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Italian cyclist makes his move in Modesto

The move of the Amgen Tour of California from February to May caused a stir in the international cycling world, which wondered how the upstart American race would impact the 93-year-old Giro d'Italia.

Francesco Chicchi flipped the question on its head Wednesday, as the veteran Italian rider made his own impact on the California race by winning the San Jose-to-Modesto Stage 4 in a frantic final sprint.

"The Giro is the biggest race in Italy, especially for an Italian," Chicchi said through an interpreter.

"But the Tour of California is also important to the team and all the sponsors. I'm very proud to win a stage in America. I love to race hard and win in this country."

Chicchi's charge in the final four blocks down I Street in Downtown Modesto allowed him to hold off Argentina's Juan Jose Haedo and top sprinter Mark Cavendish of England by a hub for his first-ever Tour of California stage victory.

The mass finish of the field, made predictable by the flat final 40 miles after the riders descended the coast range into Patterson, meant there was no change at the top of the overall standings.

David Zabriskie of Salt Lake City retained the yellow jersey of the overall leader and will start today's Visalia-to-Bakersfield Stage 5 with a four-second lead on Michael Rogers of Australia, and a six-second lead on three-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa.

"I'm an excited individual," Zabriskie said. "It's great to be able to wear the golden jersey in the Golden State. The hardest part of this race is yet to come."

Lance Armstrong was pushed into a curb during the final downtown lap of the race, but since the accident occurred within 3 kilometers of the finish he was awarded the same finish time as the stage winner.

Before the final downtown laps, the thousands of fans lining the streets almost were treated to an extreme rarity in road racing -- a wire-to-wire winner.

Dutchman Lars Boom was part of a group that led an early break up San Jose's steep Sierra Road within the opening 10 miles. With the help of three other riders, the Boom-led breakaway built leads as large as 6 minutes, 50 seconds.

"It seemed they were playing with us, giving us six minutes of lead," Boom said. "When we still had a one-minute lead with 20K to go, I thought that maybe we might be able to stay in front. But when you're riding alone, away from your team, it's not easy to stay in front."

That 20-kilometer mark came as Boom pedaled alone in front of Central Catholic High School on Carpenter Road. But the margin had dwindled to 40 seconds by the time he came off the Needham overpass to begin the first downtown circuit, and by that point the loss of his lead was inevitable.

The weather might have had as much to do with the pack catching Boom as did fatigue.

As the riders shot across Highway 33 and left Patterson, heading east on Los Palmas Avenue, they were greeted by a north wind just strong enough to disrupt their rhythm.

The left-hand turn onto Carpenter Road made that breeze a headwind, and since the breakaway group lacked the size to conduct efficient drafting, the peloton quickly chipped away at the gap.

"There were three teams that really contributed to the chase effort," Chicchi said. "With 80k to go, the chase was running well, but the breakaway was running very, very well. But once we hit the side wind we were able to pick up quite a bit."

It set the stage for the final wild sprint. With a block remaining, Haedo appeared to have the upper hand, but Chicchi was clearly the fastest in the end as Cavendish -- considered the world's top sprinter -- never really challenged.

"We're obviously rivals on the bikes, but Mark also is a good friend," said Chicchi, who hit 45 mph in the final seconds of the 121.5-mile race. "Winning is good, but to beat the best sprinter is even better."

And as far as moving from February to May is concerned, Zabriskie doesn't seem to mind.

"I enjoy the month of May," Zabriskie said. "There's a song in Camelot about that. But February is good, too. That's when Valentine's Day is, so I guess it's a love thing."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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