From being a domestique to Michele Bartoli to having a World Champion as domestique, and even leadout man !! That's the "metamorphosis" of Paolo Bettini. And that's what allowed the "Californian" (guess many of you know why: he's from La California, a place located in the Province of Livorno in Tuscany) to win four times in less than one month, and today in particular to surprise Erik Zabel and the rest of the field, and take stage 2 of the Tirreno-Adriatico, going from Sorrento to Frosinone over 213 kms.
On the paper this mainly flat stage was meant to be an exclusive hunt-territory for the fastest wheels of the peloton, starting from yesterday's winner Zabel. But after the end a not particularly happy Mario Cipollini, once again unable to get into the top places, didn't agree ("Just look at the results. It wasn't a stage for pure sprinters" he said).
Not that he was completely wrong anyway. Indeed three small consecutive ascents, placed in the final part of this mainly flat stage, in the Upper side of Frosinone city, and whose gradient went to a maximum of 8-9% percent, really made the difference. Sure the first part of the race saw no serious break attempt, with the sprinters team riding tempo up front; among them was Saeco, whose fast wheel Fabio Sacchi finally seems to have more confidence in his ownabilities, after the recent wins them man got.
But it's always up to the riders to make the race harder and not turn the bunch into a massive leadout train for the fastest wheels, even when the route looks like particularly appropriate for sprinters. That's the lesson Bettini and Spain's World Champion Oscar Freire taught today at the decisive moment of the stage, which came during the last of the three small ascents when, with a little more than 3 kms. to go (and a gradient of 6-7 %), a combined and spectacular attack by two Mapei's guys led to a surprising (but somehow "logical", as each time Fassa-Bortolo wins a stage - see Petacchi in Paris-Nice for references - Mapei must reply, and so they did) outcome: the duo quickly opened an important gap and in the following descent and final flat part the Tuscan, nicknamed "Il Grillo" ("The cricket"), hold off the oncoming Telekom-led chasing bunch and grabbed an unexpected stage victory, the 21st so far in his career as a pro rider.
The cooperation between Freire and Bettini was simply perfect, and the Spaniard's help proved fundamental. No wonder if Bettini paid the World Champion back in Milan-San Remo (once again at the expense of Zabel). Also worthy of mention is David Clinger's failed attempt to get across to join the leaders: the first time for a USPS rider to get into spotlight (for a few seconds only though) in two days of racing.
But in spite of missing his second victory, stage runner-up (ahead of Alessio's Endrio Leoni) Erik Zabel kept, and even strengthened, his overall leadership, also thanks to the time bonuses he picked up at the Intermediate Sprints: he won the first in Capua, and was second to Svorada in Cassino. So the German is now leading by 5" on Bettini, with Freire currently third overall. "American", or we'd better say Italian riding with American license, Guido Trenti is in fifth place, 10" down on GC.
Once again bad luck took its toll on riders, as there was another crash at 5 km. from the finish line: today's broken collarbone belongs to Mercatone Uno's veteran Fabiano Fontanelli, while other involved riders such as Austria's Totschnig, Russian neopro Denis Bondarenko and recidive Casarotto (he fell twice yesterday) suffered minor consequences.
