Alessandro Petacchi, bandaged and sore following a bad spill, scored his sixth stage win in this year's Giro d'Italia outsprinting Czech Jan Svorada and fellow-Italian Giovanni Lombardi at the finish line Wednesday in the competition's 17th leg in this northern town.
Gilberto Simoni, who finished in the leading group in the same time as the winner, retained the pink jersey of overall leader with four stages to go to the end of the Italian cycling marathon.
Petacchi, still nursing severe back, hip and elbow bruises suffered in a fall during a time test last Sunday, equaled last year's number of stage wins by world champion Mario Cipollini.
Cipollini was knocked out of this year's Giro by a spill last week.
Petacchi, of the Fassa Bortolo team, won two stages Monday and Wednesday after nearly abandoning the race at Bolzano.
"I felt pain all over my body again today. It was an unbelievable victory," Petacchi said.
"I'm winning stages, but I'm suffering a lot. It was another tough day and another tough sprint," he added.
Petacchi rushed into the lead 200m from the finish and fought off a comeback attempt by Svorada for a close victory.
"He looks unbeatable, despite the injuries," Svorada said.
"He's the best world sprinter at the moment," said third-place Lombardi.
Petacchi dominated the initial week of the Giro, winning four stages and holding the pink jersey for five days before slipping behind in the tough, uphill legs.
Simoni, the team Saeco, held a lead of 1:58 minutes over second-place Stefano Garzelli and 4:05 over third-place Yaroslav Popovych ahead of two tough stages ending in the Alps Thursday and Friday.
The Giro ends in Milan Sunday, with an individual time test.
Petacchi completed the 117km distance from Salice Terme to Asti, in the Piedmont region, in two hours, 39 minutes, 47 seconds.
Thursday's leg, of 174km, ends at 1,815m of altitude at Valle Varaita. Cyclists will have to climb two Alpine passes, at more than 2,000m of altitude, before reaching the finish line.
Simoni, a 2001 Giro winner who's considered the best climber in this year's race, is expected to stretch his lead in the mountains.
"I'm already focused on tomorrow's stage," the race leader said at the finish line.
"I won't disclose my tactic for the day. Certainly I want to stretch my lead," Simoni said.
Tour de France
Domina Vacanze team manager Antonio Salutini said Wednesday that world champion Mario Cipollini and his teammates were expecting a last-minute invitation from the Tour de France after chief organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc gave the Italian team some hope following a recent meeting in Venice.
"We are waiting for a call from Leblanc at any time after he recently gave us some hopes of starting in the Tour," Salutini said after the 17th stage of the Giro d'Italia in northern Italy.
Cipollini, who had to abandon the Giro following a spill during a sprint last week, was training near home in Tuscany and was prepared to accept Leblanc's call, Salutini said.
"He resumed training yesterday. He's ready for the Tour. He hopes to go," Salutini said on TV.
Cipollini and his team were recently refused a wild card entry into the prestigious French race but French organizers were reportedly reconsidering their decision following protests over the exclusion of the champion.
Domina Vacanze may be added as 23rd team in the Tour.