Menchov takes Giro d'Italia title

ROME -- A breathtaking start in Venice. A rider protest in Milan. An epic time trial along the scenic coastal area known as Cinque Terre. A grueling mountain stage in 100-degree heat. A climb up the Mount Vesuvius volcano.

The 100th-anniversary edition of the Giro d'Italia had it all, and the most dramatic moment came with 900 yards to go in the 2,146-mile race.

Overall leader Denis Menchov fell on rain-slicked cobblestones within sight of the Colosseum that marked the finish of the final stage individual time trial through the streets of Rome.

The Russian got right back up, ran ahead to his bike but then opted to take a spare bike provided by a team member and still finished the race 41 seconds in front of runner-up Danilo Di Luca.

"It was a very spectacular Giro in every aspect," Menchov said.

When he finally did make it to the finish, the usually taciturn Menchov let out an emotional scream and thrust his arms to the air in triumph.

"All the tension, stress, everything came out," he said. "It's the most important victory of my career by a long shot."

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong took few risks on the slick roads and finished 53rd in the race against the clock, 1:19 behind, and concluded the race 12th overall, 15:59 behind Menchov.

Armstrong's Astana teammate, Levi Leipheimer, finished sixth overall, 5:28 back.

Menchov won two of the race's key stages, the mountaintop finish at Alpe di Siusi in stage 5 and the marathon-like 37.7-mile individual time trial along the Cinque Terre in stage 12.

"The time trial was my proudest moment, and I think today was the most dramatic moment," he said. "It's something I can tell my kids about some day."

Menchov slid on the cobblestones for about 10 yards, dirtying the overall leader's pink jersey and opening a cut on his right hip.

Menchov entered the final stage with a 20-second lead on Di Luca and was already comfortably ahead of the Italian at the final checkpoint before falling.

"The first thing you think of when you fall is to get back on your bike, but it's never good to use a bike after you've fallen," he said. "The mechanic was very professional. I was very intelligent in that moment."

Franco Pellizotti of Italy finished third overall, 1:59 back.

After the race, Menchov and other riders were greeted by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Ignatas Konovalovas of Lithuania won the 8.95-mile time trial. Bradley Wiggins of Britain finished second, one second behind, and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway was third, seven seconds back.

Menchov crossed with the 10th fastest time, 24 seconds behind Konovalovas, and Di Luca finished 17th in the time trial, 45 seconds behind.

Despite the rain, Menchov used an aerodynamic rear disc wheel for the time trial, while Di Luca used normal wheels to be more agile on the slick roads. The Italian took risks, cut corners and gained five seconds on Menchov at the start of the time trial, but Menchov's bigger legs eventually prevailed.

"In the end, the best rider won," Di Luca said. "I risked everything."

Besides the Colosseum, the time trial also took riders by the Vatican and the Circus Maximus.

He is the third Russian to win the Giro after Eugeni Berzin in 1994 and Pavel Tonkov in 1996.

Menchov also won the Spanish Vuelta twice, in 2005 after Roberto Heras was disqualified for doping, and outright in 2007. Last year, he finished fifth in the Giro and fourth in the Tour de France.

Menchov has faced questions lately over his alleged involvement in a blood-doping case in Austria, although he has denied involvement.

His Dutch team, Rabobank, has confirmed that it has been contacted by Austrian authorities for questioning.

Menchov's focus will now turn toward the Tour de France, which begins July 4. He listed himself as a top contender.

"I'm one of the best riders in the world," he said. "But we'll see what happens. Everything has to go right. You need luck, a strong team. A lot of things need to fall into place. There are a lot of other [contenders] also.

"It sounds strange, but I finished this race very fresh. That gives me more confidence."