Grand Tour stage wins are precious commodities which typically rate at the top of a pro's palmares. Add to the mix a reigning national champion vying for victory in his home Grand Tour, and the pressure to deliver the goods to sponsors, fans and family may prove immeasurable. Such was the toxic cauldron of passion, pride and pugnacity at the controversial finale of today's stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia from Feltre to Tirano.
Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli), in desperate search of his first career Giro stage win, bested Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD) and Pablo Lastras (Movistar) in a three-man sprint for stage honours, but race officials soon relegated Visconti to third due to his actions in the final 200m.
Visconti, Ulissi, Lastras and Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto) had separated themselves from their seven breakaway companions, the remains of what originally was a 16-man escape, in the closing kilometres of the stage.
The 21-year-old Ulissi, winner of back-to-back junior world championships in 2006 and 2007, made a dig for home within the final 1,000 meters, but was soon caught and used the opportunity to sit back and let Bakelants lead out the sprint from 500m.
Ulissi kicked with 300m to go on the left side of the finishing straight. Visconti came around the left of Ulissi in the gap between the Lampre-ISD rider and the barriers and twice pushed Ulissi with his right arm, the second being a firm shove with his forearm, to clear his path to the finish line.
Ulissi appeared momentarily stunned as Visconti crossed the finish line first, still gesticulating at the young Lampre-ISD rider. Lastras couldn't match the pair's initial acceleration and would finish third, but almost came around the Italian duo who both sat up just shy of the finish line after their altercation.
Bakelants crossed the finish line alone four seconds later in fourth place, having sat up once Ulissi launched his sprint.
While one might imagine the reigning Italian champion may be allowed some leeway in his native Grand Tour, particularly when a stage win was at stake, the race commissaires went by the rule book and relegated Visconti from first to third. No favours were to be granted in light of the egregious nature of Visconti twice pushing Ulissi in the sprint.
“I shouted at Ulissi ten times to let me pass because I was going at twice the speed, but he closed me in against the barriers and I hadn’t raised my arm I would have fallen,” an angry Visconti claimed afterwards, but his protestations fell on deaf ears.
For his part, Ulissi was unconcerned by Visconti’s anger. “I tried to surprise them by going early and I was always on the left hand side of the road, and I don’t think I really veered that much towards the barriers,” he said.
Race leader Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) finished in the peloton 2:59 later and continues his reign in the maglia rosa. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) also finished with Contador and their respective GC positions of second, third and fourth respectively remain unchanged.
Fifth place, however, now belongs to Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad), who was
part of the day's 16-man break and finished in 10th on the stage, 10 seconds behind Ulissi. The Belarusian started the day in 12th overall, 12:05 behind Contador, but moved up five positions to fifth, 9:12 back.
The break's lead at one point reached more than seven minutes which forced Liquigas-Cannondale to take up the chase in the peloton in defense of Nibali's GC position. Later in the stage, as their advantage decreased, Geox-TMC and Euskaltel-Euskadi took up the pursuit Denis Menchov's Mikel Nieve's overall positions were being undermined.
Sivtsov would leapfrog over them, however, and now tops a tight GC battle between riders in fifth through ninth overall, all separated by only 35 seconds.
The big break goes for broke
Despite plenty of tired legs in a peloton entering the final week of a particularly taxing Giro d'Italia, the opening hour was raced at 48 km/h as numerous attacks were launched but none proved successful.
At the 55km point, on the approach to Levico Terme, the elastic was finally broken, as a strong-looking group of 15 forged clear. Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) was especially prominent in ensuring the break got up the road. Joining Visconti were teammate Leonardo Giordani, Christian Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo), Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), Kanstanstin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad), Jesus Hernandez (Saxo Bank Sungard), Ben Gastauer (AG2R-La Mondiale), Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD), Eduard Vorganov and Alberto Losada (Katusha), Mathias Frank (BMC), Fabio Taborre (Acqua & Sapone) and Addy Engels (Quick Step).
Hubert Dupont (AG2R La Mondiale) soon bridged across from the peloton to form the day's decisive 16-man escape.
The peloton faced two categorised climbs on the 233km stage, the first being the category two Passo del Tonale at 166.2 kilometres. The break had been working well together approaching the climb and crossed the summit with a 6:10 advantage over the peloton. Contador's Saxo Bank Sungard team had a man in the break and a comfortable lead over those highest on general classification in the break, and seemed
unconcerned, but the presence of Sivtsov, starting the day in 12th, Dupont in 15th and Le Mevel in 16th was cause for alarm for the teams with riders in the top ten whose overall positions were now under assault.
While the break split up on the climb of the Passo del Tonale, they regrouped on the descent and held a 5:00 advantage over the Liquigas-Cannondale-led peloton once the descending was through.
With the help of Geox-TMC, the peloton had reduced the gap inside of four minutes by the time they reached the day's second and final categorised climb, the 15km-long drag to Aprica. Up the road in the escape, fireworks commenced on the ascent as thoughts turned to winning the stage. Time and time again attacks split the break into pieces, but ultimately 11 riders crested the summit together facing 18.5 downhill and flat kilometres to the finish.
On a more technical section of the descent on its lower sectors Lastras came to the fore and attempted to leave his fellow escapees behind. As the roads flattened out the 11-man break re-formed and the attacks once again commenced.
Bakelants escaped with three kilometres remaining, to be joined by Ulissi, Visconti and Lastras for the day's final, fateful selection.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.