Stage 12, May 26: Bibione to Feltre, 184 km
The main contenders were content to let a big breakaway get away on the mostly flat 184K stage to Feltre, anticipating the need to conserve energy for the big climbs in the Dolomite Mountains to come over the next two stages. Nevertheless, it was a very fast-paced stage and finished 20 minutes ahead of the best finish time estimate given by race organizers.
A huge group of 24, all riders out of overall contention, escaped the pack on the slight uphill road to the one significant climb of the day, the 12K Valico Le Laste. Over the top of the climb, 12 riders were left to bomb down the steep descent, and then take turns attacking each other to the finish line
Italian Enrico Cassani (Polti) jumped away from the group with 2K to go and just held off the chasing bunch to take his first Giro stage victory. Included in the chase group was the impressive Dmitri Konyshev (Fassa Bortolo) with the cyclamen jersey as points leader in the Giro.
Former race leader Cristiano Moreni (Liquigas), who wore pink for three days early in the race, retired due to a knee injury suffered in a fall on stage 9. Rookie Justin Spinelli (Farm Frites), a 20-year-old American who signed for the Belgian team just days before the start of the race, dropped out before the start.
Stage 13, May 27, Feltre to Selva Val Gardena, 195K
On a chilly day high in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy, Francesco Casagrande (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec) proved that he was firmly in charge of his pink jersey with a strong defense against all comers in a stage that saw a shuffling of riders in the top 10.
The great Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Giro, called the Dolomites the hardest climbs in the world.
Today would be the start of the real Giro, with three steep mountain climbs high along the stage to the ski resort at Selva Val Gardena: 16.4K Passo di Falzarego, at 5.5 percent grade; 14.1K Passo Fedaia, at 7.5 percent; and 11.6km Passo Sella, at 6.5 percent, all reaching heights over 2000 meters.
A small group including Columbian climber Chepe Gonzales (Selle Italia) and point leader Dmitri Konyshev went over the first climb, the Passo di Falzarego two minutes up on the chase. At the base of the second climb, the gigantic Passo Fedaia, known as La Marmolada, all the main contenders were following the wheel of Casagrande as he set a convincing pace.
On the steep 15-percent grades near the summit of La Marmolada, climbs on which he excels, Casagrande yanked back the front group and managed to neutralize all individual attacks along the way.
Casagrande was clearly the strongest man in the race, further accentuated by the fact that he had no teammates to help him set a high tempo he was on his own to fend off all attacks.
When the racing gets very hard and grimaces of pain line the faces of riders desperately trying to hang on to the lead, veteran race announcer Phil Liggett says: Men who matter, strike when it matters most.
Casagrande was striking.
It was on this climb in 1998 that Marco Pantani obliterated the field, leaping away as if equipped with wings. But on this day the Pirate, now riding for pride, was struggling nearly five minutes down on the leaders.
On the final climb, the 11.6K Passo Sella, Jos Luis Rubiera (Kelme) and Santiago Blanco (Vitalicio) jumped away, and then Gilberto Simoni (Lampre), third overall last year, bridged across. Simoni had been impressive on the Marmolada climb, and was now riding with a vengeance. One-minute behind, Stefano Garzelli (Mercetone Uno), filling in as team leader for Marco Pantani, was leading Casagrande and a big chase group.
The most exciting minutes of the race came on the descent to the finish. Dropped on the climb, Paulo Salvodelli (Saeco) screamed down the twisting, narrow mountain road at speeds of 80 kph, taking every risk to catch the leaders. Salvodellis nickname is Il Falco in honor of his incredible descending ability, and he proved it by gaining back 1:30 in 12K on the group containing the pink jersey.
At the picturesque finish in Selva Val Gardena, Jos Luis Rubiera Vigil jumped ahead in the final corner and beat Gilberto Simoni in a close sprint for the first Spanish victory in the Giro this year, with the pair finishing 31 seconds ahead of Casagrande. Despite losing the sprint, Simoni was the big winner on the day, moving up to fifth place overall.
On the other hand, former second-placed Danilo Di Luca (Cantina Tollo) dropped nearly seven minutes and 16 places after suffering through a tough day. Before the stage began, sprinter Mario Cipollini called it quits, saying he was headed home to rest for the Tour de France.
