Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) took a huge step towards a second Giro d'Italia victory when he produced an imperious performance in the Nevegal mountain time trial. Last man off, the Spaniard was only the 13th fastest at the first check point, but judged his effort perfectly as the road kicked up towards Nevegal, where his climbing prowess took him clear of his rivals for the maglia rosa.
The Saxo Bank leader came home 34 seconds faster than Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) to claim his second stage victory of the race. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) was another four seconds back in third place. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) was a surprising fourth, just a second down on Scarponi, with Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) eventually fifth after setting a mark that for some time looked good enough to win.
Contador's winning margin over his two main rivals meant that his overall lead is now just a couple of seconds shy of five minutes in front of Scarponi, with Nibali still in third at 5:45. Although there is plenty of racing still to be done, it would now take something quite extraordinary to deny Contador his second Giro title.
The battle between the leading three riders provided a fascinating contrast of styles. Nibali went hard right from the start ramp as the 12.7km course twisted through the narrow, cobbled streets of Belluno. A close encounter with the fans lining a bridge coming out of a sharp left-hand bend underlined that he was holding nothing back.
At the intermediate time check after 5km, the Liquigas rider was a second inside the previous fastest mark, set by Rabobank's Stef Clement some hours earlier. Scarponi was nine seconds slower.
As the road steepened, the two Italians matched each other both in terms of speed and cadence. Both turned a bigger gear than most of those who had gone before, grinding their way through substantial crowds that lined most of the course.
Two minutes behind Scarponi, Contador was much more cautious at the beginning. His initial time check suggested that he was holding something back. Once onto the climb proper, Contador selected a much smaller gear, his legs fizzing around to the extent that he hardly appeared to be moving. But his high-cadence style is hugely effective.
Urged by the packed ranks of tifosi towards the top of the climb, Nibali looked to have done enough to maintain the initial advantage he had built up over Scarponi and Contador. He crossed the line five seconds quicker than Rujano, and may have thought he had done enough to win the day when Scarponi came four seconds slower.
But as Contador neared the finish it was quickly evident that it wasn't a question of whether he would deny Nibali, but by how much he was going to beat the Italian. Wearing a black armband in tribute to compatriot Xavier Tondo, who died in tragic circumstances little more than 24 hours ago, Contador not only won, but did so in a fashion that will have left no one in any doubt about his form going into the last few mountainous days of this race.
Tributes to Tondo
Before the stage started, there was a one-minute silence in memory of Movistar's Xavier Tondo. Once racing got under way, his teammates then did all they could to pay tribute with their performances on the road. Branislau Samoilau was the first rider to get inside Stef Clement's long-standing best time, knocking 34 seconds off that mark as he became the first man to go inside 30 minutes on the 12.7km course.
Vasil Kiriyenka also rode well to move into third, but Italian time trial champion Marco Pinotti showed that the uphill course was to his liking when he chipped a second off Samoilau's time. The HTC rider's mark stood until Garzelli knocked a dozen seconds off it. The Italian veteran won the equivalent stage at Plan de Corones last year.
Although several went close to bettering Garzelli's mark, it stood until Rujano came through seven seconds faster. The Venezuelan's lead stood for less than 10 minutes, when Nibali raised Italian hopes of victory once again, only for Contador to end them with a performance that he immediately dedicated to Tondo.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.