Spanish Astana racer Alberto Contador retained the leader's pink jersey after Italian Emanuele Sella of CSF won the 20th and penultimate stage of the Tour of Italy, a 224km ride from Rovetta to Tirano on Saturday.
Contador managed to hold off the challenge of closest rival Riccardo Riccò with a 28.5km time trial to come as he kept intact his four-second advantage, negotiating the final Mortirolo climb of the event some 50km from the line.
“It was a hard stage but I really had good legs,” Contador said. “It was a lot easier than yesterday when [Danilo] Di Luca and Riccò attacked so furiously. Today I only had to focus on Riccò, taking care that he could not take extra seconds.
“Look at me now, in pink on the way to Milano. If you would have said this to me before the Giro, I would not have believed it,” he added. “No, I don’t start dreaming yet. In a time trial a lot of things can happen. I want to recuperate maximally and then concentrate 200 percent on the stage for tomorrow. Anyway, it is mentally good to start with an advantage in the final time trial.”
Sella, meanwhile, completed an event hat-trick as he powered home in 6:52:45 with a minute to spare after hauling in compatriot Gilberto Simoni, who had counter-attacked in the final strait.
"This is a great win for me," said Sella of his third success in the mountains, where his team, despite not being one of the elite formations, has shown dominant form. CSF have won four stages in all with Matteo Priamo adding to Sella's exploits.
Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez of GCE finished in third on the day with Riccò and Contador crossing the line together in a seven-strong chasing group one minute, 30 seconds adrift.
Contador benefited from the sterling work of teammate Antonio Colom, who led an early escape, that effort helping to compensate for the loss midway through of German stablemate Andreas Kloden, who pulled at the 105km mark.
Looking ahead to Sunday's climax Contador said he would look carefully at the time trial course to plot his strategy.
"I'd love to win the stage of course - but the main thing is to make sure of the pink jersey," he said.
Riccò was defiant for his part, saying all remained to play for.
"I've given it everything. The Giro finishes tomorrow and I'll not give up until the very end," he said. "But Contador surely has the advantage in the time trial."
For a report with photos and complete results, go to Cyclingnews.com.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008