By Lennard Zinn
Stefano Zanini outsprinted a group of 49 riders to win the longest stage of the Giro, beating Gabriele Missaglia and Jan Ullrich after a great leadout from Stefano Garzelli. For the first time in the race, the Olympic road champion was feeling well enough again to come over the top of a big climb with the front group and even to mix it up in the sprint.
The 239km stage started in Rieti in the province of Lazio, headed north through the entire length of Umbria and finished in Montevarchi in Tuscany. It started slowly, winding along picturesque roads in hilly country along lakes and past waterfalls. Race leader Frigo got a puncture and rejoined easily, while Cipollini stopped for awhile at the 44km point to greet his family and some friends.
The pace for the first five hours was a creeping 32kph with Fassa Bortolo controlling the field. Two breaks during the day of 6-10 riders got small gaps, both of which contained Mapei rider Rinaldo Nocentini who wanted to win in his home town of Montevarchi, but neither got more than 35 seconds ahead.
Two kilometers before the final seven-kilometer climb of the Valico di Monte Luco started, Glenn D’Hollander (Lotto) took off and gained a handful of seconds. Shortly after the ascent started, the unluckiest guy in the bunch, Julio Perez, apparently breathing better through his broken teeth, snuck off the front. He chased down D’Hollander easily and the two built a 20-second gap quickly through the vineyards of the Chianti region. The Mexican Panaria rider dropped D’Hollander and stayed in front for a bit before Gianni Faresin came out of the back and blew by him. Faresin was soon absorbed, setting the stage for his teammate Davide Rebellin to take off with extreme conviction.
Unfortunately for the Liquigas star, Garzelli was on his wheel, something the other g.c. riders could not abide. Despite the hard chase by the favorites behind, Rebellin and Garzelli pushed very hard and gained time. Their gap crested at 26 seconds with 21km to go, but by the Monte Luco summit 16km from the finish, this had been reduced to 13 seconds, and a tortuous, technical descent was to follow. The day was warm and the road was dry, so the fastest descenders tried their hand at bridging up. Paolo Savoldelli (Saeco), José Azevedo (ONCE) and Peter Luttenberger (Tacconi) flew up to the two fugitives, but all five were reeled in before entering Montevarchi.
Mapei’s Nocentini and Paolo Lanfranchi set the pace into town, and, as Zanini was the only real sprinter left in the group, their eyes were on the prize. With 800 meters to go, four Mapei jerseys were lined up at the front, Lanfranchi, Andrea Noe, Garzelli and Zanini. Lanfranchi and NoÉeach carried the field full throttle for 200 meters before Gilberto Simoni shot by, dropping off his Lampre teammate Missaglia to impede Garzelli. But Garzelli stood up and charged past both of them, launching Zanini with 200 meters to go.
On the big Mapei sprinter’s wheel were Missaglia and Telekom’s Matthias Kessler and Ullrich. The Olympic road champion had hung in there through a lot of high speed jumping, and there he was coming around Kessler going for the win. But Zanini was too fast and Missaglia had too large a head start.
The stage winner said, “I suffered enormously on the climb, but I knew I could win if I hung in there. The team did optimal work in the last 3-4 km, and I got a great leadout from Noe, Lanfranchi and Garzelli.” The muscular Zanini did well to get over that climb in the front, as the pace was stiff enough to drop Di Grande, Duma, Colombo and Gontchar all out of the top 12 overall.
Unfortunately for Danilo Di Luca, Filippo Simeoni, one of his Cantina Tollo teammates who had set the blistering pace for him up the Montevergine crashed on the descent and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. X-rays on both wrists and his lower back revealed no fractures.
84th GIRO D’ITALIA, Stage 7, Rieti to Montevarchi, May 26.
1. Stefano Zanini (I), Mapei-Quick Step, 239km in 6:48:02 (35.144kph); 2. Gabriele Missaglia (I), Lampre-Daikin; 3. Jan Ullrich (G), Deutsche Telekom; 4. Matthias Kessler (G), Deutsche Telekom; 5. Wladimir Belli (I), Fassa Bortolo; 6. Mickael Pichon (F), Bonjour; 7. Jose Arrieta (Sp), iBanesto..com; 8. Paolo Savoldelli (I), Saeco; 9. Davvide Rebellin (I), Liquigas-PATA; 10. Rinaldo Nocentini (I), Mapei-Quick Step, all s.t.; 52. Gontchar, at 1:05; 61.. Duma, s.t.; 67. Di Grande, at 2:08; 69. Colombo; 86. Perez, all s.t.; 146. Livingston, at 11:14.
Overall: 1. Frigo, 1314km in 33:52:00 (38.787kph); 2. Olano, at 0:12; 3. Simoni, at 0:13; 4. Belli, at 0:17; 5. Azevedo, at 0:19; 6. Hruska, at 0:28; 7. Camenzind, at 0:35; 8. Noe, at 0:42; 9. Di Luca, at 0:48; 10. Garzelli, at 0:57; 11. Gotti, at 1:02; 12. Figueras, at 1:03; 14. Pantani, at 1:09; 38. Savoldelli, at 3:21; 63. Ullrich, at 10:53; 64. Verbrugghe, at 11:04; 87. Hondo, at 19:08; 89. Perez, at 19:39; 140. Livingston, at 35:36.