He threatened to hit the leaders of this year’s Giro d’Italia hard in yesterday's testing journey to the top of the Grossglockner and today atop Monte Zoncolan Igor Anton announced himself as an overall podium contender with victory in the 14th stage.
The Euskaltel-Euskadi captain finished 33 seconds ahead of maglia rosa Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) and 40 seconds up on Vincenzo Nibali Liquigas-Cannondale), the duo battling for the last 5km in pursuit of Anton and pressing for any weaknesses in the fight for the overall lead.
The day exposed several weaknesses in the overall contenders, however – the likes of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Roman Kreuziger (Astana) and David Arroyo (Katusha) – while confirming that Contador remains the man to beat in what is rapidly becoming 'his' Giro d’Italia.
And Anton can enjoy the spoils of his gutsy ride this afternoon with his new position of third on general classification, 3:21 behind Contador and 45 seconds ahead of Scarponi. He'll surely be aiming at Nibali, who holds second overall, just one second over the Basque rider, and tried to limit his losses on the upper slopes of the Zoncolan.
'Enjoy' is relative though, as tomorrow is another test of mettle, with a 229km parcours that includes three category one climbs, a second category ascent and the 'Cima Coppi' up the Passo Giau as the highest point of this year’s Giro.
All aboard... the Zoncolan train
Today’s parcours was shortened by 35km due to the removal of the Monte Crostis – it was deemed too unsafe – and then its replacement, the Tualis, was also eliminated while the stage was in progress. It allowed the day’s break of Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini - Neri Sottoli), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago - CSF Inox) more time off the front, which was always going to be limited by their ability to climb.
That was because the overwhelming highlight of the stage remained the concluding Monte Zoncolan, and the mountain’s brutal slopes – boasting a maximum gradient of 22 percent and an average of 11 – were decisive in determining who would be the king by day’s end.
Long before that part of the stage however, the break had garnered itself a minute over the peloton on the approach to the day's first climb, the Passo di Monte Croce Comelico. Nearing the summit of the ascent, that lead had opened to 10 minutes on the Saxo Bank-led bunch.
The break’s advantage was down to nine-minute mark with 64.5km left in the stage and it took 30km to knock two minutes off that as Liquigas-Cannondale moved to the front of the peloton to ride for their captain, Nibali.
From that point on the gap was rapidly reduced under the pressure from Nibali’s teammates. Suddenly only 10km remained in the stage and the break still had itself 4:22... Although the wicked, brutal slopes of the Zoncolan still had plenty to say in who would be celebrating victory on its summit.
And so the pain begins
With the fleet of following cars replaced by a flock of motorbikes due to the climb’s steep slopes, 8km remained and 3:24 separated the break from the peloton as Nibali, Contador, Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), Kreuziger and Scarponi gathered at the front of the rapidly-dwindling favorites’ group.
Brambilla tried his luck with 7.5 difficult kilometers until the finish and behind him Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez did the same ahead of Kreuziger et al. Next to go was Anton, followed by Contador, to form a Spanish armada in pursuit of the break’s remnants. The trio quickly gathered steam and another passenger in the form of Scarponi as they battled for ascendancy on a climb that etched grimaces on the faces of those who were taking it on.
The pace saw Rodriguez drop away into the clutches of the remaining favorites behind – Nibali, Kreuziger and Menchov – as Anton put in another effort to shake his countryman in the maglia rosa and the Italian who wanted to be king, Scarponi. Incredibly, there were still over 6km left to race.
Rabottini, Brambilla and eventually Tankink fell by the wayside while Nibali made his way up to Contador and the Lampre-ISD leader – a brave move that required the Sicilian to dig deep into his reserves on a day when his teammates had worked incredibly hard to assist his chances of narrowing the gap to the maglia rosa.
The banner indicating the final five clicks ticked over and heralded the beginning of the end of the suffering for the field; Contador had to merely mark the attacks and with 4km remaining Nibali provided one of those. The Spaniard jumped on his wheel immediately, showing no sign of weakness in the face of his Italian challengers.
Contador’s countryman, Anton, continued his toil ahead in pursuit of the dream – a Grand Tour stage win – while Scarponi raised the white flag behind his hitherto companions who continued their chase of the lone man in orange. A race of four had become a thrilling battle of three... could there be more casualties on the climb of the Zoncolan?
Time checks weren't required in this chase – Anton largely remained in sight of Nibali and Contador over the final 4km while the crowds thickened near the summit of the Zoncolan and the stakes were raised amongst the big players at the mountain poker table.
The maglia rosa showed no sign of cracking under Nibali’s constant pressure however, which allowed Anton to show his cards and turn up the gas in pursuit of the royal flush that would net him a raise in general classification and a shot at the podium steps in Milan that, in all honesty, he deserves.
Then, as the flamme rouge beckoned, Contador flew in the face of Nibali to prove to his opponents that he’s numero uno in this year’s Giro and while Anton may have won the stage, the maglia rosa was Contador's to keep.