STAGE 2 - RESULTS - TOP 10 PLACES:
1 - Paolo Bettini (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) -
2 - Erik Zabel (Ger - Team Deutsche Telekom) - at 2";
3 - Endrio Leoni (Ita - Alessio) - s.t;
4 - Fabio Sacchi (Ita - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - s.t.;
5 - Mauro Zinetti (Ita - Index-Alexia Alluminio) - s.t.;
6 - Enrico Cassani (Ita - Domo-Farm Frites) - s.t.;
7 - Xavier Florencio (Spa - ONCE-Eroski) - s.t.;
8 - Giuliano Figueras (Ita - Panaria-Fiordo) - s.t.;
9 - Massimiliano Gentili (Ita- Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo-RDZ) - s.t.;
10 - Erik Dekker (Hol - Rabobank) - s.t.;
Overall Ranking after STAGE 2 - TOP 10 Places + Selected Riders:
1 - Erik Zabel (Ger - Team Deutsche Telekom);
2 - Paolo Bettini (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - at 5";
3 - Oscar Freire (Spa - Mapei-Quick Step) - at 9";
4 - Fabio Sacchi (Ita - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - at 10";
5 - Guido Trenti (USA - Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo-RDZ) - at 10";
6 - Massimo Strazzeri (Ita - Phonak Hearing Systems) - at 10";
7 - Danilo Di Luca (Ita - Saeco-Longoni Sport) - at 11";
8 - Enrico Cassani (Ita - Domo-Farm Frites) - at 12";
9 - Mauro Zinetti (Ita - Index-Alexia Alluminio) - at 12";
10 - Giuliano Figueras (Ita - Panaria-Fiordo) - at 12";
11 - Paolo Savoldelli (Ita - Index-Alexia Alluminio) - at 12";
12 - Michael Boogerd (Hol - Rabobank) - at 12";
13 - Davide Rebellin (Ita - Gerolsteiner) - at 12";
14 - Stefano Garzelli (Ita - Mapei-Quick Step) - at 12";
15 - David Clinger (USA - USPS) at 12";
42 - Christian Vandevelde (USA - USPS) at 12";
50 - Pavel Padrnos (Cze - USPS) at 12";
83 - Floyd Landis (USA - USPS) at 1'12";
91 - Gianpiero Mondini (Ita - USPS) at 1'29";
133 - Max Sciandri (GBR - Lampre-Daikin) at 2'59";
180 - Benoit Joachim (Lux - USPS) at 10'28";
192 - Matthew White (Aus - USPS) at 13'59";
Interviewed after the awards ceremony, Paolo Bettini started praising his teammate and good friend, and explained the "double attack" by Mapei: "I must definitely thank Freire, a World Champion that sacrifices himself for you in the final straight is something absolutely striking. This time I really have to share my victory with him and the rest of the squad. The Team Managers had previoulsy told us about the features of the last small ascent. Everybody expected a bunch sprint, but with some 4 kms. to the finishe line Oscar and I decided to made our move, after coming to an agreement: the one of us in the best form would win. No "appointed leader" between us. The small ascent proved to be harder than expected, and we were really afraid of not making it to the finish, but we gave it all and in the end I succeeded in keeping my gap. With 300 metres to go I saw the chasing bunch was nearing, and launched my last attack. Thanks again to Oscar, as I do think we have done something good today, and as I previoulsy said I think there's a great harmony inside our team, and that's the most important thing". Seems that last year's troubles inside Mapei are far away.
But is the overall victory in your mind, Paolo ? "Well, honestly I have to say I was thinking about the overall classification. But a stage victory was inmportant to me too. I got it, and now let's wait and see what happens tomorrow. If I stay with the best ones, that's good. If I don't ... well the most important thing was that I got a further proof that my condition is good. I know that if you want to clinch overall victory in the Tirreno-Adriatico you have to go fast both in tomorrow's uphill stage and Sunday's ITT, and I also know I'm not the best time triallist in the World. So once again, if I manage to get a good result tomorrow, I'll be trying to do one of my best TTs ever on Sunday. I think the main favorites are Casagrande, Di Luca and Rebellin anyway"
As for his first month of racing, marked by no less than four victories (three stages including today's, and the overall title at Giro della Riviera Ligure in February), "the cricket" couldn't help but saying "I'm truly satisfied. Things are going much better than in 2001, when I had to wait for six months before grabbing victory. And now we can start thinking about bigger targets" MSR ? Or more likely LBL ? Time will tell ...
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 lvel, 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.
The stage will go on air on both RAITRE and EUROSPORT. But in the meantime, if you can see Eurosport, hurry up and turn on your Tv, as the Paneuropean Satellite Channel is going to rebrodacast part of the second leg at 7 PM UK TIME (8 PM Central European Time).