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The Discovery Channel may have serious regrets about the loss of Viatcheslav Ekimov from their Tour de France team, but events on Thursday pointed up the strength in depth within the American team as Paolo Savoldelli won the first mountain stage at the Giro and Yaroslav Popovych almost did the same at the Tour of Catalonia, but did end up in the leader's jersey. As you'd expect, the team were extremely happy with how the day had gone for them.
"He's happy, bloody happy," Discovery Channel assistant DS Sean Yates said of Savoldelli. "He's happy because his form is finally back after two years. He's got his morale back and today was just icing on the cake, at least for the moment.
"We knew Lampre would attack as they needed to take time against [Ivan] Basso," Yates said. "But on the Passo Duran, it was Basso who attacked first. Simoni and others responded but Basso kept on attacking and Cunego went out the back, [2000 winner Stefano] Garzelli went out the back, guys were all over the mountain side. It was every man for himself. The climbs here are much harder than in the Alps."
Watching on TV at home in Spain, Discovery team manager Johan Bruyneel was also a happy man. "Paolo was amazing today. First off, I'm happy for him after two years of a lot of problems and injuries which made him lose his confidence. Now, he's back on the highest level and I think he proved, especially to himself, that he's one of the best bike riders. That is just what he needed and I think from now on, we will see a Savoldelli that we are used to seeing," said Bruyneel.
"He's doing what we expected of him at this Giro and even more than that. He's a strong candidate for the podium, although we all know one bad day is enough to lose everything. It's clear Basso is a big favourite and that Cunego lost all his options today.
"Once again, this shows how this team is more than only about Lance (Armstrong). We've shown it in the past but many people just don't see that. For us as a team, for us as directors, it's very important."
Much the same feelings were expressed of Popovych's second place behind Leonardo Piepoli on a tough mountain stage in Catalonia. "For me, he was the strongest rider on the final climb, that's for sure," said assistant DS Dirk Demol. "He attacked with Piepoli and Osa, and was pulling all the time to take as much time as possible and gain the race lead. After the stage, he was a bit disappointed he didn't get the stage win, but immediately after he realised he had the jersey.
"We knew today was a good opportunity to try something. 'Popo' really wanted to find out where his level was at this moment and on the final climb, he attacked several times."
Today's fifth stage is another tough one, a 17km time trial to the Ordino ski station in Arcalis. "The first 7km are rolling and the last 10 are really uphill," said Demol.
"I'm really happy for Popo, as he had a difficult start with us, racing at Paris-Nice and then having visa problems," said Bruyneel. "For him, it's more than just the result. I think he will take away a feeling after this performance, as will Paolo in Italy, that they are very much a part of this team."
Visa problems have meant that Popovych has spent the past two months at home in the Ukraine "where it is totally flat," he said. "Being in an American team has meant that I have had problems leaving my country." He now hopes those problems are behind him and that he can focus on preparing for the Tour de France, where his goal is to "help Lance Armstrong and maybe finish in the top 10 overall."
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