Sunday, 23 May 2010

Monte Zoncolan: No for the faint hearted

Huge crowds lined the 200km plus route up to the finish at Monte Zoncolan today. For the third time in the history of the Giro, the 20% gradient, 10km category 1 climb, was chosen to be part of a stage route. Having been climbed in 2003 and 2007 from less challenging approaches, the route chosen on the west side posed more of an adventurous ride that was definitely not for the faint hearted. Early on Chenula and Blot were amongst those who found the route all too much after yesterday's challenges, and after 4 hours on the bike, the pace pushed to the max by Liquigas once more, this time helped by Caisse d'Epargne, Voss was forced to abandon, shortly joined by Goss of HTC-Columbia.

Early on a six man breakaway clocked up a lead of over 10 minutes, that the chasing peloton worked hard to get down to around 8 minutes as they headed into the final 50km that contained the 2 category 2 climbs before the legendary climb that Monte Zoncolan was sure to be. At the intermediate sprint, 44km from the finish 1st to grab points was Pineau (QST), followed by Reda (QST) and Turpin (ALM).

The massed ranks of Liquigas began to catch the back of the leading group as they headed into the final challenging 40km, the first of the strongest leaders a little over 6 minutes up on the Maglia Rosa, which was now on the back of Arroyo, having been lost by the young Tazmanian, Richie Porte, yesterday.

In the distance the 500m climb loomed, as Szmyd (LIQ) took the peloton up the Passo Duron, the time gap down to a little under 5 minutes with the bunch shrinking to around 15 riders, including Basso, Porte, Sastre, Vinokourov, Arroyo, Nibali, Evans and Sacrponi. On the descent the peloton regrouped as the pace slowed to around 8,5 km/h as they headed into the last 30km.

Liquigas looked strong as they dominated the riding, their team working hard to control the breakaway, not wanting to repeat the mistakes made earlier on in the Giro that saw a breakaway of 56 riders clock up a huge time gap. In contrast, BMC seemed to suffer with their team now depleted to just four riders.

With 5 men left in the breakaway and 25km to go, everyone waited with baited breath to see what would happen on the final two climbs, as the riders took on their last few bottles and food, knowing team cars wouldn't be allowed on the Monte Zoncolan. As the peloton headed into Sella Valcalda (2nd cat) at 958m with an average slope of 6.2% and a maximum of 12%, the hard work of Liquigas was seeing the time gap come down to around 4 minutes.

The tension was high as the leaders came into the final 20km, half of which would be the climb up Monte Zoncolan. At the summit, Turpin (ALM) grabbed the max points with Pineau (QST) and Sijmens (COF) coming over in 2nd and 3rd place, as Turpin moved up to 9 points behind green jersey Lloyd, the time gap now down to well under the 4 minute mark.

With 3 monstrous sections, switchbacks and a 22% maximum gradient, the Monte Zoncolan awaited the peloton as it made its way into the last 10km, Farrar and McEwan pulling out of the Giro without attempting it. Meanwhile, back at the Quickstep base, the news of the day was Weylandt being taken to hospital to treat dehydration, having earlier pulled out with gastroenteritis.

On the slopes of the Zoncolan, Le Floch (BTL) was caught by the bunch, headed by Szmyd doing an incredible job today for Liquigas, with Basso, Vinokourov , Scarponi and Evans are close together behind him. Back at the far end of the bunch though, Sastre was in trouble as the main field started their climb, the pace ever controlled by Liquigas. On the steepest ramp of the climb Pinotti started to struggle, as Scarponi lead Evans and Basso up the slope, the peloton only a minute and a half behind, lead by the solo Sijmens, as Le Fouch's agonising ride put him almost at a standstill.

On the steep and narrow climb Scarponi put in the first dig, but it was short lived as Pineau found himself caught by the field. A brave Evans and Basso battled out the final brutal 5km of climbing, as the fractured peloton did well to drag the time gap down to a little over a minute from Basso and Evans back to the Maglia Rosa, Arroyo. Evans gritted his teeth as he dropped back, the regained ground, then dropped back again, only to come back up to Basso's wheel once more. Basso, peddling lightly, seemed more in control than Evans who was out of the saddle, trying to push on, as Basso moved away.

The agonising hunched position of Evans showed the effort it was taking to keep up with Basso, who by contrast had a steady rhythm, as the Maglia Rosa of Arroyo slipped back to 2 minutes down from Basso. Scarponi, who had earlier slipped back, came closer to Evans, as he found himself 30 seconds down in the final 3km to the summit finish, where a phenomenal crowd was waiting. As Basso came into the final kilometer, Evans had dropped to a minute behind. Having started the day over 7 minutes down on the Maglia Rosa, Basso came home ahead of the world champion Cadel Evans, who finished 1.19 minutes down. Scarponi, a little way behind, finished 3rd at 1.32 mins, closely followed by Vinokurov at 2.26. But it was Sastre who came back from the last of the bunch to fifth place at 2.26 minutes off stage winner Basso. He was followed by Pinoti, Nibali, and Martin. Gadret finished 8 seconds ahead of Arroyo, who kept his leader jersey, finishing at 3.50 down from Evans. Richie Porte remained in second place in the GC as Basso moved up into 3rd place, only 3.33 down from Arroyo.

Tomorrow the peloton will enjoy a much deserved rest day before stage 16, an individual 13km mountain time trial from San Vigilio di Marebbe to Plan de Corones. Sections of 20 and 24 per cent will see riders slow to a walking pace before the finish on the hard packed dirt road, after what is sure to be an extraordinary ride.

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