By Andrew Hood
As Paolo Savoldelli was winning a stage in the Giro d’Italia, understudy Yaroslav Popovych slipped into the race leader’s jersey in the Volta a Cataluyna in what was a big day for the Discovery Channel team.
Popovych finished second to stage winner Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) in the 237km march across the Catalan Pyrénées, which ended with the long summit finish to the Pal ski area in Andorra.
“I was more interested in getting the stage win than the lead,” said Popovych, who holds an 11-second lead going into Friday’s 17km climbing time trial to the Arcalis ski area. “I’ve only done four uphill time trials in my professional career and I don’t know the climb, so I’ll be taking this leadership thing day by day.”
Piepoli’s victory ended Saunier Duval’s winless 2005 season, erasing the growing notoriety of being the lone ProTour team without success.
“I tried to surprise the other two 500 meters from the finish, but fortunately I had some fuel left in the tank for a last attack,” Piepoli told Reuters.
Aussie Tour contender Michael Rogers (Quick Step) rode well, finishing fourth at 34 seconds back while 1997 Tour champ Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) rode with the lead group until about 5km to go, finishing 17th at 1:19 back. American Floyd Landis (Phonak) came through 34th at 3:03 back.
Volta a Cataluyna, Stage 4, Perafort to Pal, 237km
1. Leonardo Piepoli (I) ,Saunier Duval-Prodir, 6:22:09
2. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, same time
3. Aitor Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, s.t.
4. Michael Rogers (Aus), Quick Step, at 0:34
5. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 0:47
Overall standings after four stages
1. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, 15:08:31
2. Aitor Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, at 0:11
3. Miguel A.M. Perdiguero (Sp), Phonak +0:45
4. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval-Prodir s.t.
5. Santiago Botero (Col), Phonak, at 0:54
Want to know what a difference a year makes? Just ask Iban Mayo.
A year ago, the man from Igorre in Spain’s Basque Country was the talk of the cycling world. Following his dramatic victory at L’Alpe d’Huez in the 2003 Tour de France, many picked the scrawny Basque bomber to be just the man who could topple Lance Armstrong.
May was very good to Mayo last year, when he swept to victories at the Subida de Naranco, the Vuelta a Asturias and the GP Alcobendas in a span of two weeks. Then he barnstormed into June, winning the Dauphiné Libéré and shocking the cycling world (so it seemed at the time) by demolishing the record up Mont Ventoux and taking props on Armstrong.
July, however, wasn’t very good to Mayo in his well-documented collapse at the Tour and he’s been struggling to recover ever since.
Now he’s racing in the Volta a Cataluyna, purposely avoiding the Dauphiné Libéré and a rematch with Armstrong. Instead, Mayo is hoping to regain the confidence and the fitness to return to the Tour with both feet squarely placed on the ground.
“I hope this race helps me find the way to the Tour, because every day there’s less time,” Mayo told the Spanish daily AS. “I have no doubt at all that I will be ready and I believe that the Volta is the best hardest race this time of year, besides the Giro.”
Mayo insists his troubles from last year are behind him. He’s fully recovered from the mononucleosis that kept him out of the Vuelta a España and he’s motivated to regain his position as Spain’s top Tour threat.
“My initial idea is to win another stage and to be as high as possible in the GC,” he continued. “It will be very complicated because only one can be the final victor, but it’s obvious that there are a lot of favorites and I don’t discount any of my options.”
Mayo chooses his words more carefully when he speaks about Armstrong, however.
“It’s sure that Armstrong will only take the start if he’s 100 percent. A rider with his palmares won’t race just for fun, but to win,” he said.
Snow on the Stelvio?
The Giro d’Italia is slated to plow over the fabled Stelvio on Sunday for just the ninth time in race history.
And plow could be the operative word, as there’s a chance that snow might be in the offing. Forecasters are calling for cool, rainy conditions for much of the weekend in the Dolomites, with day-time temperatures nudging into the 50s.
But at 2758 meters (9101 feet), rain tends to turn to snow, even in mid-May.
According to live web cam feeds from the Stelvio summit, there’s still plenty of snow left over from the long winter.
