If you go back to yesterday's report on Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, you may find the following last words "Tomorrow's 180-km. stage will take riders from the Latium region to Danilo Di Luca's Abruzzo, from Anagni to Rocca di Cambio. The mountain Top finish is located at an altitude of 1433 metres above sea level, but before getting there riders wil have to climb two more ascents: Monte Salviano and Ovidoli. No doubts that the stage is the right one for Saeco's Di Luca, perhaps the main favorite for the final victory, to find proper motivations and make his move.
I don't know whether the "Daily Peloton" has divining skills, or maybe it was just logical that this would happen. But one thing is for sure: Danilo Di Luca perfectly lived up to expectations and claimed both stage win and overall lead thanks to a solo effort he started at the very beginning of the final ascent.
The Saeco's rider once again proved that he's a man who often knows how to get something when he wants it, and as he really wanted to win this stage (such that he tested the final climb four days ago) he soloed to victory ahead of Rabobank's Erik Dekker and Alessio's Franco Pellizzotti, who came in 14" behind the local crowd favorite. As even Italian TV commentators noticed, Di Luca's pedalling cadence (and the not that hard gears he used) reminded of the way Lance Armstrong won some of the mountain stages in last year's TdF.
Di Luca stole the yellow and red Jersey from Erik Zabel's shoulders, although the German kept the cyclamen Jersey of the Points Competition leader. Of course this was not the stage for "Super Erik", neither for "Super Mario" Cipollini. But even other riders such as Casagrande and Michele Bartoli got dropped. And if it was somehow predictable for Casagrande, who could be still suffering due to Thursday's crash (remember the dog ?) and whose main targets are to come later in the Spring, things are different for Bartoli.
The Pisan seems to be quite in a poor condition now, also because of a recent flu who kept it off the bike for about a week, and if you add the strong competition inside Fassa for the MSR leadership, with Petacchi and Baldato currently showing a great state of shape, you may realize how, with just one week to go before the World Cup opening race, the perspectives for Bartoli and his team leadership hopes may not be that good ...
Now back to Saturday's 180-km. third leg, which got underway at 1030 AM in Anagni (a town in the Latium region that gave birth to no less than Four different Papes between the 12th and 13th century) and finished up to Rocca di Cambio, the highest town in the Appenninic range.
The first part was marked by an Intermediate Sprint where Mario Cipollini gave a sign of his presence, and two KOM Primes, Monte Salviano and Ovindoli (the latter located at 1379 mt. above sea level), both won by surprising Ruggero Marzoli, who took the best climber's Green Jersey and doesn't seem intentioned to hand it over to anyone else. Mobilvetta's Marzoli is a close friend of Danilo Di Luca, as both of them were born in 1976 and come from the same town in Abruzzo (Spoltore, near Pescara). Until last year he was also Di Luca's teammate in the Cantina-Tollo squad.
Up to the 10-km. ascent to Ovindoli, started in Celano and featuring an average gradient of about 5-6%, the peloton splintered as no more than 50 riders was able to hold the tempo set by Di Luca's teammates, one of them in particular: loyal domestique Alessandro Spezialetti, another man from Abruzzo who (unlike Marzoli) followed his captain even in his move from Cantina-Tollo to Saeco. The Kom Prime was an all-Abruzzese Festival, with Marzoli taking first spot from Spezialetti and Di Luca.
But the decisive moment of the day came some 20 kms. later, namely when the final ascent to Rocca di Cambio began, with a little more than 10 kms. to go. Danilo Di Luca, well-known in Italy as one of the most determined guys in the peloton, wasn't in the mood to waste any time, and made his winning move as soon as the road kept going upward (with a gradient of about 6%).
The man, already winner of two races this year so far, quickly took a dozen seconds on his closest chasers. Many a rider tried to bridge the gap, but all their efforts proved pointless. First it was Bettini, who started riding tempo at the front of the chasing peloton, with Marzoli on his wheel. But in spite of his recent improvements as a climber (this winter, while training in the Monte Serra ascent in Tuscany, "the Cricket" even beat the time record previously set by Pavel Tonkov) yesterday's stage winner lost further seconds to Di Luca.
Later it was Beat Zberg who got away from the bunch, likely preparing a move by Dekker or Boogerd. Indeed Rabobank, with all eight riders in the main peloton, had worked a lot in the front of the pack during the early part of the stage, but at the decisive moment they got surprised by Di Luca's wicked attack. The Swiss rider was joined not by any of his teammates, but by Stefano Garzelli and later Moldova's Ruslan Ivanov (winner of a GP Lugano in Switzerland two weeks ago). Garzelli was using quite a hard gear for this climb, a 39x15 (or perhaps even 14).
