Although it is still some way from being race over at the Giro d’Italia, the contest for the maglia rosa won’t be in doubt for too much longer if Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) continues to show the same kind of dominant form that he produced at stage 13’s summit finish on the Grossglockner. In wet and chilly conditions on the massive Austrian peak, Contador was happy to let Venezuela’s José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) take the stage win in the knowledge that his main rivals for the overall title were still a kilometre from the line.
After Ag2r’s John Gadret and Hubert Dupont had come through to take surprise third and fourth place finishes, the latter just ahead of Igor Anton (Euskaltel), Roman Kreuziger led in a bedraggled-looking group containing Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Michele Scarponi (Lampre) and Denis Menchov (Geox), 1-36 down on Contador. The only good news for Nibali and Scarponi was that they jumped to second and third place respectively on GC. The very good news for Contador is that Nibali is now more than three minutes back.
There was no certainty given the difficulty of several stages still to come that the overall favourites would go all out today, but after a breakaway of 16 riders had been closed down by the maglia rosa group with 10km remaining, there was no shortage of action. Rujano was the first to attack, overhauling the final breakaway rider, José Sarmiento (Acqua e Sapone), in the process. Anton responded, tracked by Contador.
As the leaders regrouped, Scarponi accelerated clear, but he too was quickly tracked down, first by Rujano, then Anton. With the bunch now slimmed down to just 20-odd riders, Contador made his move as the gradient ramped up with 8.5km remaining. Although he barely seemed to be moving, no one followed initially. Rujano then jumped across. Scarponi attempted to track the Venezuelan but had to yield.
Glad to be joined by an ally who is both a strong climber and, as yet, little threat to him on GC, Contador began to work with Rujano and the pair quickly built a significant lead. At the Kasereck king of the mountains banner with 7km remaining, they were 40 seconds clear. On the final 5km of climbing to the finish, they doubled that advantage.
With his eye very much on the maglia rosa, it was never likely that Contador would contest the sprint. Consequently, when Rujano slipped by him 150m from the line, the race leader barely responded. Six years on from his previous Giro stage win, Rujano, a little uncertainly at first, celebrated his second stage win. But there is no doubt that the day’s big winner was Contador.
Behind the finish line, Rujano dedicated the victory to his wife and to the late Frank Vandenbroucke. He also paid tribute to Contador. “He’s a great champion and gave me a hand today,” said the diminutive Venezuelan, adding: “I’d also like to thank my team, who did some great work today.”
Three jerseys for Contador
The stage started without half a dozen sprinters. Stage 12 victor Mark Cavendish had made no secret of his intention to leave the race before the mountainous run-in to Milan. With him went points leader Alessandro Petacchi and stage winner José Ventoso, plus Mark Renshaw, Danilo Hondo and Manuel Belletti.
After lots of early activity, the break of the day eventually went clear with 41km covered. As well as Kiserlovski and Sarmiento, it also contained stage winner Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Pablo Lastras and Movistar team-mate Branislau Samoilau, Rafael Valls (Geox), Alberto Losada (Katusha), stage 3 winner Angel Vicioso (Androni), Craig Lewis (HTC), Lars Petter Nordhaug (Sky), veteran Andrea Noe (Farnese Vini), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r), Kristof Vandewalle (Quick Step), Cameron Meyer (Garmin) and Alessandro Spezialetti (Lampre).
Samoilau bagged the main points over the first two climbs. As the group reached the bottom of the third, the Iselbergpass, Kiserlovski made his lone move. Although not a great stylist, the Astana rider quickly built a good lead over the breakaway. But in the main group four minutes or so behind, things were starting to happen.
The impetus to chase was provided by Euskaltel, who had three and sometimes four riders on the front of the maglia rosa group from 50km out. Clearly, their intention was to clear the way for Anton, but Contador and his Saxo Bank team-mates benefited too as the breakaway’s advantage was chopped back with little effort on their part.
At the foot of the final climb, with 20km remaining, Kiserlovski’s lead over the main field was just over two minutes, with several other riders still in between. It was two of these riders, the in-form Weening and Sarmiento, who overhauled the young Astana rider with 13km left, only to find within a matter of seconds that the vehicles sat in behind them were being ordered out as the bunch closed in.
From that point on, the overall contenders and pure climbers took over. Although first Scarponi and then Anton tried to put Contador on the back foot, the race leader never looked troubled. However, when the Spaniard made his own move, all of his rivals looked sluggish in comparison.
With two extremely tough mountain stages to come this weekend, that could all change, but the fact that Contador now heads the points and mountains standings as well as the overall says a great deal about how strong he has been so far.