This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Paolo Tiralongo added to Team Astana's list of successes in 2012 by conquering the steep, twisting climb up to Rocca di Cambio to win the seventh stage of the Giro d'Italia. With 500 meters to go Tiralongo followed the attack of 2011 Giro winnerMichele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and the Astana rider came around Scarponi inside of the final 100 meters to claim his second career victory. Scarponi finished second in the same time as Tiralongo while Fränk Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan finished third, only three seconds later.
Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to wear the maglia rosa, as Adriano Malori (Lampre-ISD) faded early on the closing climb. The Garmin-Barracuda rider finished fifth on the stage, five seconds behind Tiralongo, and now leads the race by 15 seconds over Tiralongo, with Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) moving up to third at 17 seconds.
The closing climb was the first exchange of blows among the favourites for the final title. Most, if not all, of the overall contenders were still in the group which went for the win, with an impressive Scarponi declaring his intentions, and Schleck also making his first real showing of the year.
From the flag
The group of the day couldn't have formed any earlier. When the flag dropped to commence racing, Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil-DCM), Fumiyuki Beppu (Orica-GreenEdge) and Reto Hollenstein (Team NetApp) jumped. The peloton was happy to have things settled so early and let the quartet go.
Stage seven was the Giro's second medium mountain stage, another rolling day with numerous small climbs and two ranked ones. The previous day had proved hard enough to nearly eliminate a number of top sprinters, but cooler temperatures and an overall slow pace proved a boon for the fast men today.
The leading foursome had quickly built up a lead of up to nine minutes ,and it see-sawed between eight and nine minutes for much of the day. The rash of abandons which afflicted the sixth stage let up, with only Gianni Meersman (Lotto Belisol) leaving during the race.
The first ranked climb of the day came at km 101.7, the Colle Galluccio, and Japanese rider Beppu took the top points, followed by Rabottini, Hollenstein, and Selvaggi. The field crossed the line 7:49 later.
Gradually the gap started coming down, and with 64km to go the break's advantage was appropriately at 6:40. The only intermediate sprint of the day came at km 178.8, and the gap had dropped to 2:50. Beppu and Selvaggi took advantage of the sprint banner to take off. Rabottini caught them but Hollenstein, who had spent much of the day in the “virtual” maglia rosa, struggled at first before catching up.
That was the end of the co-operation amongst the four leaders, and finally Rabottini took off on his own.
The stage ended atop the category two Rocca di Cambio, which proved to be tougher than anticipated. Stef Clement (Rabobank) was the first to (unsuccessfully) jump from the field as the peloton started up the closing climb. Stefano Pirazzi (Colnago-CSF Inox) was the next to give it a go and was more successful. Meanwhile, behind the field, the grupetto started forming around world champion Mark Cavendish of Sky.
Pirazzi quickly bridge across to Beppu, Hollenstein and Selvaggi with about 16km to go, and smoothly went on past them. By that time Rabottini had 33 seconds on the chasers, with the peloton at about one minute.
Liquigas-Cannondale's Valerio Agnoli was the next to jump, while behind him overnight leader Malori had to bid an early farewell to the pink jersey as he was unable to keep pace with the field on the climb.
With 13.6km to go, Pirazzi caught Rabottini and behind them Jose Herrada of Movistar passed Agnoli and took off after the two leaders. All semblance of co-operation within the chasing field disappeared, as attack followed attack – all unsuccessful.
The Spaniard caught the two Italians with a bit more than 12 km to go, as the attacks and counter-attacks continued behind them. Only two kilometres later Rabottini finally succumbed to the efforts of his long escape and dropped back. The field was only 22 seconds behind the two leaders at this point.
Pirazzi set a good pace and the leading duo increased their lead slightly. The Spaniard did some turns in front, but Pirazzi did the majority of the work.
Meanwhile, the field was steadily diminishing in size but all the favourites were still in it, most of them with numerous teammates at their side. Astana led them under the 5km marker, where the course flattened out momentarily. Astana's tempo brought the gap down second by second.
A slight descent came before the final pitch to the finish line and Pirazzi nearly missed the right turn to the finale, being cut off by a race moto. Herrada took advantage of the miscue by Pirazzi in the corner and took off alone as the parcours grew steep.
With only 700 meters to go Herrada was caught, and 200 meters later Scarponi took off with Tiralongo right behind him. It was a very steep, twisting finale, and Tiralongo pulled away to take the win ahead of the defending Giro champion.
Schleck and Rodriguez were the next over the line, and the rest of the favourites followed shortly thereafter, but all lost valuable seconds to Scarponi, who not only had gapped them but also picked up bonus seconds.