium stage in the Ardennes today. Bert De Waele of Landbouwkrediet took the win from a splintered breakaway. He managed to stay clear by a length over the sprint from Greg Van Avermaet (Silence Lotto) and Lars Boom (Rabobank).
It's all LPR at the head and they take off in a team time trial, followed of course by Rabobank!
Rabobank put an end to that attempt, and Menchov is right back in his favorite position, seemingly permanently attached to Di Luca's rear wheel.
The two GC leaders make their tandem way up to the front of the peloton as the sprint approaches.
And Menchov jumps out for the sprint! Di Luca doesn't follow.
Petacchi took the sprint points ahead of Menchov, with Di Luca jumping up at the last minute to join them for third.
Markus Fothen of Milram has jumped out of the field and is trying to get away. The Giro has been so far sadly disappointing for both him and his team so far.
Menchov was able to pick up two seconds on Di Luca, so at the moment he leads by 20 seconds.
Fothen has company now. He has been joined by Agnoli and Brut, and they have about a 20 second lead.
Over in the Tour of Belgium, Boom took the overall lead ahead of Van Avermaet with De Waele in third - both trail by 1 second. That's even closer than our race here!
Do you suppose Di Luca will have nightmares in the future of being perpetually followed by a man in a pink jersey? He can't get rid of that pink shadow not matter what he tries. "I tried in every way to break away from him, but nothing," Di Luca said. "We'll see in the time trial in Rome, but for the moment he's the favourite because he's still in front."
Agnoli has dropped out of the lead group, which only has about a 15 second lead.
ISD and Silence-Lotto are at the head of the peloton. The duo in front has about 19 seconds.
167km remaining from 203km
LPR all huddled together (so to speak) as if they are discussing their plans for how next to take over the pink jersey.
33 seconds now for Fothen and Brut.
168km remaining from 203km
35 km to go for the leading duo, with a lead of 33 seconds. They will soon start on the circuit course in and around Anagni.
The stage ends in Anagni, a small medieval town with small twisting streets and steep lanes – hm, that sounds like fun!
Silence-Lotto continues to lead the peloton, followed by two ISD riders and then Rabobank behind them.
173km remaining from 203km
Armstrong looks to be enjoying a comfortable day rolling along in the pack.
40 seconds now for Brut and Fothen, as more Silence-Lotto riders move up to the front of the peloton.
LPR is nowhere to be seen, at least not in the front of the peloton. What are they up to now?
Now we see one LPR rider right in the middle of the Rabo group -- who else but Di Luca?
178km remaining from 203km
The pea-green Liquigas jerseys are now mixing in with Silence-Lotto at the front of the chasing peloton.
The peloton will have the two escapees in a moment, as they are now all on the closing circuit course. The ending today has been described as similar to many a Spring Classic. Guess that is why Silence-Lotto is doing so much lead work, they want to set up a win for Philippe Gilbert.
Liquigas up at the front now, as they start climbing.
About 10 riders have built up a small gap, including of course Menchov-
Oops, that wasn't Menchov but a Lampre rider -- too much pink and blue here!
The filed will have them in a second anyway.
Szmyd takes the mountain points.
185km remaining from 203km
A rider goes! From Cervelo? But he doesn't get away.
When will LPR make its move?
Lots of attacks now, with no one getting away.
They are descending and not wasting any time. Three riders have a small lead.
THe long stretched out peloton snakes around a series of hairpin curves.
Bartosz Huzarski (ISD), Anthony Charteau (Caisse d'Epargne) and Paulo Tiralongo (Lampre) now have an 11 second lead over the peloton.
The three look back nervously as they are about to be joined by Marco Pinotti of Columbia.
The four men in front are trying to get organized, but it doesn't look good for them as Saxo Bank has the peloton in a long, thin line in pursuit.
The pink jersey is situated nicely near the front as they hurtled towards the finish.
193km remaining from 203km
The four in front have 20 seconds, but we doubt that will be enough...
Huzarski empties his jersey pocket, anything to reduce weight and gain a few seconds!
The closing climb is not so steep, it might be something for the sprinters after all. But we think Di Luca will have other plans. Perhaps Petacchi will lead him out?
200km remaining from 203km
The field is bearing down on the escapees.
Pinotti goes for it. He is a time trial specialist, so he ought to be able to achieve somehing But he can't lose his companions, and now they are caught.
They fight desperately to hold on to their lead but resistance is futile.
201km remaining from 203km
The captains are all in the lead as the end nears. Of course Menchov is attached to Di Luca's rear wheel.
LPR is leading the way to set things up for Di Luca -- they hope.
A silence Lotto rider goes --Gilbert, followed by Popovych.
202km remaining from 203km
Voeckler has joined the two leaders. Nothing today for Di Luca!
Voeckler and Gilbert are alone in the lead and going hard.
Gilbert powers his way to the win.
That is the first Belgian win in this Giro, the first this season for Gilbert and one of very few at all this season for Silence-Lotto.
Armstrong is not in the first group, but is back in a group with Pinotti and Navarro. They come in with a time of 1:38 down.
Well, that was certainly not the ending we expected today! Where was the LPR/Di Luca attack?
That was it for today. Join us again tomorrow for the closing time trial -- and let's all hope for continued good weather!
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