While Di Luca's lead was going up to more than 30", the chasing trio was swallowed by the 40-strong peloton (including dengerous time-triallists such as Hruska and Savoldelli, as well as Freire, Rebellin, Gajicic, Konecny and USPS' Christian Vandevelde, who is having very good rides in Tirreno-Adriatico). After further attempts by the same Ivanov and Spain's Juan Antonio Flecha (iBanesto.com), things seemed to become a little more serious when Paolo Savoldelli managed to ride clear of other chasers and started gaining a few seconds on the leader.
But all he could do was halving the gap (from 30" to 15"), and in the end he was even caught by two more riders who had broken away from the bunch: Dekker and Pellizzotti. Neither "The Falcon" nor the Dutchman won today, but nonetheless they could be serious contenders for tomorrow's stage and the overall leadership.
So finally Di Luca could raise his arms in triumph while crossing the finish line and claim victory under the glance of his mother and several members of his 150-strong Fan Club.
Dekker took second ahead of young Pellizzotti, while Vandevelde got to the finish line with the rest of the chasing peloton, 22" behind the stage winner, along with Hruska (who received a fundamental help by ONCE's neopro Caruso), Marzoli, Boogerd and others.
STAGE 3 RESULTS - TOP 10 Places:
1. Danilo Di Luca (Ita - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - 4h59'37";
2. Erik Dekker (Hol - Rabobank) - at 14";
3. Franco Pellizzotti (Ita - Alessio) - s.t.
4. Paolo Savoldelli (Ita - Index-Alexia Alluminio) - at 16";
5. Max Gentili (Ita - Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo-RDZ) - at 22";
6. Enrico Cassani (Ita - Domo-Farm Frites) - at 22";
7. Cristian Gasperoni (Ita - Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo-RDZ) - at 22";
8. Oscar Camenzind (Swi - Phonak Hearing Systems) - at 22";
9. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita - Fassa Bortolo) - at 22";
10. Michael Boogerd (Hol - Rabobank) - at 22"
OVERALL RANKING after STAGE 3 - TOP 10 Places:
1. Danilo Di Luca (Ita - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - 14h13'38";
2. Erik Dekker (Hol - Rabobank) - at 17";
3. Franco Pellizzotti (Ita - Alessio) - at 19";
4. Paolo Bettini (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - at 21";
5. Paolo Savoldelli (Ita - Index-Alexia Alluminio) - at 22";
6. Oscar Freire (Spa - Mapei-Quick Step) - at 25";
7. Enrico Cassani (Ita - Domo-Farm Frites) - at 28";
8. Michael Boogerd (Hol - Rabobank) - at 28";
9. Giuliano Figueras (Ita - Ceramiche Panaria-Fiordo) - at 28";
10. Max Gentili (Ita - Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo-RDZ) - at 28"
POINTS - RANKING after STAGE 3:
1. Erik Zabel (Ger - Team Deutsche Telekom) - 31 pts.;
2. Paolo Bettini (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - 15;
3. Jan Svorada (Cze - Lampre-Daikim) - 15
KOM - RANKING after STAGE 3:
1. Ruggero Marzoli (Ita - Mobilvetta-Formaggi Trentini)
Danilo Di Luca's Interview: "I'm truly satisfied. Everything went the right way. It has not been so easy, also because I made a very early move by launching my attack with some 9 km. to go, but that was the steepest part of the climb after all. Yes, I tested the route on Tuesday and the climb didn't look that difficult, but today it proved hard. I was confident about my possibilities anyway, so I put the team up on the front to ride tempo since the penultimate ascent. They have been great, and I've done the rest. Unfortunately I lost some precious seconds due to headwind. But the help Team Manager Martinelli gave me and the support I got from the "Tifosi" along the route were fundamental as well".
As for tomorrow's Individual Time Trial, Di Luca once again sounded quite confident "I noticed that Dekker ranked second today. He's a strong Time-Triallist, but tomorrow's stage is short and I hope I may do well. The good performance I had at Tour of Murcia was a moral boost to me. The most dangerous rival ? I think more Savoldelli than Dekker ".
So let's wait and see what may happen tomorrow (Rieti-Rieti, ITT, 12.7 km.). As for the 12.9-km. Time Trial held last Sunday in the streets of Murcia, Di Luca ranked 12th and lost 20" to Hruska and 11" to Camenzind, while neither Savoldelli nor Boogerd were part of the game.
But even if the man from Spoltore should lose the Tirreno-Adriatico, he has definitely proved he's in Top condition, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the man wearing Saeco's red jersey raise his arms in victory again next week, in another glorious Saturday. The Poggio ascent seems perfectly appropriate for another similar attack.