Italian wins ninth stage in Pyrenees

Monday, July 14, 2008

BAGNERES-DE-BIGORRE, France -- Riccardo Ricco calls the mountains "my turf," and he knows how to protect it.

The Italian showed his strength in the Pyrenees on Sunday by winning the ninth stage of the Tour de France while Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen kept the yellow jersey. This was Ricco's second stage victory in three mountain stages run so far in cycling's premier event.

Nicknamed "The Cobra," Ricco started with a sore right knee from a crash Saturday. He struck when his rivals appeared vulnerable, bolting from the pack in the steepest part of the final ascent on the 139-mile ride from Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.

"Let's say that this is really my turf, my domain," he said. "I went all out to the finish. ... I was really fast today."

Kirchen was happy to hold the overall lead for a fourth straight day. Top contender Cadel Evans of Australia struggled to not lose ground after crashing midway through the stage.

Ricco breezed past a few breakaway riders and finished 1 minute, 4 seconds ahead of his closest challenger, Vladimir Efimkov of Russia. The Italian was 1:17 in front of Kirchen, Evans and most of the other favorites.

Ricco is not a strong time-trial rider and was considered a long shot at the outset to win the three-week race, which ends July 27 in Paris.

Now, along with his Stage 6 victory Thursday in the Massif Central range, competitors are taking note.

"If Ricco rides the way he did today, he is dangerous," said Bjarne Riis, owner of Team CSC, whose top cyclists are Carlos Sastre and brothers Andy and Frank Schleck. "For us, it was just to follow [Ricco] and make sure we were in the right position."

Spain's Alejandro Valverde, another title threat, said Ricco is "someone we should all be keeping an eye on." Ricco cut his deficit to Kirchen to 2:35 from 3:52, and rose to 21st overall from 27th.

Kirchen, of Team Columbia, retained his six-second lead over Evans. Christian Vande Velde of the United States moved to third, 44 seconds behind Kirchen, after Germany's Stefan Schumacher lost time in the last climb.

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