Hats off to Crédite Agricole's Christophe Le Mevel, aged 24, who chose a prestigious race such as the Giro to open his account as a professional rider (with a help from the "easy" attitiude of the peloton, but still a well-earned one), and end France's draught in the first Grand Tour of the season, the last previous stage winner from the Hexagon being no less than the great Laurent Jalabert, first across the line at Lumezzane back in the days of May 1999. But notably got his first ever victory as a pro just two seasons after having a terrible accident that came close to put a end to his career on the bike. Thankfully things took a turn for the better: Christophe kept on racing, and had his tenacity rewarded today. No wonder that he was smiling and very emotional ("but anyone would be, in my conditions") as he was interviewed after crossing the line: "I still find it hard to believe what I have done today. I'm very, very happy. Especially as I got my first victory in such a big race as the Giro. My legs are still fresh at this point of the race. Now I hope I may keep up this good form into the next stages, and help my team leader Pietro Caucchioli finish in the top 5 places or - why not? - even win the Tour of Italy. I want to dedicate this victory to all those who believed in me in the difficult period after the accident, and helped me get back on the bike, and I know it has not been easy".
Many a good ones (the one writing this piece included) thought this stage might have been good for Petacchi to make new additions to his tally. Instead Fassa's top finisher of the day was his loyal domestique Alberto Ongarato, who took seventh after he got into the "breakaway of the day", which came after about three thousand two hundred zillion previous attempts were nullified. By chasers like Ongarato himself: "We closed down on every break in the first 100 km., with a help from some of Savoldelli's domestiques. But as we realized that, with just seven men or so doing the chase, we just couldn't continue like that, I decided to get into the first break that went away. And so I did, but was well aware that, after working so much early in the stage, I was going to run out of gas in the last kilometres. Well, no matter anyway, we'll be given a chance for redemption in Milan". Ongarato was also back speaking of the controversy stirred by both Cipollini's criticisms of the Fassa leadoutmen work and their own response (see the interviews roundup in the link at the bottom of the page for further details): "We just wanted to defend ourselves against the criticisms we got in early stages. Some of them had a point, as we've made some mistakes. But some were unjust: if we took things in our hands with just two km. to go, each of us could pull for 500m or so, and we could get Petacchi into a better position for the sprint, but the truth is that we are used to start "our" sprint 4-5km. from the line, and it's no easy to keep control of everything (in such circumstances). But, well, in the end Mario expressed his opinion, and we expressed ours, that's all".
The same Super Mario, interviewed before today's stage start, provided his version of events, and talked of this Giro d'Italia in general: " I think the b4st thing about this race is that there's no real "boss", no leader who can make the gap. Four-five riders can still aim for the overall, and that makes the challenge more engaging. With some great and demanding stages - one ITT included - to come, we'tre gonna have a close battle until Saturday, and everything may happen. Being myself a Liquigas rider until recently, I'd like Di Luca to keep doing well. He's done well thus far, and now he's given the opportunity to accomplish something great in a top event. It's a crucial things. Especially to him". On to the "controversy" thing: "I can understand riders, and why they say certain words, especially in interviews given straight after a stage. I just expressed my point of view on something I think I know of, as I've been part of that world for so many seasons. I just said that a team with one job to do in the race could make it even better. But to have two different points on view on the same argument is not a forbidden thing".
Paolo Savoldelli said (one more time) that, being the gaps so small and the next stages peppered with so many mountains, all riders sitting in the top places overall might represent a threat to his race leadership. Garate included. And José Rujano too: "(the Venezuelan) has displayed huge talent. Not everyone can do what he has done in the mountains". A little bad moment might prove enough for anyone to have his overall hopes dashed. The Falcon also spoke of his future tactics and told RAI journalists that his goal is limiting his losses on the climbs (especially the terrible Colle delle Finestre) just to gain as much time as possible in Friday's ITT. Even if, as the man admitted "not always things go as one wished they would". One thing, however, is certain: Paolo is very motivated, also because he already knows what winning a Giro is about. He took he race in the 2002 edition, liked the experience, and is hungry to repeat it. When he beat Tyler Hamilton in 2002, he had a quite start but rode hard in the last week. This time came into form earlier, as he rode fast also in the first "race of the truth". We'll see wether he can keep such a good form into the last three, decisive days.
