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By Lennard Zinn
Once again, Julio Perez was the animator of a pivotal stage and came agonizingly close to winning it. The pack had not even left the vacation spa town of Montecatini Terme when the Mexican Panaria rider attacked with five others just two kilometers into this difficult 185km stage.
Among those with him was Pietro Chaucchioli, who rolled into Reggio Emilia alone 183km later. Behind, in a small chase group finishing a minute behind the 26-year-old Alessio winner was ONCE’s José Azevedo, who came within a whisker of taking over the maglia rosa.
After 9km, a group of 11 took off after Perez’s six-man break, eventually reeling them in 30km later. At the top of the first-category climb to Abetone at 58km, Colombian Fredy Gonzalez (Selle Italia-Pacific), one of the original six attackers, crested first. The fugitive group now numbered nine, and the main pack, led by Fassa Bortolo, was at 3:35.
Gonzalez led once again over the first-category Castello di Carpineti ascent at 139km, and his group was down to five: José Arrieta (iBanesto.com), Hernan Buenahora (Selle Italia-Pacific), Gonzalez, Chaucchioli and Perez. Frigo’s group was at 1:12, thanks to steady Fassa Bortolo chasing with a little help from Lampre-Daikin and a lot from Liquigas’s Gianni Faresin. On a switchback during the descent, Marco Pantani slid out and crashed in the center of the group but remounted and caught with four teammates. The breakaway’s kilometers seemed numbered by the time Faresin had pulled the pack to within 43 seconds at the base of the descent.
But this entire stage was either up or down, and the attacks in the breakaway group started on the hills with the group so close. Arrieta set off alone with 27 km to go, splitting the leaders. In back, Frigo’s bunch had lost focus and had drifted to 1:40 in arrears. Davide Rebellin took advantage of the lull in the chase and attacked hard with Fassa Bortolo’s Tadej Valjavec marking him.
The danger grew when Perez’s team captain Giuliano Figueras and some other top riders joined the pair.
Figueras and Rebellin were going so hard that they dropped riders like Liege-Bastogne-Liege victor Oskar Camenzind and kept going with Valjavec hanging on. When Valjavec dropped his chain on another climb, the danger to Fassa Bortolo was clear. Up front, Perez and Chaucchioli had kept up the chase, and they passed the seemingly fried Arrieta on the next stiff climb. Perez kept the gas on all of the way up and dropped his Alessio companion by the top with 20km left to go, parting the cheering fans in the road like Moses walking through the Red Sea.
The Mexican’s gap at the summit was 18 seconds on Chaucchioli, 1:22 on Rebellin and Figueras, who had collected Gonzalez, and 1:46 on Frigo’s group. The race leader and his highly-placed teammate, Wladimir Belli, were now doing the chasing, assisted by Garzelli. Perez could smell the finish and was pounding a giant gear on the gradual descent that belied his small size, but Chaucchioli had recovered and was in hot pursuit. Rebellin, Figueras and Gonzalez were flying, and they picked up Arrieta and Buenahora. Figueras was going so fast on the descent that he went off onto the shoulder on one switchback and barely avoided hitting the guardrail.
With 10km to go, Chaucchioli sprinted out of the saddle as he caught Perez, and the Panaria rider could not respond. At about the same time, Unai Osa (iBanesto.com) and José Azevedo attacked the floundering pink-jersey group, and the fatigue among the Fassa Bortolo riders had become palpable. The pair rapidly closed on Rebellin’s group, picking up Arrieta who had drifted back.
As Azevedo was only 19 seconds down on him, Frigo was chasing with all of his might to save his shirt. With 5km to go, Azevedo’s group caught Rebellin’s, and the Portuguese ONCE rider appeared to be the leader on road. This group was still 1:44 down on Chaucchioli and closing fast on Perez. The Alessio Italian crossed the line alone in tears for his second career victory, while the Mexican was swallowed up within sight of the finish.
Di Luca and Frigo led in the 40-strong group 51 seconds behind the stage winner and 18 seconds behind Rebellin. It appeared that Azevedo had missed the jersey by one second, but he had let a gap open in the sprint as was timed two seconds slower than Rebellin. He would be have to settle for second on G.C., three ticks back!
It had been an incredible effort over 183 of the stage’s 185km by Chaucchioli and Perez, and they were so exhausted that neither could speak or effectively fight back tears. Though the winner was so exhausted he could hardly form his words clearly, his emotion at winning in front of his wife and family who had come to watch him in only this stage was unmistakable. Perez has become the sentimental favorite of the race, suffering so mightily and publicly on several stages.
The rider from Puebla said, “I was so tired when the Alessio rider passed me that I could not get on his wheel. I was at my maximum. I was so depressed when I saw that I still had five km to go, I didn’t think I could go on.”
Frigo had a glassy stare and seemed hardly able to register the relief of retaining his jersey. The fight for the jersey was so close that it literally came down to the sprint. In addition to Azevedo losing two seconds by letting a gap open up in his group in the last few meters, if Frigo had not sprinted, he would have been behind another two-second space that had opened in his group in the sprint. Two plus two still is always greater than three, and the pink jersey would say ONCE-Eroski on it now.
While Frigo, Belli and their team had worked themselves to exhaustion, Simoni and DiLuca had been taking it easy. As Frigo said, “The last week of the race is really hard, and it will be decided there.” Yes, and he has some recovering to do relative to some of his challengers by then.
Race Notes: Fred Mengoni, recovered from his accident last fall and here with Francesco Moser, was in attendance at the finish.
Gonzalez won both of today’s first-category KOMs – on the Abetone and the Carpineti – and took over the mountain jersey from Di Luca.
84th GIRO D’ITALIA, Stage 8, Montecatini Terme to Reggio Emilia, May 27.
1. Pietro Chaucchioli (I), Alessio, 185km in 4:54:23 (37.705kph); 2. Davide Rebellin (I), Liquigas-PATA, at 0:33; 3. Fredy Gonzalez (Col), Selle Italia-Pacific; 4. Giuliano Figueras (I), Panaria-Fiordo; 5. Unai Osa (Sp), iBanesto.com; 6. José Arrieta (Sp), iBanesto.com; 7. José Azevedo (Por), ONCE-Eroski, at 0:35; 8. Hernan Buenahora (Col), Selle Italia-Pacific, s.t.; 9. Julio Perez (Mex), Panaria-Fiordo, at 0:38; 10. Danilo Di Luca (I), Cantina Tollo-Acqua&Sapone, at 0:51; 11. Frigo, s.t.; 15. Olano, at 0:53; 18. Gotti; 21. Garzelli; 22. Hruska; 23. Savoldelli; 26. Camenzind; 27. Simoni; 28. Pantani; 29. Noé; 37. Belli, all s.t.; 86. Ullrich, at 13:35; 117. Livingston, at 19:07.
Overall: 1. Frigo, 1499km in 38:47:14 (38.636kph); 2. Azevedo, at 0:03: 3. Olano, at 0:14; 4. Simoni, at 0:15; 5. Belli, at 0:19; 5.; 6. Hruska, at 0:30; 7. Camenzind, at 0:37; 8. Noé, at 0:44; 9. Figueras, at 0:45; 10. Osa, at 0:48; 11. Di Luca, at 0:48; 12. Garzelli, at 0:59; 13. Chaucchioli, at 0:59; 14. Gotti, at 1:04; 15. Pantani, at 1:11; 23. Rebellin, at 1:38; 34. Savoldelli, at 3:23; 67. Ullrich, at 23:37; 60. Perez, at 19:26; 134. Livingston, at 53:51.