Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval) won the tough stage to the summit of Mont Zoncolan on Wednesday after making a late surge to the line with team mate Leonardo Piepoli. The two finished together, with Andy Schleck (CSC) third at seven seconds at the summit of the brutal climb.
Race leader Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) struggled in the steep middle section of the climb, slowly losing ground to the Simoni, Piepoli and Schleck, but dug deep to claw his way back and eventually finished fourth, just 31 seconds behind.
Di Luca admitted he had suffered on the climb but overall rival Eddy Mazzoleni (Astana) finished 13th at 2-26, dropping from second to fifth overall, and so Di Luca increased his overall lead to 2-24. 21 year old Andy Schleck, the revelation of the race and leader of the young riders competition, moved into second place, while Simoni is now third at 2-28. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) finished with Di Luca and is fourth overall at 3-29.
All the riders suffered on the leg breaking slopes of the Zoncolan that hit 22% in places. There had been fears that the climb would be unrideable, but the new road surface and dry conditions meant all riders survived the 10-km climb, that many have claimed is the hardest climb ever used in a professional race.
Simoni had not won a stage in the Giro since 2004 and hugged Piepoli after crossing the finish line. ?I haven?t won a race for two years and I didn?t think I could still win a stage at the Giro,? Simoni said.
?I fought for overall success but Di Luca was very strong this year and deserves to win in Milan. I wanted to win this stage because it?s the hardest in the race. I did a good job by accelerating early and dropping Di Luca, and then Piepoli was great in the second half of the
climb. He?d promised to let me win and it was another great win for us.?
The overall contenders will now wait for Saturday?s 43km time trial to Verona to decide the final placing on the podium.
Di Luca is confident of overall success but will have to be careful of Schleck, while Cunego and Mazzoleni will try and stop Simoni taking his eighth Giro podium place.
?The Zoncolan is a terrible climb and never seems to end,? Di Luca said. ?Simoni was very strong and so when he accelerated I preferred to ride at my own pace and defend my lead. I think I did the right thing and did pretty well. Fortunately I knew the climb after seeing it a few months ago and paced myself. I knew the gradient eased in the tunnels near the finish and I was pleased to make it because I knew my pink jersey was safe.?
Now I?ve got to fight in the final time trial to Verona and Saturday will be another important stage. I?ve got a good advantage but I?m going to have to ride hard to hold off Schleck. I think I?ve got the Giro 80% won now but I?ve got to fight in the final time trial and it?ll be another important stage. 2-24 is a good advantage but I?m going to have to ride hard to hold off Schleck because he?s a better time trialist than I am. I know I?ve got a great chance of winning the Giro after today but the race isn?t over until Saturday night.?
Thursday?s 203km 18th stage from Udine to Riese Pio X is totally flat and should be a chance for Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) to win. With no other sprinters left in the Giro, only a breakaway can stop him taking his fourth stage in this year?s Giro.
GIRO D’ITALIA: STAGE 17 RESULTS
1 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saunier Duval ? Prodir 142km in 3-51-52
2 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval ? Prodir at st
3 Andy Schleck (Lux) CSC at 0-07
4 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas at 0-31
5 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 0-37
6 Massimo Codol (Ita) Aqua & Sapone at 0-58
7 Julio Perez Cuapio (Mex) Panaria at 1-19
8 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas at 1-40
9 Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Lampre at 1-57
10 Ivan Parra (Col) Cofidis at 2-02
78 Charles Wegelius (GBr) Liquigas at 12-54
135 Steven Cummings (GBr) Discovery Channel at 18-28
OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 17
1 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 77-35-35
2 Andy Schleck (Lux) CSC at 2-24
3 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saunier Duval ? Prodir at 2-28
4 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 3-29
5 Eddy Mazzoleni (Ita) Astana at 3-46
6 Riccardo Ricco? (Ita) Saunier Duval ? Prodir at 5-19
7 David Arroyo (Esp) Caisse d?Epagnre at 10-00
8 Evgeni Petrov (Rus) Tinkoff Credit Systems at 10-25
9 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas at 10-39
10 Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Lampre ? 10-55
40 Charles Wegelius (GBr) Liquigas at 1-05-25
112 Steven Cummings (GBr) Discovery Channel at 2-30-47