Veteran climber Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) took the first victory of his 12-year career as he came in just ahead of race leader Alberto Contador at the summit of the third-category climb into Macugnaga.
The Italian had made his move with 6km remaining of the long drag to the finish, only to be caught by the race leader with just 400m to the line. But, after a few words were exchanged between the pair, Contador took over the pace-making and led his former domestique at Astana towards the finish, where Tiralongo came through to take what is a long-overdue success.
The riders strung out behind these two were led in by Vincenzo Nibali, who trimmed a few seconds off his deficit to Michele Scarponi, who finished seventh on the day but remains second overall going into Saturday’s final mountain stage. Now 5-18 down on the apparently unassailable Contador, Scarponi’s advantage on Nibali stands at just 44 seconds.
The final kilometres of the stage were a microcosm of the Giro so far. They started with Katusha chasing down Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini), the last survivors of the day’s major escape. Thanks to some huge turns on the front by Danilo Di Luca, Katusha scattered the maglia rosa group in a clear attempt to set up Joaquim Rodriguez for the stage win.
Tiralongo was the first to make his move, however, jumping clear with 7km remaining as the wet roads started to dry in the late afternoon sun. It was Di Luca once again who brought that move back just before the lead group went into a tunnel. Tiralongo emerged from that with a narrow advantage. As he pressed for home, Contador and his rivals eyed each other, waiting for the inevitable counter-attacks.
After Saxo Bank’s Richie Porte had set the pace for a couple of kilometres, it was Ag2r’s Hubert Dupont who finally made the first decisive move among the favourites with 2.5km remaining. Rodriguez quickly responded and then dropped the Frenchman, as he ate into Tiralongo’s 25-second advantage.
With 1500m left, Contador made his initial move, to which his rivals Nibali, Scarponi and John Gadret all responded. Gadret launched an attack of his own, but could not find an answer when Contador went again and swept past with almost ridiculous ease. First Dupont was caught and dropped, then Rodriguez. Just as he had done in the Nevegal time trial on Tuesday, Contador clearly demonstrated the gap between him and the rest as he flew up the closing part of the climb to reach Tiralongo’s wheel.
There was no question that he could have gone on to win, but there was little to be gained by doing so. Instead, like a true patron distributing favours, he allowed Tiralongo his moment. The Italian, of course, did a huge amount of work for him at the Tour last year, when the strength of Contador’s support riders at Astana had been widely questioned. This stage win was Tiralongo’s reward for those endeavours. He claimed it with a grimace that suggested pain and delight. Behind him, Contador looked cool and unflustered.
Pinotti and Lewis crash out
As had been the case on Thursday, the stage started with lots of frantic activity as dozens of riders attempted to take advantage of what would be the last realistic opportunity of a stage win for most of the field. Soon after the start in Bergamo, a group of 19 riders got away, but only managed to get a gap of 25 seconds before they were caught again after 28km.
After 51km, three riders finally managed to break free of the peloton’s grip.
Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini) and Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) pulled out a lead of almost eight minutes heading into the day’s biggest obstacle, the first-category Mottarone.
Heading towards this climb, Acqua e Sapone took over pace-making duties on the front of the peloton to set up mountains leader Stefano Garzelli for a shot at the points available on the summit. The lead breakaway’s advantage fell rapidly, and even more so when Garzelli launched a lone attack on the Mottarone.
Although the Italian just failed to get up to the lead trio before the summit, he joined them going over the top, and the quartet soon became a sextet as BMC’s Johann Tschopp and Ag2r’s Mikael Cherel got across as well. These six worked well through the valley that followed, where the rain was falling heavily.
Soon after Katusha had begun their pace-setting in the peloton, several riders went down including Thomas Peterson (Garmin), Carlos Sastre (Geox), HTC duo Marco Pinotti and Craig Lewis (HTC), Carlos Ochoa (Androni), Luca Mazzanti (Farnese), Tiago Machado (Radioshack) and Frederik Veuchelen (Vacansoleil). The HTC pair appeared to be the most seriously affected. Lewis was taken to hospital with what was later diagnosed as a broken femur, while Pinotti quit the race.
The high-speed pursuit of the six leaders barely faltered, though. As the peloton reached the lower slopes of the climb to Macugnaga, the six riders ahead were just 40 seconds clear. Bak was the first to be caught and Tschopp, Cherel and Garzelli were swallowed up soon after. Pineau and Rabottini pressed on until they were 13.5km from the finish, when they eased up, shook hands and fell back. From that point on, the stage was all about Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo and his former leader Contador.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.