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Italian Cyclist Edges Field in U.S. Pro Championship
June, 9 2003

The New York Times, 06.09.03
Frank Litsky

PHILADELPHIA, June 8 - During the 2001 Giro d'Italia, the Italian police discovered a vial of insulin in the room of an Italian cyclist, Stefano Zanini, a nondiabetic. Although he denied using insulin as an illegal bodybuilding aid, the sport's international federation suspended him last year for six months.

Zanini rode then for Mapei. Today, he won his first major race for Saeco, also of Italy. In a wild photo finish, the 34-year-old Zanini won the $135,500 United States professional road-racing championship.

As usually happens in an essentially flat race, the finish came down to a sprint. But instead of the usual five or six riders in contention, there were dozens sprinting to the line.

At the end of this 156-mile race, which lasted 5 hours 56 minutes 21 seconds, Zanini won, Uros Murn of Slovakia was second and Julian Dean of New Zealand third.

Murn said he thought he lost by "maybe two centimeters," perhaps three-quarters of an inch. Dean said he was beaten by "maybe half a bike length," about three feet.

The first American to finish becomes the United States pro champion, and that distinction went to Mark McCormack of North Easton, Mass., who finished fourth. He was sixth here last year.

"Our Saturn team didn't have a pure sprinter," McCormack said, "so going into the last lap I didn't think we were in such good shape. But I ended up on Zanini's wheel in the sprint, and for a time I thought I had a chance for an actual win. Just winning the U.S. title is a great honor.

"I'm 32. I'm getting old, but getting better. I started racing BMX at 10 and road bikes at 14. As a young pro, your role is to help older riders. You have to pay your dues. The more work you do as a young rider to help your teammates, the better you will be as an older rider."

Soon after the start on this cool, overcast day, four riders broke from the pack in Fairmount Park. They led for 110 miles by as much as 6:45, and endured 10 climbs of the Manayunk Wall, a 17-degree hill a half-mile long.

With 30 miles left, the pack caught up and, in effect, a new race began. There were a few half-hearted breakaways after that, all quickly reeled in. The finish was so tight that the first 47 riders were given the same time. They included Chann McRae, last year's United States champion, who finished 25th.

The average speed of 26.27 miles an hour was the fourth fastest in the race's 19-year history.

Zanini won the closing sprint stages of the Giro d'Italia in 1994 and the Tour de France in 2000. Today he won the first prize of $40,000, and if he wins one-day races Aug. 9 in New York and Sept. 14 in San Francisco, he will collect a $1 million bonus.

"I will race New York," he said through an interpreter. "San Francisco, no."

He made an upward motion with his hand, indicating he does not like the idea of climbing San Francisco's infamous hills.

What if he wins in New York and can collect that million? He smiled.

"Sure," Zanini said. "I could make that trip to San Francisco."