The Zoncolan lived up to its billing as “the Angliru of Italy,” referring to the super-steep climb in the Vuelta a España, upon which Roberto Heras has slain all GC contenders the last two times it has been included in the race. It should be noted, however, that Heras only won the stage in 2002; in 2000 he was beaten by a rider from an early breakaway who held him off to the finish.
And who was that rider? None other than Gilberto Simoni.
On the Zoncolan, Simoni did not need to get away early to take the stage up the jaw-dropping slopes; he just rode everyone off his wheel as riders were gasping-and almost at a stand still on some of the 20-percent grades.
The Zoncolan gave new hope to Marco Pantani fans, of which there still are many in Italy, as the ex-Pirate and his surgically altered ears rode to a fine fifth place, only 43 seconds down on Simoni.
Garzelli lost another 34 seconds to the pink jersey, but showed impressive toughness to hang in for second. Casagrande redeemed himself for his poor Terminillo climb, taking third place at 39 seconds, just three seconds ahead of one of the revelations of this Giro, 23-year-old Popovych. Noe maintained his third-place GC spot with a gritty climb in 7th at 1 :07, just behind Mexican climber Julio Perez of Panaria-Fiordo.
Stage 13 offered a return to the flats, except for three finishing laps of a circuit that included a 2km climb to the La Rosina restaurant owned by the chef of the Italian national cycling team.
Garzelli attacked Simoni to no avail on the La Rosina ascent, hoping to surprise him the way he had been surprised in the Apennines.
Fassa Bortolo sent Frigo off the front before the final stretch to the finish in Marostica, giving itself two options for the win. It chose to have Frigo sit up so that its train would not be disrupted in leading out Petacchi, who won easily from Cipollini’s teammate Daniele Bennati. Garzelli once again surprised pundits with his speed by taking third-place sprint bonus points and subtracting eight seconds from his deficit to Simoni.
After this brief respite from the hills, the monster stage 14 from Marostica to Alpe di Pampeago delivered on its promise to shatter the field once again. Colombia-Selle Italia’s diminutive Fredy Gonzalez went clear over all three Cat. I climbs (Passo Rolle, Passo Valles, and Passo San Pellegrino) to solidify his lead in the climber’s category.
But he was caught before the Pampeago climb by his breakaway group, all of whom had to give way to Simoni’s relentless pace.
Once again, Garzelli managed to stay in sight at 35 seconds, with Rumsas (Lampre) only one second behind him. High hopes raised on the Zoncolan by Pantani were dashed again. The ex-Pirate, who won this stage 1:07 ahead of Simoni in 1999 before failing a blood test two days later, finished 12th, more than two minutes down.
CCC-Postat’s Tonkov, the 1996 Giro champion and a stage winner last year, attempted to bridge up to the Gonzalez group and was dangling out on his own, a minute up on the peloton and five minutes down on Gonzalez over the Rolle, Valles and San Pellegrino summits.
The Lampre rider, who was suffering with back pains, was caught on the Pampeago and turned his bike around and quit with 6km to go. He was one of 13 riders who either did not start or did not finish this monster stage.
McEwen was another one, as he left for home before the start, and the other Aussie in the race, Panaria’s Graeme Brown, failed to make the time cut.
As for the other hopefuls, Noe finished within a minute (with Popovych) and maintained his podium position. The standings after stage 14 were: 1. Simoni; 2. Garzelli at 1: 18; 3. Noe at 3:39.