Today's stage was technically a relatively straightforward flat stage, built for sprinters. Well, apart from the fact the riders only knew how long the stage was after it finished! Monty's stage profile will tell you more about what they faced, but it turned out to be 137km - 11km more than the race book!
Now, we often tell you that one of the beauties of women's racing is the fact that when it's flat, the riders make it an excuse for endless attacking, and today's stage demonstrated that perfectly. It really was non-stop action, with a huge range of emotions. Below the jump I'll tell you all about it, but if you watch the video, you'll see how it felt like every single rider in the peloton had a go at attacking off the front at some point in the race. Nicole Cooke was particularly active, and showed a superb return to the top, at the front throughout the race, demonstrating her excellent tactical sense, and having one of the most emotional wins I've seen. She's had a bad couple of years, and this win, her first in over a year, meant a lot to her - and to do it in the biggest women's race of the year (and in the hometown of her sponsors!) just made it even better.
Unfortunately, the stage was marred by a big crash at 50m to go - among the riders taken down were Emma Johansson, who had to walk her bike across the line, and Garmin-Cervélo's Lucy Martin, who ended with a broken wrist, forcing her to leave the race. The first results show that because of the crash, Johansson was originally moved down the GC standings, from 10th to 20th, but Hitec have challenged this decision, and were successful, which is great news and only fair. Other riders hurt were Colavita-Forno d'Asolo's Theresa Cliff-Ryan and Lotto-Honda's Rochelle Gilmore, who is spending the night in hospital - here's to no big injuries and everyone healing fast.
Almost from the start, it was a super-fast race - covering the first 45km in an hour, with attack after attack - solo and group escape attempts and breakaways that were chased down, riders doing everything they could to avoid a bunch sprint.
It was exhausting, but fun to test your rider knowledge, as different riders would explode up the sides out of nowhere, get into little groups, testing, testing, testing.
The biggest break of the day happened at around 15km to go - 11 riders, Emilia Fahlin for HTC-Highroad, Sarah Düster and Noortje Tabak from Nederland Bloeit, Valentina Scandolara (Gauss), Tiffany Cromwell (Hitec), Gloria Presti (Top Girls), Alessandra d'Ettorre (Colavita), Andrea Graus (Kleo), Liesbet de Vocht (Top Sport), Café favourite Marijn de Vries (who tonight blogged eloquently about doubts & decisions in the break).... and Nicole Cooke, who spent a lot of time both on the front and managing the break. They didn't get much time on the peloton, but they kept the gap steady - it was fascinating to see who was there to work, and who to watch!
After working well together for about 10km, the escape artists started attacking each other - Valentina Scandolara gained some distance, but was caught, and then Sarah Düster attacked. After a moment, Cooke chased after, caught her and carried straight on, using every ounce of strength to solo home, hardly looking behind her as she rode the final kilometre through the cobbles of Verona. The finish-line photo shows how much the win meant to her - pure passion.
Behind Cooke, the escape group had been swallowed up by the peloton, and race leader Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) won the bunch sprint for second, beating Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (HTC-Highroad) into third place and, coming in 4 seconds behind Cooke, easily kept hold of the race leader's jersey.
Top 10, via Cycling Fever
1. Nicole Cooke (GBr) MCipollini-Giambenini, 03:07:15
2. Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, + 00:03
3. Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Ger) HTC-Highroad, s.t.
4. Giorgia Bronzini (Ita) Colavita-Forno d'Asolo, s.t.
5. Julia Martissova (Rus) Gauss, s.t.
6. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Nederland Bloeit, s.t.
7. Eleonoa Patuzzo (Ita) Diadora-Pasta Zara, s.t.
8. Sharon Laws (GBr) Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
9. Monia Baccaille (Ita) MCipollini-Giambenini, s.t.
10. Davina Summers (Aus) Bizkaia Durango, s.t.
The GC and other results are not yet up on the race website - I presume it's still being mulled over, because of the crash, so the initial GC on the CN link may change.
If you're not a regular follower women's cycling, this win is hugely symbolic for Cooke. In 2000, the British Rider burst onto the scene as an über-talented youngster, winning the Junior Road World Championship at age 17, retaining it and winning the Junior World ITT the following year. She won the Giro Donne in 2004, when she was just 21, and in her time has won pretty much every big race except the Tour de l'Aude, culminating with the extraordinary double of Olympic road race and road world champion in 2008. This was followed by the most ridiculous case of the rainbow curse (read all about it here). She did win a stage in the 2009 Emakumeen Bira, and the overall at 2009's Giro del Trentino, but this is her first win since last year's Emakumeen Bira ITT. She moved to the Italian super-team of MCipollini-Giambenini for 2011, and we saw her on the front of the peloton chasing the escape on Giro's stage 3, but it's fantastic that she has finally got a win.
As always, we'll add more information as it comes through into the comments - and anything you see, please add it in as well.