The highest pass in Italy and the third-highest road in Europe, the Stelvio first made its Giro debut in 1953 (a year after L’Alpe d’Huez made its first appearance in the Tour de France). There have been some epic battles on the dramatic, twisting switchbacks, including Fausto Coppi dropping Hugo Koblet to win a stage to Bormio.
In 1972, the great Eddy Merckx chugged over the Stelvio en route to the third of his five Giro titles while Bernhard Hinault attacked over the climb to secure the overall title in 1980.
Since then, the Stelvio has only been raced once with the last occasion in the 1994 Giro. A planned passage in the 1988 Giro was cancelled after heavy snow blasted the Gavia, upon which Andy Hampsten endured the epic conditions to become the only American winner of the corsa rosa.
Beloki to help Scarponi
Joseba Beloki, another Spanish rider struggling to regain his footing, says he’s hoping the Giro d’Italia will be his springboard back to Tour de France greatness.
Ever since his “agony of defeat” crash in the 2003 Tour, Beloki has struggled to overcome injury, allergies and psychological demons that have haunted his return to the Tour podium, where he enjoyed the view for three years running from 2001-2003.
“Since the start of the race, I’ve improved, I don’t know how much, but at the middle of the Giro I feel that I am on schedule to arrive in the best conditions to the Tour,” Beloki said following Wednesday’s stage. “I’m very happy for this and so far the Giro has been very positive for me.”
Beloki is hoping to get a full three-week grand tour into his legs before tackling July’s Tour. The last grand tour he finished was when he was third in the 2002 Vuelta a España.
For his part, Beloki says he’s only at the Giro to regain fitness and to help team captain Michele Scarponi.
“I will try to be as close as I can with Scarponi. This is my job here,” he said.
Zabel pleased with ProTour
Erik Zabel is midway through his first ever Giro d’Italia and the 34-year-old German is still hoping to earn a stage victory. He came up short in Wednesday’s mad dash to the line, taking fourth behind winner Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto).
The veteran T-Mobile rider said he has a positive impression of the ProTour format as the 2005 season enters the midway point of the year’s first grand tour.
“The teams can plan better; they know exactly where and when they will be in action and can plan around bringing the right rider for the right race. Of course it also serves as a sound basis for what the sponsors are trying to achieve,” Zabel said on the team’s web page.
“From a sporting perspective it is also paying dividends. A race win now means more to the riders, not just here, but at all ProTour races,” he continued. “The races are also benefiting from stronger fields, and more motivated riders and teams. And the so-called Continental teams are more motivated than ever to do well at the big non-ProTour races. For them, these races are the highlight and they’re there to give it loads.”
His only beef has been with the inconsistent ProTour points system, which favors GC placements and one-day classics ahead of stage victories.
”That is not yet fully sorted out. If your consider that there are only three points on offer for a stage win at the Giro or the Tour, compared to 50 for a classics win, then it doesn’t really add up,” he said. “After all, a Tour stage win is not so easy to pull off! And if you win the Fleche-Wallone (40 points) and Amstel Gold, like Di Luca did, then you bag 90 points. You get 100 points for winning the Tour. I think that there’s a clear effort to strengthen the one days, but they should reconsider how they are going about it. But overall, I believe that cycling is on the right track.”
Zabel also said he’s set to talk with T-Mobile manager Olaf Ludwig about his future and he hopes to stay with the magenta tide until the end of his career.
Fassa Bortolo mulls ending sponsorship
Officials from Fassa Bortolo were scheduled to meet with team boss Giancarlo Ferretti on Wednesday evening to discuss the future of the squad.
A stage win ahead of the meeting would have been ideal, because the basis of the discussions is the future of the team’s sponsorship.
According to reports in the Italian media, Fassa Bortolo owner Paolo Fassa wants to step back at the end of this season and become the team’s secondary sponsor for 2006. The move would allow the company to stay in cycling for at least another season, but allow a new title sponsor to come on board.
There’s no word yet on who might be able to come on board – perhaps Dr. Squinzi of Mapei fame?