ROME (Reuters) - Russia’s Denis Menchov survived a fall on a rain-hit final stage to win the Giro d’Italia in dramatic fashion in Rome on Sunday.
The Rabobank rider looked certain for victory in the world’s second biggest stage race with a 20-second lead before Sunday’s 14.4km time-trial, which was better suited to him than nearest rival Italian Danilo Di Luca.
But the home fans were given hope of a shock win when it started to rain while both riders were out, making the going hazardous on Rome’s slippery cobblestones.
Menchov, 31, tumbled on a straight stretch in the last kilometre, but kept his cool and crossed the finish line near the Coliseum with the 10th best time, faster than LPR’s 2007 winner Di Luca.
He took the Giro with a 41-second margin of victory to add the title to his honours list after winning the Tour of Spain in 2007 and 2005.
“At first you are afraid, but I managed to stay cool because I knew I had a 30-second lead over Di Luca (at the time of the fall), ” Menchov told Rai television.
The stage was won by Cervelo’s Lithuanian Ignatas Konovalovas, who set his time of 18:42 before a light downpour forced riders to slow down, although conditions dried out only for more rain to create mischief at the end.
Italy’s Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas came third overall, 1:59 behind Menchov, while Spain’s Carlos Sastre, the 2008 Tour de France champion, was fourth after winning two stages late in the race.
American Lance Armstrong, gaining fitness for a tilt at an eighth Tour de France title in July after coming out of retirement, finished a creditable 12th.
MARKED DI LUCA
Menchov turned the three-week race in his favour in the 12th stage, when he took the pink leader’s jersey after Di Luca had worn it for seven days by winning a 60.6km time trial.
The Russian, who denied involvement in a doping affair on Wednesday after Austrian investigators contacted his team, then marked Di Luca tightly for the rest of the race to keep his nose in front.
“The best man won,” Di Luca said. “He beat me in the time trial despite the fall so I can only pay him my compliments.”
The race’s big disappointments were Liquigas’s 2006 winner Ivan Basso, who was back in the Giro after a two-year ban for involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal, and Levi Leipheimer, who ended fifth and sixth respectively.
Neither ever really threatened to usurp the leading pair in the last week.
Organisers wanted to put on a good show for the 100th anniversary edition with seven-times Tour winner Armstrong taking part for the first time, but they had to endure a mid-race crisis.
Menchov’s Spanish team mate Pedro Horrillo Munoz was badly hurt after falling down a ravine in the eighth stage and the riders turned the following day’s racing in Milan into a farce by cruising for most of it in protest at the safety of the course.
The Giro recovered though to become an intriguing contest and, aside from the stir caused by Rabobank being contacted by investigators, it appears to have been free from doping scandals.
Astana rider Armstrong was soon out of contention for overall victory having recovered from a broken collarbone just in time to take part.
But he had the stamina to last the course in his first big race since coming back from over three years off the bike and may yet have some surprises in store for July’s Tour.
Editing by Alison Wildey