This was the stage that everyone, well scratch that, I, had been waiting for and it didn’t disappoint – apparently the rest of the climbs in the Giro were chopped liver, and compared to the Zoncolan, that’s almost a fair assessment. This climb was really that hard – 10 km at an average grade of 12%, not to mention the middle 6k section which weighs in at an AVERAGE of 15%. Ouch. The PEZ himself just checked in to confirm that it really is that bad.
And so for the second time in his Giro career, Gilberto Simoni launched his micro figure up the mighty slopes of the Zoncolan, and for the second time he emerged victorious. Simoni did in fact succeed in finally getting away from Di Luca, but the distance separating the two was tiny by Zoncolan standards – around half a minute.
Ok, so it wasn’t really that easy.
As it always seems to be in the mountains, Saunier Duval was the team of teams, as Leonardo Piepoli and Gilberto Simoni went 1-2, and Piepoli gave away another stage win. Can that guy be any better uphill? He’s so good he’s handing away stage wins willy nilly. Ricco needed, wanted, had to have that first win on the Tre Cime – so he was duly rewarded for his efforts. On the Zoncolan, Simoni needed, wanted, had to have the win for the time bonus and, well, the eternal glory for winning on what might well be the hardest climb in bike racing, and he was also given the win by the most gracious Piepoli: the best climber in the Giro.
Piepoli is an unbelievable force in the mountains.
Di Luca Still On Top
In the end though, the Saunier Duval triumph was great sure, but Danilo Di Luca’s lead was never in question. Di Luca has not only withstood all challenges to his race lead so far, but in almost all situations, has come out on top with an even stronger position of dominance. He finally lost a little bit of time today, but he was never in significant difficulty, there was never an outward sign of panic, he rode within his limits, suffered, and conserved almost all of his lead. Can you ask for anything more?
Gilberto Simoni didn’t avoid the responsibility of tightening the screws as hard and quickly as possible.
Beyond the stories of Saunier Duval’s umpteenth 1-2, and Di Luca’s Giro winning ride, it would be absurd not to mention Andy Schleck. The 21-year-old started the day in 3rd, held a tenuous gap over Riccardo Ricco in the best young rider classification, and many were wondering how he’d go on a mountain like the Zoncolan. No need to wonder any more – he rode with Piepoli and Simoni until the final couple hundred meters where they managed to leave the youngster behind by a meagre couple of seconds, and most importantly, he picked up some valuable time on Di Luca en route to moving into 2nd place overall (Mazzoleni rode not so quickly up the Zoncolan), and Ricco lost massive time after an early come apart on the opening ramps.
At the end of the day, Di Luca’s lead is still large and nearly untouchable, but the young gun Schleck is only 2:24 back, with Simoni a further 4 seconds behind (finally Simoni is in the top 3). Di Luca can’t possibly be nervous about Simoni’s time trialling, I don’t think anyone could be, but Schleck the great unknown, and for that fact alone, Di Luca might be a tad bit nervous when he waits on the starting ramp to defend his Giro lead one last time in Stage 20.
How many breaks has Paolo Bettini made this Giro?
Let’s Take It From The Top
A break went early, as it was supposed to. It was a big, large, handy group of hopeful aggressors who might have had it in their heads that if they could only get to the base of the Zoncolan with, um, about an hour in hand and a motorbike.
The cool dozen motored off into the distance composed of: PEZ-man Dario Cioni, Mario Aerts (Predictor), Mauricio Cano (Rabobank), Massimo Codol (Acqua & Sapone), Mauro Facci & Engels (Quickstep), Fortunato Baliani (Panaria), Naibo (Ag2r), Yoann Le Boulanger (Bouygues Telecom), Irizar (Euskaltel), Jussi Veikkanen (Franзaise Des Jeux), and Paolo Bettini, who got across last.
The group worked well, but the motivated teams behind kept the gap very much in check, so when it came down to showtime on the Zoncolan the convicts were 3:30 up the road, and Saunier Duval was on full gas with Iban Mayo leading the charge.
Dario Cioni and Massimo Codol were the long-lasting survivors on the Zoncolan, but they could not withstand the SD boys.
Up, up, up the climb went with startling efficiency, I mean, if you want to get to the top fastest and with the least amount of pavement, make the road about six feet wide and nearly vertical. Maglia Rosa Danilo Di Luca enjoyed the services of a 34×29 for the Zoncolan.
The Gruppo Maglia Rosa quickly dwindled down to a select few with Di Luca coming off midway along with Cunego. At the front it was always Gilberto Simoni (doing much damage early on in the climb), Leonardo Piepoli, and Andy Schleck. Di Luca wasn’t far behind though, usually in the neighborhood of 15-30 seconds.
Yowsa, that’s a lot of people.
The fight for the stage win was still up the road for most of the climb though, as first Dario Cioni went it alone, and then Massimo Codol caught him and went by after Cioni detonated. Codol put a brave effort, but there was really nothing doing against the Saunier Duval duo of dastardly climbers (a d-word would have been perfect there, but alas).
Inside the final 2k, Codol was finally caught, and only three remained at the front. The road was insanely narrow, and even inside the ultimo chilometro, there was barely any room for the riders as the fans were everywhere. Thousands upon thousands cheered on the riders as they crept toward the line, and inside 200 meters to go Piepoli and Simoni finally cracked the magnificent Schleck to take out the 1-2.
Danilo Di Luca has to feel good about a two and a half minute lead going into the final appointment on Stage 20, and barring accident, injury, sickness, or an aneurysm, the Giro is his.
Behind Di Luca though is where the interesting race begins. Schleck has a meager four seconds on Simoni, which really doesn’t mean much, because Simoni’s time trialling skills are akin to Rasmussen’s nuclear disaster at the final Tour TT from a few years back – WITHOUT falling down. He doesn’t even need to fall down to go slow in time trials.
So the real threat? Cunego. Cunego’s time trialling ability has gotten exponentially better. He’s basically the only rider in contention for a podium spot who has ever actually ridden a good time trial (remember Cunego’s brilliant TT at the final Tour TT last year?) – PERHAPS, Cunego can look as high as 2nd if Schleck’s time trialling ability isn’t so hot. Simoni has to feel very, very threatened by his ex-teammate’s presence only a minute behind.
Stage 17 Results – 142 km
1. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, 3:51:52 (36.745kph)
2. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval, same time
3. Andy Schleck (Lux), CSC, 0:07
4. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, 0:31
5. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, 0:37
6. Massimo Codol (I), Acqua & Sapone-Adria Mobil, 0:58
7. Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio (Mex), Panaria, 1:19
8. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas, 1:40
9. Marzio Bruseghin (I), Lampre, 1:57
10. Ivan Ramiro Parra Pinto (Col), Cofidis, 2:02
General Classification After 17 Stages
1. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, 77:35:35
2. Andy Schleck (Lux), CSC, 2:24
3. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, 2:28
4. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, 3:29
5. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Astana, 3:46
6. Riccardo Ricco’ (I), Saunier Duval, 5:19
7. David Arroyo Duran (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, 10:00
8. Evgeni Petrov (Rus), TCS, 10:25
9. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas, 10:39
10. Marzio Bruseghin (I), Lampre, 10:55