This could be the Giro where the previously suspended fight back in a big way.
The last two stages witnessed a rejuvenated Alessandro Petacchi, comfortably outsprinting a man thought to be unbeatable, then repeating the feat one day later.
Tuesday in San Martino di Castrozza, his LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini teammate Danilo Di Luca chose to launch his own ballistic missiles and outclass his nearest rival, Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo), by five bike lengths. A favourite for the stage, Liquigas' Franco Pellizzotti, completed an all-Italian podium.
Unlike Petacchi of yesterday, however, there was no gesture to the critics on the Giro's first mountain-top finish, but there didn't need to be. On his way to the day's win, Di Luca got an boost from his teammate Petacchi. Before the soon-to-be former race leader dropped to the gruppetto, he put in some hard work at the front on the base of the Croce d'Aune for Di Luca, doing both justice to the jersey and valuable assistance to his team leader.
"It was more mental [than physical]. I won with a cold-blooded heart," said Di Luca, who goes by the apt nickname of "Il Killer di Spoltore" and now sits second on the overall classification, an ominous two seconds behind new maglia rosa Thomas Lövkvist of Columbia High Road.
"I attacked the first time with 350 metres to go with Garzelli and Pellizzotti on my wheel, but I wasn't at my maximum. Then with 250m left, I attacked again."
The move wasn't so different to Lance Armstrong in his prime, who made a salient point of breaking the minds of his rivals in the first climbing stage of the Tour de France – but more importantly, it echoed Di Luca of 2007, when he crushed his rivals on the Giro's opening mountain stage to Montevergine and never really let go, beating rising star Andy Schleck by 1:55 to capture his first Grand Tour title.
"Since the Giro presentation [last December], I've said it was a good Giro for me. It's good for my characteristics. But let's see till the time trial [in Cinque Terre, Stage 12]; after that, I will know whether it's possible to win the Giro.
"But, I'm quite confident," Di Luca warned. "I think I have the same explosiveness.
"The level is very high at this Giro; all the big names are here – the only one missing is [Alberto] Contador. So it will be very difficult until [the finish in] Rome. There will be a lot of battles, and by the finish, the gaps will be small."
Lövkvist or Rogers – just who is Columbia's captain?
With a 5.5 percent average gradient, steep the San Martino climb was not, but nonetheless, it was the perfect opening litmus test of who could fight for the podium at this Centenary Giro.
Most notable was the much-talked about seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong of Astana, who wasn't able to handle the supersonic finale and dropped off in the final kilometre, eventually losing 15 seconds. However, so long as the Texan doesn't go too far in the red over the coming days, the 37-year-old should find himself getting stronger.
"Tomorrow [Wednesday], I hope we will make a bigger gap to Armstrong," said Di Luca.
Another Anglophone who fell slightly short was GC dark horse Michael Rogers of Columbia-High Road, finishing in a group of 10 behind Di Luca, six seconds down. The surprise turned out to be his Swedish teammate Lövkvist, who made the front group of 15 and as a consequence of their opening team time trial victory, earned the privilege of donning the maglia rosa – its third change in four days.
"I had a few wins before, but to be in the pink jersey, that's something special," said Lövkvist.
"We'll see if I can continue to deliver. I improve every year, and of course, I want to go as far as possible," the 25-year-old said of his chances this season. "I'm not going to say I'm going to win the Tour de France or Giro, but I hope one day I'm going to become a big rider, and finish on the podium.
"We're not going to give anything away. I'll see how good my legs are tomorrow. I think there's going to be a lot of changes in this jersey, for sure."
Besides Di Luca, those in the top 10 on Tuesday could well be the top 10 come May 31 in Rome, albeit slightly rearranged. And with a second, steeper mountain-top finish looming tomorrow, expect that reordering to begin, pronto.
"I think tomorrow will be very different. You can't cheat. The Siusi climb is very difficult; I think the attacks will start at 9km [to go] and there will be a lot of time gaps by the finish," forecasted Di Luca.
A white flag at the Giro means attack!
Leaving the sizeable tifosi gathered in Padova's Prato Della Valle at one in the afternoon, it took only the wave of race's director's flag for the attacks to begin. It wasn't all-show-no-go, though: 15km into the day's proceedings, six went away including Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo-Galicia), Francesco Bellotti (Barloworld), Davide Vigano (Fuji-Servetto), Ian Stannard (ISD), Francesco De Bonis (Serramenti) and – everyone's favourite escapist and attacker par excellence – Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank).
62km in and signalling 100km to go, the sextet were a modest six-and-a-half minutes in front, and after two hours' racing, the break's 45 km/h average was indicative of a group who felt victory was not out of reach.
On the lower slopes of the Croce d'Aune (km 111.2), British escapee Stannard was zthe first to get flicked thanks the efforts of De Bonis, soon followed by Martinez and Vigano, leaving just a trio out front. Attacking near the summit, Bellotti took maximum points to become the mountains leader on the road.
Back in the peloton, the GC favourites had moved to the fore, Astana's workhorses Chris Horner and Yaroslav Popovych doing much of the pacesetting, while Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara was doing a sterling job of driving the autobus, finding its second gear and leaving it there, where maglia rosa Alessandro Petacchi (LPR) found a comfy seat. Crossing the 1,015 metre-high GPM and led by Liquigas' Valerio Agnoli, the somewhat reduced peloton crossed the GPM 4:39 in arrears.
The descent to the base of the final climb saw a change in provincial territories, from Belluno to Trento: the Giro was now in the land of high mountains, which two-time winner and local Trentino man Gilberto Simoni is more than familiar with.
GPS positioning is generally a good thing – particularly for your intrepid Cyclingnews journalists covering the Giro – but our three leaders wouldn't have been thrilled about the information coming through 20km from the finish: they were riding at 41 km/h, but the peloton was going 47 km/h and no more than two minutes behind.
10km from home, Voigt chose to ignore Tuesday's doomsday report and attacked, taking Bellotti but leaving De Bonis. Still, the irrepressible German wasn’t satisfied, and two clicks later, Voigt found himself fighting only with his Specialized bike en route to the finish; mouth wide open, suffering like a three-legged dog, and his torso rocking in time with each powerful stroke of the pedal.
He was hating it, but at the same time, loving it.
A brief respite in the bunch gave Voigt some hope, but Mauricio Soler's attack put the nail in his coffin, four hours' effort coming to nought less than 3km from the line. Some sort of concession for Voigt came when Soler too was chased down within sight of victory, the strung-out front group driving at warp speed in the final kilometre.
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