Giro d'Italia 20: De Gendt blows race open with Stelvio win

Rodriguez gains time on Hesjedal

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Thomas De Gendt(Vacansoleil-DCM) took the biggest victory of his career, winning atop the Stelvio on the queen stage of the Giro d'Italia with a superb display. Damiano Cunego of Lampre took second place and third went to Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

The maglia rosa stayed with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) who crossed the finish line over three minutes later, and he managed to make good the thirteen seconds he had lost to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) the previous day.

“I did not expect that,” De Gendt, 25, said. “I attacked on the Mortirolo, because the descents is very dangerous. All the pieces came together. Carrara was was still in the lead. He helped me a lot."

“And I know the Stelvio very well. I have trained there for six years. I've climbed it 20 or 30 times. It's very nice to win on my mountain."

The five brutal climbs did their job in separating the wheat from the chaff, but there were no decisive moves by the favourites until the final climb. They stuck together virtually the whole way, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas) losing contact only in the final kilometres.

De Gendt didn't make the podium, but moved up from eighth to fourth, pushing Basso down to fifth place. Hesjedal defended his second place, and good chances of taking the overall title in Sunday's time trial. He owed much of today's accomplishments to the good work of Christian Vande Velde, who was ordered back out of the lead group and subsequently pulled Hesjedal – and the rest of the favourites – up much of Stelvio. Michele Scarponi again showed he was stronger than Basso, who fell back on the final climb.

Things got off to an early start for the race's queen stage, over five climbs. The peloton was still together as it started up the first of the day's climbs, the category 3 Passo del Tonale. It may have been only category 3 but it was still enough for tired non-climbers to start dropping off the back.

The break of the day finally got away on the climb: Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Barracuda), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Damiano Caruso (Liquigas), Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli), Branislaw Samoilau (Movistar), Oliver Zaugg (RadioShack), Marco Carrara (Vacansoleil-DCM), Mathias Frank (BMC), Matteo Bono (Lampre), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Tom Slagter (Rabobank), and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini).

The Passo del Tonale was also the end of the race for four riders. Robert Hunter (Garmin-Barracuda), Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Dominique Rollin (FDJ-Big Mat) and Ivan Velasco (Euskaltel-Euskadi) were all disqualified by the race jury for hanging on to team cars, and removed from the race.

The gap jumped to six minutes after the second climb, but dropped to about three and half minutes as the lead group started up the Mortirolo.

The grueling grind up the Mortirolo with an average gradient of 10.4% and a maximum of 21%, took its toll, blasting apart the lead group. Oliver Zaugg (RadioShack-Nissan) and Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil) were the last men standing only 4km up the brutal climb. Behind them, the peloton also fell apart, with Lampre leading the way, perhaps in hope of helping Michele Scarponi move up in the overall standings.

Caruso moved up to the front, as Carrara weakened. Vande Velde and Serpa joined forces with Carrara on the chase. Even the climbers suffered. King of the Mountains Rabottini fell out of the lead group on the climb and was soon absorbed back in the peloton.

Vande Velde and Serpa dropped Carrara and were able to join Caruso and Zaugg in the lead up the climb. Amador was also able to move up to the leaders, making it a quintet in the lead. Zaugg took off from his companions as they neared the top. He really took off as he hit a flat-to-descending section near the top.

Even the 22% gradient near the top didn't significantly slow down Zaugg, and he made his way through the screaming throngs to the top.

Vande Velde fell back on the descent, and the favourites' group got larger again. Thomas De Gendt had jumped earlier, and more and more riders jumped to join him, with Carrara leading the way for him, Nieve Cunego and Losada.

With about 40km to go – and the Stelvio looming nearer – the favourites' group seemed to call a cease fire, slowing down for a break, as riders further behind them on GC taking their chances and jumping out. Zaugg's gap skyrocketed to nearly six minutes.

Eventually a six-man group formed to chase Zaugg, with riders from the former lead group and those who had managed to move up. All the gaps slowly came down again.

With 30.4km to go, the six caught and swallowed up Zaugg. Vande Velde had evidently been called back and was now supporting captain Hesjedal. The field, by now fairly large again, took advantage of the short flat section between the final two climbs to cut the gap.

The leading group took a four-minute gap as they started up the Stelvio. Zaugg paid for his earlier efforts and was no longer able to stay with the others.

With some 16.5km of climbing left, De Gendt jumped, followed by Nieve. Cunego struggled to remain in sight of the duo, while Amador and Kangert disappeared from view.

Vande Velde ground things away at the head of the maglia rosa group, holding the pace high enough to bring the group down to15 riders or so. Cunego clawed his way back to the two leaders, catching them with about 13km to go.

But almost immediately De Gendt attacked again, and the other two couldn't go with him. With jis jersey wide open and flapping, he seemed to have an easy time going up the climb, and in fact the gap to the maglia rosa group grew again, to over four minutes. And with every meter, he moved his way up in the rankings. In fact, he was getting dangerously close to knocking Hesjedal out of second place, and the gap was 5:05 as the favourites crossed under the 10km banner.

Vande Velde finally fell back, after having done countless kilometres of lead work. Meanwhile the riders passed the first snow fields along the way. With about 5km to go, the maglia rosa group took a look around to sum up the situation. Hesjedal moved to the front of the group, looking for, but not getting, help from the others.

De Gendt was obviously suffering as he hit the 3km marker, but over five minutes behind him, the maglia rosa group wasn't doing much better. Basso dropped off, and soon only Hesjedal, Rodriguez and Scarponi were together.

The Belgian crossed the finish line after a day's ride of nearly six hours, but barely able to celebrate his win. Cunego crossed the finish line 55 seconds later, and Nivel came in for third at 2:50

Scarponi, Rodriguez and Hesjedal gave gas at the end, and were able to cut the gap to reasonable poportsion. Rodriguez came in at 3:22 and Hesjedal at 3:35.

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