By Lennard Zinn
On a stage that was expected to produce a sprint finish and no change in the overall standings, a sudden rain in the last hour wreaked havoc on the peloton and on the overall standings. Rik Verbrugghe, yesterday’s time trial winner, worked hard to hold on to leader’s jersey, but that was only a small part of the day’s action – and crashes involving some of the race’s top riders, including Francesco Casagrande who abandoned the race after the stage finish due to his injuries.
Shortly after the rain started with around 40km to go, a crash in the middle of the field took down Jan Ullrich and Kevin Livingston, but that was only the beginning. Crash after crash left riders strewn about on curve after curve, as the road was heading back down to the coast. Gilberto Simoni, in simply trying to stay ahead of the crashes, found himself with a gap off the front on a small climb. He slithered precariously around a few corners on the descent before Marco Pantani came up with a teammate and three ONCE riders.
Pantani pressed on up the final hill with 15km to go, and suddenly there was a powerful 10-man group with a big gap over many favorites and the race leader. Abraham Olano and Jan Hruska had much to gain, and they pulled hard with their teammate José Azevedo, getting plenty of help from Pantani, his most faithful lieutenant Ermanno Brignoli, as well as Lampre-Daikin’s Simoni and Oskar Camenzind.
Behind, the Lotto-Adecco train that had strung the pack out for hours (chasing a long two-man breakaway) was nowhere to be seen, and Verbrugghe was forced to close the gap alone. When the pink jersey finally rejoined, pulling five men with him, the front 16 now had a 30-second gap on race favorite Casagrande.
Because Casagrande had crashed hard earlier in the day (and was nursing his injured wrist), and teammates Dario Frigo and Wladimir Belli were in the front group, Fassa Bortolo was not chasing the break. Those chores were left to Mapei and Saeco. Even last year’s winner Stefano Garzelli, and favorites Paolo Savoldelli and Danilo DiLuca were taking pulls.
With four kilometers to go, the gap was up to 35 seconds and it was apparent that there would be no Cipollini sprint, and many overall favorites were going to lose time.
With 500 meters to go, Belli led out the sprint, and Gabriele Colombo came by to his right. The Cantina Tollo rider left lots of space for Panaria’s Vladimir Duma to shoot by on the left, and Liquigas’s Ellis Rastelli barely squeezed by to the left in time to throw his hands up.
Only later did the news report from the hospital confirm that Casagrande had broken a bone in his wrist and had abandoned the 2001 Gird d’Italia.
84th GIRO D’ITALIA, Giulianova to Francavilla al Mare, May 20.
1. Ellis Rastelli (I), Liquigas-PATA, 205 km in 5:15:06 (39.035kph); 2. Vladimir Duma (Ukr), Panaria-Fiordo; 3. Gabriele Colombo (I), Cantina Tollo-Acqua&Sapone; 4. Abraham Olano (Sp), ONCE-Eroski; 5. Rik Verbrugghe (B), Lotto-Adecco; 6. José Luis Arrieta (Sp), iBanesto.com; 7. Mariano Piccoli (I), Lampre-Daikin; 8. Giuseppe DiGrande (I), Tacconi Sport-Vini Caldirola; 9. Marco Pantani (I), Mercatone Uno-Stream TV; 10. Jan Hruska (Cz), ONCE-Eroski; 11. Ermanno Brignoli (I), Mercatone Uno-Stream TV; 12. Dario Frigo (I), Fassa Bortolo; 13. Gilberto Simoni (I), Lampre-Daikin; 14. Wladimir Belli (I), Fassa Bortolo; 15. Oskar Camenzind (Swi), Lampre-Daikin; 16. José Azevedo (Por), ONCE-Eroski, all s.t.; 17. Massimo Strazzer (I), Mobilvetta-Formaggi Trentini, at 0:37.
Overall: 1. Verbrugghe, 213km in 5:22:50; 2. Frigo, at 0:09; 3. Hruska, at 0:13; 4. Colombo, at 0:18; 5. Olano, at 0:19; 6. Piccoli, at 0:22; 7. Belli, at 0:26; 8. Azevedo, at 0:28; 9. Duma, at 0:29; 10. Rastelli, at 0:31; 13. Simoni, at 0:33; 16. Pantani, at 0:49; 17. Andrea Noé (I), Mapei-Quick Step, at 0:51; 19. Gonchar, at 0:56; 21. Savoldelli, at 1:01; 28. Gotti, at 1:11; 32. Garzelli, at 1:13; 33. Casagrande, s.t..