PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
At about the time his Quick Step team-mate Tom Boonen was losing his grip on the leader's jersey at Paris Nice, Paolo Bettini was easing his way into the lead at Tirreno-Adriatico with a highly impressive demonstration of sprinting speed. On a stage run in and around Tivoli, the Olympic champion produced a burst in the final kilometre to reel in Michael Boogerd, then surged again to go clear of the pack led in by Erik Zabel for his umpteenth podium finish of a still winless season.
For Bettini, the victory was all about redemption after the troubles that he was hit by in this race last year. "Last year I suffered in this race because I'd had a lot of health problems. This year my form is much better and I've shown it," said Bettini, who has picked up where he left off at the end of last season when he won the Championship of Zurich and the Tour of Lombardy.
"I knew the final part of the stage and timed my effort just right. I have to thank my team-mates because they did a great job helping me on the climb to the finish," he told reporters, before look ahead to the rest of a race he won back in 2004. "I'm not going to hold back. This year's route is tough. The stage five time trial and the uphill finish at San Giacomo on stage six will decide the race." The Quick Step rider picked Stefano Garzelli and Levi Leipheimer as his most likely challengers for the title.
The day also went well for Bettini's former Mapei team-mate Oscar Freire, winner of this race last year just before injury forced his season to a premature end. The Spaniard made a move of his own in the closing stages, and will only get stronger as the race progresses, with Milan-San Remo his target the weekend after next.
Before battling it out in the final kilometre, the big names almost had their thunder stolen by Naturino's Filippo Simeoni, back in the news yesterday as the latest of his defamation suits against Lance Armstrong reached the Italian courts. Simeoni went clear after 4km and was joined on the attack by two new pros, Panaria's Matteo Priamo and Liberty's Jos Rojas. Unfortunately for the trio, they were caught with just 3km to the line.
Thursday's stage takes the riders 171 rolling kilometres from Tivoli to Frascati.
Stage 1, Tivoli-Tivoli
1 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step-Innergetic 167km in 4.08.55 (40.25kph)
2 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
3 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole
4 Mikhaylo Khalilov (Ukr) LPR
5 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
6 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas
7 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre
8 Luca Mazzanti (Ita) Panaria
9 Riccardo Ricco (Ita) Saunier Duval
10 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
1 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step-Innergetic 4.08.45
2 Zabel 0.04
3 Hushovd 0.06
4 Khalilov 0.10