Stage 14, May 28, Selva Val Gardena to Bormio, 205 km
The second of the two toughest days in this years Giro included the 17K Gavia Pass, made famous in 1988 when Andy Hampsten rode through a snowstorm to take the pink jersey, and go on to become the only American winner of the race.
Snow had closed all the passes nearby, and precipitation was forecast at the top of the Gavia. It was high atop the Stelvio Pass, just north of the Gavia, where the 5,000 year-old Ice Man mummy was found several years ago.
Danilo DiLuca (Cantina Tollo), hard-luck loser the previous day, attacked early at 13K; at one point he had gained back all of the previous days loss and was leader on the road, over seven minutes ahead in a 16-man lead group.
But another rider in search of redemption pursued him. Gilberto Simoni (Lampre), showing excellent form for the second day in a row, climbed smoothly on the slopes of the Gavia. Race leader Francesco Casagrande was all too happy to let him work and sat on his wheel, aware that he couldnt let Simoni get away again.
In their wake, overall contenders Stefano Garzelli (Mercetone Uno), Pavel Tonkov (Mapei) and Ivan Gotti (Polti) struggled to stay with the lead, constantly on the verge of being dropped on the 45-minute climb up the switchbacks.
Simonis awesome climbing, second only to Casagrandes in the two toughest stages of this years Giro, was finally enough for a stage win in the town of Bormio.
On the final 10K lap around the town, which featured one small climb, the original leaders of the break were finally caught, among them DiLuca. In rainy conditions, a much deserving Simoni would take the sprint from four riders, and gain enough time to move up to third overall, within a minute of Casagrande.
"On Saturday, I was sure I would win in Selva, Simoni explained after his win. I let my team work so that Casagrande would be under pressure. My directeur sportif said that I should wait, but I felt strong enough and took the responsibility to attack."
Simoni also noted that "Casagrande is too strong," although he also said that he didn't stretch himself much on the second big day in the mountains.
For his part, Casagrande knows there are still two days of climbing in the Alps later in the week, and an uphill individual time trial where Simoni might be able to make time on him.
"He is right to want to win," Casagrande said about his top rival. "I admire him. I believe he has a chance, but I'll be watching him."
If anything, the stage was notable for its parity; the top four riders are separated by just over one-minute a small margin with big hills to come.
Double stage winner Ivan Quaranta couldnt haul his sprinter legs over the big climbs as he had hoped, and abandoned on this stage.
Stage 15, May 29, Bormio to Brescia, 171K
After two brutal days of climbing, downhill roads greeted riders happy for a break on the stage to Brescia.
When the big-name sprinters abandon the Giro, as often happens, the domestiques have their chance at glory on the interim stages between the big mountains.
Bart Voskamp (Polti) and Diego Ferrari (Amica Chips) broke away and managed to stretch their lead to over three minutes, in part because of dark tunnels along the route that slowed the peloton. Casagrandes team, riding at the front of the pack, actually signaled for riders to slow down as they passed through the first tunnel on a road skirting Iseo Lake.
The two held on until the final kilometers when a frantic series of attacks leapt off the front. In a wild finish on a circuit of Brescia, Kelme's Angel Vicioso was first across the line, but had clearly moved across the path of Biagio Conte (Saeco).
Conte, who normally leads out Mario Cipollini, was given the win by the judges, who disqualified Vicioso for irregular sprinting, which carries a fine of 200 Swiss francs ($118).
The bittersweet outcome was vindication of sorts for Saeco, who had lost Cipollinis sprint win in a similar fashion on stage two. Behind the sprint, seven riders went down in a flurry of flying bicycles as a crash marred the finish.
General classification after stage 15:
1 Francesco Casagrande (Ita) Vini Caldirola-Sidermec; 74.37.41
2 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Mercatone Uno-Albacom; 0.33
3 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre-Daikin; 0.57
4 Wladimir Belli (Ita) Fassa Bortolo; 1.05
5 Dario Frigo (Ita) Fassa Bortolo; 1.52
6 Ivan Gotti (Ita) Team Polti; 2.27
7 Pavel Tonkov (Rus) Mapei-Quick Step; 2.35
8 Andrea Noe' (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step; 3.23
9 Hernan Buenahora Gutierrez (Col) Nectar-Selle Italia; 3.31
10 Sergiy Honchar (Ukr) Liquigas-Pata; 3.50
17 Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Saeco-Valli & Valli; 10.41
20 Chann Mcrae (USA) Mapei-Quick Step; 17.09
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