Giro update: Casagrande is front-runner after stage nine

Casagrande's performances in the Spring classics and at the Giro d'Italia have vaulted him to a No. 1 ranking  Credit: Grazia Neri/Allsport
Stage 6, May 19, Peschici to Vasto, 170K

The peloton rode piano, or tourist pace, for the first 100K of this mostly flat stage, slowly recovering from the previous days first hard uphill finish.

With 22K to go, Maximillian Sciandri (Linda McCartney) and Elio Aggiano (Vitalicio Seguros) opened a gap that the peloton was content to let go for a little while. Sciandri was in search of his fourth career Giro stage win.

As the two veteran riders closed in on the finish, straining to hold onto their slim 20-second lead over the rolling finish, veteran race announcer Phil Liggett eloquently described the slightly disorganized chase as the hares are still running and the hounds are a bit confused.

No team wanted to commit to setting a high pace and wipe themselves out for the finish, so the two veteran escape artists continued to dangle in the wind, until the hounds finally regrouped. Led by the Saeco team, the break was caught at three kilometers, setting up another sprint finish.

Russian veteran Dmitri Konyshev added another impressive win to the Fassa Bortolo teams Giro palmares, edging out fast-man Jeroen Blijlevens (Polti) in the dash to the line.

Konyshev, who early in his career took second behind Greg LeMond in an electric 1989 world championship race, announced his retirement plans but has since discovered a fountain of sprinting youth, mixing things up at the front on several stages.

Sciandri and Aggiano, burnt out from their breakaway attempt, would lose over three minutes in the final three kilometers.

Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo) continued to hold a three second lead over Cristian Moreni (Liquigas-Pata) in the overall standings.

Stage 7, May 20, Vasto to Teramo, 182K

Proving that tofu is indeed a suitable race food, Australian David McKenzie, riding for the all-vegetarian Linda McCartney team (yes, the late wife of Beatles singer Paul), put on a dazzling display of courage on the final rolling stage before the real climbing of the Giro began.

McKenzie left the peloton at the 15K mark and never looked back en route to his first major professional win.

McKenzies lead extended as far out as 12 minutes over the lackadaisical peloton, but when the chase finally started, McKenzie hung on over the final 164K of his solo break, grimacing in pain but well aware of how big a win he was angling for.

Alone for over 160K, the former Australian national champion validated the second-division Linda McCartney teams entry into the race in a big way; the British teams inclusion bumped out several Italian teams and they were under pressure to perform.

"It's a dream come true for me," said McKenzie, wiping away tears at the finish. "I've watched races like the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France on TV in Melbourne since I was 8 or 9 years old. I couldn't even hope to come to a race like this, but I've won a stage. It hasn't sunk in yet."

Vladimir Douma (Ceramica) and the previous days stage winner, Dimitry Konyshev (Fassa Bortolo) lead the sprint across the line 51 seconds later. McKenzie had been away so long that Douma raised his arms in victory, thinking he had won the stage.

Stage 8, May 21, Corinaldo to Prato, 255K

Axel Merckx (Mapei) has always raced in the long shadow cast by his father the great Eddy Merckx but on the first mountain stage of the Giro he took a dramatic win, fighting back from a late crash to take a dramatic victory.

At the bottom of the final climb an eight-rider break got away, including two riders each from the Kelme and Mapei teams, plus a rejuvenated Max Sciandri, looking for a repeat Linda McCartney win.

The break also included Jos Enrique Gutierrez (Kelme-Costa Blanca), who stood to take the pink jersey if he finished at least 15 seconds ahead of the chase; together, Gutierrez and his Kelme teammate rode hard to make the break succeed.

Disaster struck on the descent 15K from the finish, as both Kelme riders and Merckx crashed on a hairpin switchback. The two green-clad Kelme riders jumped back up and caught the break, but Merckx was left to chase alone.

Illustrating how never to give up in a race, Merckx flew down the descent and hammered a huge gear over the final flat roads to finally catch the break with 5K to go.

Merckx rested at the back until the group passed under the red Ultimo Chilometre banner at 1 kilometer, then jumped to the far right of the road and gave everything he had, no doubt fueled by adrenaline left over from his hard chase.

Behind, no one was willing to chase after nearly eight hours in the saddle, leaving Merckx to celebrate the best win of his seven-year career, and the best finish so far of the Giro.

At the line the younger Merckx was greeted by his beaming father, who won the Giro and the Tour de France five times in his career.

"When I got back on the bicycle the others were already way ahead, Merckx said about his chase back on at the finish. Luckily I'm good in the descent. I took all the risks in the descent to come back.

This is my greatest victory today. I think I now know what to do to win."

Sciandri led the chase across the line to take second, and the main group would finish 49 seconds back, giving second-year rider Gutierrez the pink jersey.

Stage 9, May 22, Prato to Abetone, 140K

Relatively short in distance but featuring the hardest climbing yet, stage 9 climbed to a mountaintop finish in the town of Abetone, a ski resort in north-central Italy. In 1940, the roads to Abetone played host to the first of 58-career stage wins by the legendary Fausto Coppi.

The climbing started at 100K with a 10K climb up the San Pellegrino. As the race hit the steep climb, cries for gruppetto immediately rose from the peloton.

Gruppetto is the call for all the sprinters and slow climbers to huddle together and ride an easy pace up the climbs so no one will be dropped out of the time limit of the race, a tactic used on all the hard climbing stages.

The stage was supposed to be a coming-out party for Italian Marco Pantani (Mercetone Uno), but the yellow-clad climber was nowhere close to his usual climbing prowess, quickly dropping behind the leaders.

Pantani is rumored to be selling advertising space to the tune of $300,000 on his jersey, and even though he was suffering, plenty of Italian television cameras followed his every pedal stroke, proving just how popular the Pirate still is in Italy.

Pre-race favorite Francesco Casagrande (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec) took most of the excitement out of the race, however, after he attacked near the top of the San Pellegrino climb and shot down the steep, 10K descent to the base of the Abetone, opening time gaps at every checkpoint. The winding descent caused several riders to crash.

Casagrande, riding a black De Rosa bike, said before the race that this was the stage he wanted to try to break the race open, and he did just that.

With 30 career victories and many big races wins, Casagrande knew he had a chance to put time into the overall contenders with his attack, and so he pushed all the way to the line, never losing time in the final 35K, finishing 1:39 ahead of the disintegrated chase group.

Overall contenders Ivan Gotti (Polti), who won the Giro last year, and Pavel Tonkov (Mapei), winner in 1996, finished in the first group of nine at 1:39, along with Danilo DiLuca (Cantina Tollo) and Axel Merckx.

Pantani pulled in 6:53 down, rolling across the line at the same time Casagrande was spraying champagne and pulling on the pink jersey, his young daughter standing next to him on the awards podium.

The next major climbing comes in stages 13 and 14, as the race hits the Italian Alps.

General classification after stage 9:

1 Francesco Casagrande (Ita) Vini Caldirola-Sidermec 47.05.31
2 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Cantina Tollo 0.51
3 Andrea Noe' (Ita) Mapei-Quick Step 1.39
4 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Mercatone Uno-Albacom
5 Dario Frigo (Ita) Fassa Bortolo 1.40
6 Wladimir Belli (Ita) Fassa Bortolo
7 Pavel Tonkov (Rus) Mapei-Quick Step 1.47
8 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre-Daikin 1.53
9 Ivan Gotti (Ita) Team Polti 1.55
10 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Banesto 2.21

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