Menchov leads as Giro nears finish

BLOCKHAUS, Italy -- Franco Pellizotti won the short 17th stage of the Giro d'Italia with a solo breakaway on an uphill finish Wednesday, while Lance Armstrong launched a failed solo attack.

Denis Menchov of Russia retained the overall leader's pink jersey, 26 seconds ahead of Danilo Di Luca. Pellizotti moved up from fourth to third, 2:00 behind. Armstrong remained 12th, 12:17 back.

An Italian rider with the Liquigas team, Pellizotti clocked 2 hours, 21 minutes, 6 seconds over the 52-mile leg from Chieti to Blockhaus in the earthquake-hit Abruzzo region.

Armstrong attempted to catch Pellizotti but couldn't get closer than 25 yards. The Texan then dropped back and finished 10th, 1:59 after Pellizotti, with teammate Levi Leipheimer right behind him.

Armstrong may have had a chance to win the stage if he caught Pellizotti.

"I saw that Lance wanted to try, but the stage was short," Pellizotti said. "It was almost like a climbing time trial. I gave it my all and there was no way I was going to wait for him."

Stefano Garzelli finished second, 42 seconds behind. Di Luca was third, 43 seconds back, and Menchov crossed fourth, 48 seconds after Pellizotti.

After Armstrong dropped back, he stayed behind defending Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre for the rest of the climb.

Pellizotti's teammate Ivan Basso moved up a spot to fourth overall, 3:28 behind Menchov, while Sastre dropped from third to fifth, 3:30 back.

Di Luca, from the Abruzzo region, said he wanted to win this stage to offer his fellow residents some uplift after the April 6 quake that killed nearly 300 people and drove some 50,000 from their homes.

The quake was centered less than 62 miles from Blockhaus.

Fans booed Garzelli for passing Di Luca in the sprint for second place, and whistled again when Menchov put on the pink jersey on the podium.

"Those are my fans," Di Luca said. "Even worse things happen at (soccer) stadiums."

Menchov was not bothered.

"He's from this area. I can understand it," the Russian said.

After starting in sunshine, the stage ended on a mountain shrouded in thick fog.

Excluding time trials, it was the shortest stage of the race. The peloton rode through the beach towns of Pescara and Francavilla al Mare before heading uphill to the Maiella national park.

The climb to Blockhaus was 11.2 miles, and the altitude at the finish was 5,492 feet. The stage was originally scheduled to go up to 6,772 feet -- which would have been the highest point of the race -- but snow on the road prompted organizers to chop off the final 3.1 miles.

Race director Angelo Zomegnan said he did not want to burden the local authorities by asking them to remove the snow so soon after the earthquake. However, little snow was visible on Wednesday.

A few riders went ahead in an early breakaway and Sastre's Cervelo team led the chase. One of Cervelo's riders, Philip Deignan of Ireland, fell at high speed while leading the pack downhill shortly before the climb. Deignan slid across the pavement and came to a stop in the bushes lining the road. After checking his cuts and bruises, Deignan got back on his bike and finished the race.

Sylvester Szmyd attacked at the beginning of the climb and Pellizotti joined his Liquigas teammate.

Armstrong then launched an attack and attempted to catch the Liquigas duo, but Pellizotti accelerated and left Szmyd behind. Armstrong stood up on his pedals in a stance reminiscent of his seven Tour victories, but he wasn't able to keep up the pace after 3½ years of retirement and breaking his collarbone in March.

Stage 18 Thursday is a 113-mile rolling leg from Sulmona to Benevento. Only one more uphill finish remains, with stage 19 Friday heading up to Mount Vesuvius overlooking Naples.

The race ends Sunday with a short individual time trial in Rome.