By Agence France Presse

Photo: Graham Watson

MILAN, Italy- (AFP) – Paolo Savoldelli’s face looked anything but that of an angel as he struggled to hold on to his pink jersey on the penultimate day of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday.

But the 32-year-old Italian, who won the race for the second time in Milan on Sunday, is not known as the ‘falcon’ for nothing. As Gilberto Simoni led a threatening three-pronged attack in the company of Danilo Di Luca and Jose Rujano on the tough Finestre climb on the race’s 19th stage, Savoldelli was left trailing and had lost the race lead – at least at that point on the road.

Once he’d made it to the summit of the Finestre, however, il falco let fly – and hurtled down the nine kilometer stretch towards the final climb of Saturday’s stage to steal back some of the time he’d lost to Simoni, a two-time winner who had somewhat late designs on a third victory.

By the time Savoldelli was on the day’s final climb to Sestrière, he’d managed to regain the virtual race lead. He might have finished the stage well behind Venezuelan winner Rujano and rival Simoni, but he made sure he would begin Sunday’s final stage still wearing the pink jersey with a 28-sec lead on Simoni, and a 45-sec lead on Rujano.

Savoldelli, who won the Giro in 2002, would be the first to admit that he’s not the best climber in the world – but he can climb, and his reputed downhill racing skills came to the fore exactly when he needed them this week.

Allied with a tactical sense of racing which seems second to none, the 32-year-old from Bergamo will be one of Lance Armstrong’s key lieutenants on this year’s Tour de France where the American will be aiming for his seventh successive victory.

The Tour de France is a much harder race than the Giro, and whether Savoldelli has designs on one day winning the yellow jersey remain to be seen. And, despite his ability not to panic in dangerous situations – such as Saturday’s stage to Sestrière – he admits that he may not have the mental requirements anyway.

“I’m not a real champion,” he has said on more than one occasion. “A champion is someone who announces what he’s going to do, then goes out and does it. I’m more of a thinker, and I think that’s where my strength lies. I know my limits.”

Savoldelli first won his first Giro in 2002 while he was riding for the modest Alexia team, finishing just over a minute ahead of American Tyler Hamilton when he was riding for CSC.

Critics will point to the fact that year’s Giro was missing a host of big name contenders for the pink jersey, however Savoldelli’s race tactics proved well up to scratch – and he had already finished second in the race in 1999 before health, and team, problems compounded his next two years.Following his first Giro win Savoldelli joined Jan Ullrich at Telekom, but again his spell with the German outfit was riddled with misfortune and he had little to show for his two years there.

At the start of the season he joined Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team. It was perhaps the Italian’s modest realism which most attracted him to the six-time Tour de France winner.

“We were looking for a rider with potential and with experience, so Savoldelli was a logical choice for the Giro,” said Armstrong at the time.

At 32, the bulk of Savoldelli’s career is however behind him,but that will matter little to the man who will surely enjoy the next couple of weeks with his wife Simonetta and their daughter Marika at their home in the mountainous valleys which surround Bergamo.

Paolo Savoldelli in briefBORN: May 7,1973, in Clusone, Italy. (Lombardie, Italie)
Height:1.8 meters (5’10”)
Weight: 68.5kg (151 pounds)Palmares:One Day Events:
Trophey Laigueglia 1999
Mottarone 2002Stage Races
Giro d’Italia: Seven participations, 1st place 2002 and 2005 (1 stage win: Zoldo Alto); 2nd in 1999 (1 stage win: Borgo San Dalmazzo); 9th in 1998; 13th in 1997; 14th in 2001; 24th in 2000 (12 days in the maglia rosa: 4 in 2002 and 8 in 2005)
Tour du Trentin 1998 and 1999
Tour de Romandie 2000 (1 stage in 2000, 2 in 2001)
1 stage victory Hofbrau Cup, 1997Teams:
Roslotto (1996 and 1997)
Saeco (1998- 2001)
Alexia (2002)
Telekom/T-Mobile (2003-2004)
Discovery Channel (2005)