By Andrew Hood
Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld) snagged an overdue victory Tuesday in the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne after several close calls this spring.
The former Italian national champion out-kicked a four-man breakaway in the 192km first stage from Middelkerke to Zottegem to win his first victory in his new Barloworld jersey for the 2008 season.
“I knew I was on good form and had a strong team to help me and so we deserved a big win,” Gasparotto said in a team communiqué. “It’s important for all of us and we can even win the overall classification of this race and look forward to Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.”
The 26-year-old Gasparotto — who made the switch last year to Barloworld from Liquigas where he snagged the maglia rosa in the Giro d’Italia’s opening team time trial in front of an annoyed Danilo Di Luca — has been close to wins all spring with strong rides in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo.
Gasparotto’s win pushes his name up on the power rankings ahead of Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Some early breakaways were nullified going into the final 40km when Gasparotto attacked on the last climb at Leberg. Following him were Luca Paolini (Acqua e Sapone), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Niki Terpstra (Milram).
The quartet worked together in the closing 15km before Gasparotto shot away with confidence with 300 meters to go to secure the win and the leader’s jersey.
Last year’s winner Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) led a chase group across the line in ninth at 29 seconds back to stay in contention. George Hincapie (High Road), who became the first American to win in 2004, finished 29th in the main pack at 59 seconds back after trying to bust up the peloton with some early attacks.
Scores of riders crashed as the pack rattled across the cobblestones, including Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto), who went down some nasty cuts and scrapes but was able to rejoin the peloton thanks to help from Greg Van Avermaet.
Others lost serious amounts of time to fall out of contention as the peloton cracked under the pressure, with ex-winner Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) losing more than 17 minutes.
Slipstream-Chipotle put three riders into the front group at less than one minute behind Gasparotto, including Tyler Farrar, Magnus Backstedt and Martijn Maaskant.
With time bonuses, Gasparotto takes a five-second lead to Paolini with Quinziato slotting into third at seven seconds back.
The 32nd De Panne race continues Wednesday with a long, 228km challenging stage from Zottegem to Coxyde.