Spain's Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre came home alone after Monday's gruelling 16th stage of the Tour of Italy which left Russian Denis Menchov retaining the leader's pink jersey.
After seven hours tackling the 237km Appenines trek from Pergola to Monte Petrano, Cervelo TestTeam rider Sastre crossed the finish line 25 seconds up on Menchov to record his first ever win in the race.
"Was I hoping for better?" asked Sastre. "No I am happy with the result, I did my utmost to obtain it. There are still two decisive stages to come. I came here to win the Tour, and my adversaries know that. The Tour is not over yet."
Menchov grabbed second spot after outsprinting Italian duo Danilo Di Luca and Ivan Basso but refused to accept he had the overall victory in the bag.
"Have I won the Tour? No, I would not say that," said Menchov. "It was a very important stage but there are still two to come. However, I am satisfied with the day's work."
While Menchov said he had always expected Sastre to pose a threat but had special praise for seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who is riding in his first multi-stage major tour since coming out of retirement and after breaking hs collarbone a month-and-a-half ago.
"For a rider who stopped for three years, he (Armstrong) is unbelievable," Menchov said. "He is up there in front in the mountains. He is going really well at the end of the Tour. He is going to do something spectacular in the Tour de France."
Armstrong for his part conceded that the boiling hot conditions had cost his race team leader Levi Leipheimer dearly.
Despite help from his teammate, Leipheimer finished almost three minutes behind Sastre to drop from third to sixth in the overall standings.
"It is perhaps one of the most difficult stages I have ever experienced," conceded Armstrong. "That was because of the climbs and the oppressive heat. Levi had a difficult day but we tried to limit the damage. When it is as hot as that there are always surprises."
Australian contender Michael Rogers, who is seventh overall, said he had never experienced such torture before.
"I have just spent the toughest day and the hottest day I have ever experienced in the saddle," said Rogers. "I agree with Levi Leipheimer. The stage of Plateau de Beille in the 2004 Tour de France was tough but this one today (Monday) takes the gold medal."
The day's action was marked by a Yaroslav Popovych-led breakaway shortly after the start, Sastre reeling in and passing the Ukrainian escapee less than three kilometres from the line.
With the main race favourites grouped together Popovych, accompanied by around 20 other riders at one point, slipped the peloton, opening up a four-minute gap with 35km remaining before Sastre and co got to work.
With five days racing to go Menchov continues to lead the standings by 39 seconds from Di Luca, with Sastre in third (up two places), 2 minutes, 19 seconds adrift.
Following tomorrow's second and final rest day, there's a brief opportunity for riders to get back into the swing of things, as the 83km Stage 17 from Chieti to Blockhaus heads to and then along the coast. From there, it's up all the way to the top of Blockhaus – to more than 2000m. Ivan Basso took the maglia rosa on this climb in 2006, but that day finished at the Lanciano pass, and that's at 1306m. Wednesday's blast goes right to the summit of the Blockhaus, where the last two kilometres are particularly testing.
© 2009 AFP
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