Kodo Perez Gil of the Liberty Seguros team was the first over the line on stage seven of the Giro d'Italia in Pistoia this afternoon, but it was defending champion Damiano Cunego who had most cause to celebrate.
And celebrate Cunego did. Unaware that the 26-year-old Perez Gil - one of 21 riders to escape after 20 of the 211km on today's route - had taken the chequered flag some 20 seconds earlier, Cunego produced a winning smile as he lead home the chase group. When the Giro's defending champion was informed that his sprint had been for second place, he reflected ruefully on "having made a bloody fool of [myself]."
In reality, Cunego was entitled to savour his result. The 12-second bonus which he earned for second place allowed the Lampre-Caffita star to move into second on GC and open up a 28-second lead over his nearest rival for overall victory, team-mate Gilberto Simoni. More significantly, Cunego was the clear winner of his first duel with joint-favourite Ivan Basso. The CSC rider finished a disappointing 22nd on today's trek over the Tuscan Appenines, coming home thirty seconds down on the "Little Prince" and losing forty-two in total by virtue of Cunego's twelve bonus seconds.
Meanwhile, Danilo Di Luca and Paolo Bettini continued to play "pass the pink jersey", with overnight leader Bettini suffering in his home region and easily dispossessed by Di Luca. The Liquigas rider now leads the race by 26 seconds over Cunego.
Situated 17km from the finish, the 6km, 8 per cent Sammomme' climb lived up to its billing as the first real test of the Giro, drawing the contenders for overall victory into their first direct conflict. Having ridden strongly to the foot of the climb, Basso's CSC team soon fell victim to their own pacemaking, leaving their captain exposed. Simoni and Cunego were also isolated, though Simoni had clearly decided that the best form of defence was to attack. His move was quickly closed down by Basso and King of the Mountains Jose' Rujano but it had lasted long enough to confirm that this a different, much more sprightly Simoni than the 2004 version. No sooner had Simoni been caught than Cunego fired a salvo of his own. That, too, petered out quickly, prompting a mid-race conference between the two Lampre team-mates. The fact that Simoni later aided Cunego's pursuit of Kodo Gil suggested that it had been an amicable one.
Basso was only one of many losers on the day, but perhaps he was the most surprising. His riding so far has been a lesson in poise and economy, yet today's stage supported the view that the CSC rider struggles when he is forced to ad lib. There is no Lance Armstrong to act as Pied Piper at the Giro. Having worked hard to stay with Cunego and Simoni up the steep slopes of the Sammomme', Basso started to cramp and lost his way when in sight of the summit. It was akin to dribbling through the defence and missing an open goal or an easy lay-up.
A similar thing could be said of Liquigas duo Dario Cioni and Stefano Garzelli's crash inside the last two kilometres. Even on the Sammomme', however, the pair had been outclimbed by their team-mate Di Luca. Both were lucky not to lose time on Simoni, with Garzelli's delay on the line cancelled out because his fall came in the last three kilometres. Tonight we should know whether the spill will have lasting consequences for the 2000 champion.
For every casualty at the end of what has been a swashbuckling first week, there was also a survivor. Paolo Savoldelli, now ninth at one minute 26 seconds behind Di Luca, falls into that category, as does Michele Scarponi, seventh overall and ten seconds better off than Savoldelli. Honourable mentions must also go to 2004 Tour of Britain winner Mauricio Ardila, still riding high in eight on GC, and the latest prodigy off the Rabobank production line, Theo Eltink, who proved his climbing ability to finish tenth today.
With Cunego sitting on a healthy lead in the virtual battle for overall glory, the stage is now set for tomorrow's backbreaking 45km time trial between Lamporecchio and Florence. Basso claims to have tested the course "around fifteen times", and will look to recoup the minute he has already lost to Cunego. Simoni predicted wrongly on Saturday that today's stage "wouldn't open up gaps" , but said that "the time trial will be very important". "I'll try to gain time on the climb (the 5km Pinone) and to defend myself on the final section," said the 2001 and 2003 Giro winner.
Stage 7, Grosseto-Pistoia
1 Koldo Gil (Spa) Liberty Seguros 211km in 5.08.17 (41.066kph)
2 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 0.20
3 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas
4 Mirko Celestino (Ita) Domina Vacanze
5 Patrice Halgand (Fra) Credit Agricole
6 Sandy Casar (Fra) Francaise Des Jeux
7 Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile
8 Christophe Brandt (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto
9. Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Discovery Channel
10 Theo Eltink (Ned) Rabobank
13 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre 0.20
17 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Liberty Seguros 0.47
22 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC 0.50
26 Dario Cioni (Ita) Liquigas 0.50
37 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step 1.48
45 Serhiy Gonchar (Ukr) Domina Vacanze 1.49
1 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas
2 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 0.26
3 Mirko Celestino (Ita) Domina Vacanze 0.54
4 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre-Caffita
5 Dario David Cioni (Ita) Liquigas 1.06
6 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas 1.14
7 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Liberty Seguros 1.16
8 Mauricio Ardila(Col) Davitamon-Lotto
9 Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Discovery Channel 1.26
10 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC 1.27