Giro 4: Danilo Di Luca takes first mountain stage

Thomas Lövkvist in pink for Columbia-Highroad

Italy's Danilo Di Luca punched his way to victory on stage four of the Tour of Italy, the first foray into the mountains and where overnight leader Alessandro Petacchi was left trailing Tuesday.

Sweden's Thomas Lövkvist, riding for Columbia, took the race leader's pink jersey from star sprinter Petacchi following the 162km stage from Padova to San Martino di Castrozza.

Di Luca, the 2007 Giro champion, edged a furious final sprint to see off compatriots Stefano Garzelli and Franco Pellizotti as the event moved into the Dolomites, ending with a relatively easy 13.7-kilometre climb.

Di Luca, who was born in the province of Pescara in Abruzzo, was quick to dedicate this win to the recent victims of the Abruzzo earthquake.

"Today I wanted to win for my land, the Abruzzo. I'm delighted to have achieved that," said Di Luca, who at the race is selling pink bracelets, similar to Lance Armstrong's yellow Livestrong bracelets, to raise funds for the earthquake victims.

Colombian Maurizio Soler looked poised for the stage win inside the last 1.5km until the Barloworld climber was swept up by a closing bunch, finally finishing fourth just ahead of former two-time champion Gilberto Simoni.

American Lance Armstrong had kept pace with the chasing pack until the final kilometre but once at the red flag the seven-time Tour de France champion ran out of juice, eventually losing 15secs on the day.

Armstrong, however, is unlikely to be too concerned.

Competing in his first ever Giro d'Italia with the stated intention of helping Astana team-mate Levi Leipheimer, Armstrong lost no time on the stage, finishing sixth behind Italian Simoni.

"We finished with a big group and I lost 15 seconds, but that is not so much," said the American.

"Moreover, I needed to make an adjustment to the derailleur. Of course, it was not a very difficult climb. For Di Luca it was a perfect finish with the gradual climb. Basso, Di Luca, Garzelli and Cunego all looked very good.

Tomorrow will be a better indication. It will be a long and hard day.

"I am happy with my performance of today. This was my first big climb since retiring. I had a good feeling and no collarbone pain at all."

Italian favourite Ivan Basso, of Liquigas, also remained well in contention, finishing the stage in eighth place just ahead of former two-time Tour of Spain winner Denis Menchov of Russia.

Briton Ian Stannard joined an early six-man break which opened up a half-minute lead at the 10km mark after the race set off on flat roads bathed in warm sunshine. But the group soon fell back as the going got progressively tougher, culminating in a gruelling 70 kilometres of uphill grind.

Only German Jens Voigt, of Saxo Bank, of the early escapees managed to stay the pace and even he was finally overhauled 2.5 km out from the finish.

Petacchi, the winner of stages two and three, began to struggle on the Croce d'Aune going into the final 50km leaving Lövkvist, 25, to hit the front of the overall standings 2sec ahead of 33-year-old Di Luca, who held on for his seventh career stage success.

Spaniard Francisco Perez meanwhile fell after 11 km and was forced to quit the race with a right hand fracture.

Wednesday's fifth stage is a 125-km ride to Alpe de Siusi which includes a 24.9km climb reaching an average eight percent gradient over the final 10 km.

With Lövkvist in the lead, Columbia now have several tactical options. Their main pink jersey hopeful is Australian Michael Rogers, who finished only six seconds down on Di Luca.

© AFP 2009

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