Freire fires a warning shot with stage win

In a nail-biting finish Oscar Freire (Rabobank) narrowly beat Italian favourite Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram). The Spaniard finished off a long sprint and, while fading at the end, held off Petacchi. The winner of the same stage last year, Robbie McEwen, tried the same tactic as in 2007, taking off early and trying to gap the peloton in the twisting finale. However, the Australian was not allowed too much leeway this time and eventually finished eighth.

Freire had said before the start that he wasn't sure about his condition yet, but "if I am there in the end, I will also go for it." The Spaniard has given the best answer on the development of his form ahead of Milano-Sanremo.

Petacchi declared after the race, "We knew it would be difficult to manage this finale and the nervousness in the group was high in the last kilometres. I was at risk of going down about one kilometre from the finish, and Zabel only managed to position himself in front of me at the very end. McEwen did another great showing, getting out of the last turn with a few metres on Zabel, Freire and me. Oscar managed to start the sprint a few seconds before me, because I was still in the turn, while he had already straightened his bike. There were only 180m left and catching Freire is not easy,"

The long escape of the day was carried out by Russian Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Ukrainian Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who rode ahead of the peloton for more than 110 kilometres. But their effort fell short, and they were brought back just four kilometres from the line.

How it unfolded

The riders set out under sunny skies and temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius shortly before noon from Civitavecchia.

Ignatiev was the first to succeed with a breakaway attempt at kilometre 38. He was joined by Krivtsov eight kilometres later. The duo pedaled ahead of the peloton, splitting the sprint in Santa Marinella at kilometre 55.9 (Ignatiev before Krivtsov) and the first GPM in Tolfa, at 495m of altitude and 84.7 kilometres into the race (Krivtsov before Ignatiev).

Their advantage grew to a maximum of 7'45" at kilometre 108. Then the gap consistently got smaller under the impact of the many sprinters' teams available to foil a solo or duo win. With less than 25 kilometres to go the two up front had less than three minutes. Ignatiev tried a couple of times to shake his riding partner and continue solo, knowing his time trialing abilities. However, the Ukrainian Krivtsov had good legs, too, and was able to counter every time. Eventually they continued trading turns again at the front.

But the gap came down rapidly now, and when the two went through the finish area for the first time with another three laps or 12 kilometres to go, the advantage was under the one-minute mark.

In the twisting roads of Civitavecchia, there was a brief split in the peloton with less than ten kilometres to race, putting only about 30 riders at the front. But by the time the bell for the last lap was rung, the peloton was together both at the front and at the end. The Eastern European escape duo had been caught right on the line with four kilometres to go, while the large group left behind, containing Paolo Bettini all the way at the very end, had also made the junction again, leaving it open for a bunch sprint. The sprinters were getting ready, ending the day with remarkable skill to manoeuvre around the tight course without crashing.

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