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Dominguez takes out Giro prologue for Phonak

Dominquez powers home to win ahead of Belgian favorite Rik Verbrugghe by one second in Saturday's Giro prologue

(Keystone)

Spaniard Juan Carlos Dominguez, racing for Switzerland's Phonak team, has claimed victory in the opening time-trial of the Giro d'Italia.

Domingue edged out a world-class field over the 6.5 kilometer course, through the Dutch city of Groningen, with a time of 8:12 minutes.

The Phonak captain's surprise win gave the team a high-profile start to what is arguably Europe's second biggest race after the Tour de France.

This year's 3,334-kilometre, 20-stage "tour of Italy" - the race's 85th edition - has been dubbed the "Euro-Giro" after being broadened to include five other countries as part of a tribute to the start of the Euro.

After the Dutch prologue, the tour's first four stages wind from the Netherlands through Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg and France. The race caravan then decamps to Italian soil for the first time on Friday.

Three Swiss riders are competing. Two of them, Alexandre Moss and Cédric Fragnière, are riding for Phonak, while Steve Zampieri is wearing a Tacconi team jersey.

The best Swiss performance in Saturday's prologue came from Moss, who finished 50th just 25 seconds behind Dominguez.

Favourite starts strongly

The biggest challenge facing the Swiss contingent is expected to come from 30-year-old Gilberto Simoni, last year's winner and the host-country favourite.

Simoni finished the prologue 34 seconds behind the winner, having mastered the technical 19-corner course without mishap.

Other riders expected to feature prominently in the gruelling tour - considered one of Europe's "big three" behind the Tour de France and alongside Spain's La Vuelta - are the 2000 winner, Stefano Garzelli, and Francesco Casagrande.

Garzelli proved his legs were on form after a dominating second place in last month's Lüttich-Bastogne-Lüttich classic.

However, the 28-year-old may struggle to match the hill-climbing power of Simoni or Casagrande - who won the Trentino tour two weeks ago and is also riding well.
Both men finished the prologue without trouble.

Another threat will come from countryman Dario Frigo, who this month won his second Tour de Romandie through French-speaking Switzerland.

Pirate's last stand

The Giro will be one of the last opportunities for Italy's Marco Pantani to rescue his career, which has been troubled every since "The Pirate" - as fans know him - won the race in 1998.

The talented climber, also nicknamed "Elefantino" on account of his rather large ears, was among dozens of riders caught up in a doping scandal last year.

Cleared only weeks ago, Pantani now rides with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. He finished Saturday's opener just 45 seconds off the pace.

Also in the public spotlight is the race itself. Last year's Giro was plunged into a drugs scandal after Italian police raided riders' hotel rooms.

Organisers hope this year's event will restore public confidence in the sport by being clean. According to the International Cycling Union, all 198 participating riders have passed pre-race doping tests.

The race, as is to be expected, has a heavy Italian bias, with 84 riding in their homeland, alongside 21 Spaniards, 15 Germans and just one Frenchman.

Armstrong out

Despite the Giro's stature, some of cycling's biggest names will not be taking part.

Three-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, is skipping the race to prepare for his campaign through France, while Germany's Jan Ullrich is injured.

Top Swiss riders missing the tour include Alex Zülle, who is resting after the Tour de Romandie, Laurent Dufaux and Sven Montgomery, both of whom have chosen to focus instead on preparations for the Tour de France, and Oscar Camenzind.

The tour will end in Milan on June 2.

by Jacob Greber


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