Ivan Basso is still in the race, in spite of everything: "I'm definitely better, much better than two days ago. I had a good day (in the saddle), even if today's stage was quite meaningless and we took it easy on the (Bric Berton) climb. Sure it's too late for me to aim for the overall, but hope my condition will be good enough for me to do well in the last stages. And I think I can do well. I'm gonna ride as if I still was a GC contender, if I can". Many riders regard Saturday's stage as much more difficult than tomorrow's, and possibly having a bigger impact on the GC, but Ivan agrees only partially: "I think tomorrow's stage will be crucial. I tested the route about one month ago, and with three climbs, all of them coming late in the stage, it can really make some significant gaps. The last climb is not difficult, but comes after two very challenging ones". The Team CSC leader (he still is, isn't he?) didn't pick any particular top contender as his favorite to win the race "It's too early to tell, but I'm sure that we'll know much more about it twenty-four hours from now". And last but not least, some words on his week-end problems, and the omelette which (according to a few journalists) was behind them all: "I still don't know why it all happened. It might have been for one thousand different reasons, but what I know for sure is that I didn't eat any omelette (laughs)".
On to Damiano Cunego, who briefly talked about both today's and tomorrow's stages "we rode hard for the first 80 km today. Then a breakaway went clear, and we let them go as none of the escapees was a GC threat. I'm definitely going to help Simoni tomorrow, 'cause he still can win this race. If my legs are good and I'm given the opportunity, and I'm there with the first ones, I may also have a go at winning one stage, but helping Simoni comes first". The Piccolo Principe ("Little Prince", that's how Damiano is nicknamed in Italy), who was quite clear and outsproken about that, also replied to critics of his winter build-up "I don't regret what I did. (I've made some mistakes for sure, but) mistakes can help you do better in the future.One just has to learn from his mistakes, and defeats. So we accept our defeat and work to do well in the future".
Time for us to hear Danilo Di Luca "My condition is unexpectedly good. I came out of the Stelvio with good legs, and now that I'm just a few seconds down on the GC. I'm gonna try to hold on until the end for sure. I didn't came here with the intention to win, but if I'm still in contention (for the overall), after being competitive for two months, that means I've done a good job in the winter". Someone may be surprised at Di Luca's "endurance", but the man reminded that, even if his 2005 palmares is a very good one, he hasn't raced that much before the Giro. He simply did well in most of the races he took part in during this sensational (early) season. Which he hopes to continue at the same level. And the man surely has a point in that. In the end the Liquigas leader had a few words on the forthcoming challenges: "I think Saturday's stage, with the Colle delle Finestre ascent, will be the race decider. But it's gonna be tough also tomorrow, it's another crucial stage for the GC, and we'll have to suffer". Di Luca picked Savoldelli as his main suspect to win the race.
Former DS - currently "on a hiatus" - Stefano Giuliani, a man who knows Di Luca well, said that Danilo is not playing poker these days. In some seasons a rider's condition can be good that he succeeds in everything he does. And accoding to Giuliani, that's Danilo's case in the current period: "that's whay he should believe in his chances until the end".
Speaking of Juan Manuel Garate, the Saunier Duval "yellow warrior" has been quite overlooked in the media throughout the race, but he's still there, with the best ones, within striking distance from the Falcons and Gibos of the bunch. And he's certainly not going to refrain from having a legitimate shot at the overall title: "I came here in quite a poor condition perhaps, but I'm getting better. I lost too much time in the first dozen days, so that I had to get into the right break this past Saturday to get back to the top places. I'm okay now, and will try and stay with the best ones (in the upcoming legs). Even if I'm not the man to beat, I'll try not to waste any opportunity I'm given. Tomrrow's stage might have an impact, but I don't think it's going to change the leaderboard that much; Friday's and especially Saturday's - with the gruelling Colle delle Finestre - will be more decisive instead. I think Danilo (Di Luca) is going to win this race".
His Direttore Sportivo Pietro Algeri spoke next, about team tactics too: "(I think that) the Venezuelans and Colombians are goling to make some early moves on the climbs in the next stages, and we should find the way to explit that. We just eneterd the final week of the race, when big changes to the leaderboard traditionally take placec, and with five riders still in contetnion for the overall, it's gonna be like that also this time".
And last but not least, words on the clash for the Maglia Rosa from a "neutral" point of view: Alessandro Petacchi. Many expected AleJet to be a protagonist both on and off (as in "post-race interviews") the bike today, but first he didn't win win the stage, and later he didn't have much to say about it either, basically echoing Ongarato's words (we worked hard in the first kilometres, but chasing down all attempts required too much of an effort, so when the break with Albereto went clear we let them go, we do our best and we're happy anyway etc etc.).Waiting to seal the Giro with another winning sprint to the line at Milan come Sunday, Petacchi had his say on the overall battle who's gonna come in the next three days: "I think Gibo and Danilo are better climber than Savoldelli, but Paolo is very good in the Time Trials a can make up for the lost time. Even though, whereas Savoldelli can hold on in the last ascent tomorrow, it should be a whole different story come Saturday".