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International Road
Simoni conquers Monte Zoncolan once more
By Anthony Tan
This report filed May 30, 2007

Simoni and Piepoli celebrate together

photo: Graham Watson

Saunier Duval's climbing king Gilberto Simoni has prevailed again on the wickedly steep slopes of the Monte Zoncolan.

"To have won here on Monte Zoncolan means an enormous amount to me, more than being on the podium," the two-time Giro winner panted at the finish line on Wednesday. "It was important to win a stage, more so that it was the Zoncolan, which is the most beautiful."

The final mountain stage of the 2007 Giro was a do-or-die effort for the 35-year-old climber from Trentino, who won here in 2003 and knew if he was to have any chance of claiming a third maglia rosa, this was it.

But despite his ever-faithful mountain lieutenant Leonardo Piepoli doing his domestique best on the sometimes-22 percent slopes as the pair emulated the Riccò-Piepoli show on the Tre Cime Di Lavaredo three days ago, Simoni wasn't able to knock race leader Danilo Di Luca off his perch.

Di Luca guts it out toward a hard-fought fourth

photo: Graham Watson

"I haven't won [the Giro] in two years," lamented Simoni. "I did come here hoping to win the overall title, but Di Luca is very strong."

Finishing a highly respectable fourth, 31 seconds behind the Saunier Duval pair and CSC's precociously talented maglia bianca Andy Schleck, who rode out of his skin to finish third, just seven seconds behind, Di Luca's face bore an expression of relief - but there was also a glitter in his eyes, as he now knows the next four days are largely a formality, before he is crowned champion.

"The race will be decided in Saturday's time trial, and I have a good lead over Schleck, who is my most dangerous rival. I am certain that I will have to fight to the end," said Di Luca, playing it safe.

Sure, Saturday's 42km time trial will be no walk in the park. But with an advantage of almost two and a half minutes over Schleck and Simoni, plus an additional minute on Damiano Cunego and Eddy Mazzoleni, barring disaster, the final battle - which should be a ripper - will be for second and third.

Speaking of Mazzoleni, one has to feel a little sorry for the 33-year-old Italian, whose 2:26 deficit to Simoni saw him fall from second to fifth. However, come Saturday, if he does the time trial of his life, he could well be back where he was before Milano.

Likewise Cunego, whose improvement against the clock was evidenced at the final time trial in last year's Tour de France, and whose current fourth place overall could change with a superlative chrono performance.

Ardila leads the escape

photo: Graham Watson

A dirty, doomed dozen
A dozen hopefuls left the peloton some 20km from the départ in Lienz, Austria. The idea, it seemed, was no more than to get a head start before tackling the west face of the mighty Monte Zoncolan.

The recipe for a break more than likely going nowhere: Place three Quick.Step-Innergetics, Paolo Bettini, Addy Engels and Mauro Facci; add two Predictor-Lottos, Dario Cioni and Mario Aerts; and a pinch of Acqua & Sapone, Ag2r Prévoyance, Bouygues Telecom, Ceramica Panaria-Navigare, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Française Des Jeux, and Rabobank - respectively, Massimo Codol, Carl Naibo, Yoann Le Boulanger, Fortunato Baliani, Markel Irizar, Jussi Veikkanen, and Mauricio Ardila Cano. Mix together, stirring well, and see what happens.

Over the crest of the Passo di Monte Croce di Comelico, marking 55.9km covered, the lead group of 12 enjoyed an advantage just tipping the five-minute mark. By Sappada, 93km into the stage, their lead was more or less the same at 4:50, indicative of a controlled tempo being set by the gruppo maglia rosa, led by Liquigas and Saunier Duval.

The Dolomites

photo: Graham Watson

On the penultimate climb of Tualis, Baliani and Cioni had a small dig near the top, trying to get away. It was a half-hearted attempt at best and unsurprisingly without result, so with just under 26km left to race, the dozen regrouped - albeit briefly - before the foot of the Zoncolan.

With the race 40 minutes ahead of schedule and the gruppo maglia rosa flying up the Zoncolan's lower slopes, the pace driven by Simoni's Basque lieutenant Iban Mayo, it didn't take long before there were a select six.

Eight kilometers from the line, Simoni, Piepoli, Riccò, Cunego, Schleck and Di Luca were 3:20 behind the remnants of the break and closing fast, the notable absentee being Mazzoleni, second-overall at the start of the day.

A kilometer later, Riccò was the first to pop, and Simoni's series of accelerations saw him leave the other four - including maglia rosa Di Luca - in his wake. However, the prodigious Schleck wasn't letting Gibo go, and 5km from the finish, the young Dane bravely bridged back up, with Piepoli in tow.

Piepoli sets the pace

photo: Graham Watson

It was then Piepoli who set the pace for his leader, doing everything possible to distance themselves from Di Luca and Cunego, who were riding together but not happily. Passing Baliani meant just Cioni and Codol were left from the original break of 12, and when they were caught and passed, less than 3km remained.

Cunego and Di Luca were doing splendidly to keep their deficit at no more than half a minute, meaning time was running out for Simoni and Schleck. In the final kilometers, despite a mammoth effort from his teammate Piepoli, which eventually distanced Schleck 200 meters from the line, it was clear that on this day, Simoni didn't quite have the legs he'd hoped for.

Nevertheless, Simoni made it two for two on the Zoncolan with Piepoli by his side, both finishing with strained smiles and arms aloft. Andy Schleck followed seven seconds later, and 31 seconds after the stage winner, in came maglia rosa Di Luca for fourth, his victory in the 90th Giro all but assured.

Cunego and Di Luca fight their way up the mountain

photo: Graham Watson

The road ahead
With the mountains done and dusted for another year, Thursday's 18th stage will be a fast, flat, 203km run through Veneto, from Udine to Riese Pio X. Alessandro Petacchi and Maximiliano Richeze are the only pure sprinters left in the race. Did the Zoncolan damage them irreparably, or will a break foil their chances?

Top 10

1. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval, 142km in 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), Ceramica Panaria-Navigare, 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

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

Complete results

To see how the stage unfolded, click here to open our Live Update Window.