By Lennard Zinn
With Dario Frigo fired for doping, there was nobody else to worry about, and Gilberto Simoni could throw caution to the wind and make an audacious 49km solo to get the stage win he felt had been missing from his Giro victory. After this rainy, 181km stage amid dampened spirits, Simoni now leads second-placed Abraham Olano by 7:31.
The riders ascended twice the first-category Mottarone climb rising above the western shore of Lago Maggiore. The first time up, Matthias Kessler broke away, and Danilo Di Luca caught and dropped him. Giuliano Figueras (Panaria) and Marzio Bruseghin (iBanesto.com) counterattacked and caught Kessler, and the three of them reeled in Di Luca three kilometers before the summit of the 13km climb. At the KOM, where Bruseghin led the way, the four had a 52-second lead over the bunch.
The fugitives reached a maximum advantage of two minutes 100km into the stage, which dropped to one minute by km 127, where the road started heading up the Mottarone for the second time. Simoni surprised everyone by attacking three kilometers later, with 7.5 kilometers left to climb. The soggy pink jersey went right past the equally drenched front three, who had dropped Di Luca, and they were powerless to respond. Behind, Alessio’s Ivan Gotti, iBanesto’s Unai Osa, Liquigas’s Sergei Gontchar, Mapei’s Andrea Noé, and Selle Italia’s Carlos Contreras absorbed Figueras, while Bruseghin and Kessler fell back to a larger chase group containing second-place Abraham Olano.
With no Dario Frigo on his wheel and very few people lining the road or running along next to him on this climb, Simoni kept the pressure on and crested the peak 1:31 clear of Gontchar’s group and 2:24 up on Olano’s. He pulled up his pink arm warmers and headed into the wet, winding descent down to the lake with 41km to go. Barely staying on the road around some of the slippery switchbacks, he demonstrated how badly he wanted to win this stage by pushing the limits to maintain his lead, a tall order with the finish so far away.
But he was holding his own over anyone who had thoughts of catching him. Gontchar and Osa dropped their companions, who were scooped up by the fast-descending ONCE riders Olano and José Azevedo and Saeco’s Paolo Savoldelli. This group closed rapidly on Gontchar and Osa, who had not made a dent in the race leader’s advantage. Coming over a small uphill with 23km to go at the start the second half of the descent, Olano’s group absorbed Gontchar’s, and Savoldelli promptly shot off the front of it. With 15km left, Simoni still led Savoldelli by 1:32 but was up to 1:52 on the seven chasing him, which were gradually collecting additional riders and becoming ever less effective at chasing.
After skirting along the lake and passing through Arona for the second time, the riders did an 11.5km loop in the hills around town. At the top of the final climb with eight kilometers to go, Simoni’s lead on “the Falcon” Savoldelli had grown to 2:12 and to 2:52 on the other chasers. His lead was safe, and he rolled victoriously into his dream finish in Arona wearing the pink jersey, extending his arms and his gaze to the sky and waving to the crowd.
Savoldelli held on for a solo second place, Figueras outsprinted Daniele De Paoli (Mercatone Uno), with whom he had broken away a few kilometers prior, and stage 12 winner Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo) won the sprint for fifth place from the 13-man chase group.
The race leader said, “This victory was especially important to me for the public. It was my answer to the public about all that has happened the past few days, and I wanted to win for all of the people who came out to watch cycling. Our whole team wanted this win, and I gave my maximum to thank my teammates for all of their hard work throughout the Giro. The day on the Pordoi (when he took the race lead) was the most satisfying day of my life, and the police raid and cancelled stage has tarnished that. I did not want an empty victory, and I was not going to stop with the pink jersey on.”
The pastor of the church in Simoni’s hometown of Palú di Giovo near Trento, who has rung the church bells after every one of his victories, had promised that he would paint the bells pink if Simoni won the Giro. Looks like he’d better go buy some paint.
Race notes:The race started without Frigo, who had returned to his home in Biella, 80km from Turin. An autostrada toll-booth attendant at the Carisio exit had been one of the first outside of the Fassa Bortolo team to know the fate of the charismatic former race leader. A devoted Frigo fan, he had taken the toll from the Fassa Bortolo rider’s wife and had seen him in tears in the passenger seat of his BMW as it headed away from Busto Arsizio after yesterday’s finish. Tacconi’s Giuseppe Di Grande was the other rider besides Frigo not to start today. It is rumored that he was the rider that jumped out of a hotel window during the police raid, an allegation he has denied.
Overnight, the bicycles of all three of the remaining Bonjour riders were stolen, and they had to race on team spares. During the first half of the stage, Pascal Derame and Federic Maingeuenaud retired from discomfort on the poorly-fitting bikes, leaving only Thomas Voeckler to finish the race tomorrow.
84th GIRO D’ITALIA, Stage 20, Busto Arsizio to Arona, June 9.
1. Gilberto Simoni (I), Lampre-Daikin, 181km in 5:03:38 (35.766kph); 2. Paolo Savoldelli (I), Saeco, at 2:25; 3. Giuliano Figueras (I), Panaria-Fiordo, at 2:43; 4. Daniele De Paoli (I), Mercatone Uno-Stream TV, s.t.; 5. Matteo Tosatto (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 3:03; 6. Marco Velo (I), Mercatone Uno-Stream TV; 7. Sergei Gontchar (Ukr), Liquigas-PATA; 8. Vladimir Duma (Ukr), Panaria-Fiordo; 9. Unai Osa (Sp), iBanesto.com; 10. Andrea Noé (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 12. Gotti; 13. Olano; 14. Contreras; 15. Azevedo; 17. Caucchioli, all s.t.; 32. Ullrich, at 8:12; 118. Livingston, at 24:14; 127. Perez, at 24:29.
Overall: 1. Simoni, 3239km in 85:57:57 (37.673kph); 2. Olano, at 7:31; 3. Osa, at 8:37; 4. Gontchar, at 9:25; 5. Azevedo, at 9:44; 6. Noé, at 10:50; 7. Gotti, at 10:54; 8. Contreras, at 8:20; 9. Caucchioli, at 13:25; 10. Figueras, at 14:08; 11. Velo, at 14:34; 12. Luttenberger, at 15:36; 14. Savoldelli, at 18:42; 45. Perez, at 1:22:00; 52. Ullrich, at 1:31:13; 115. Livingston, at 2:30:39.