Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) took another escape win in the final mountain stage of the Giro d'Italia, taking off from his companions to conquer the day's two climbs. Jose Rujano (Androni Giacattoli) climbed to second place, 4:43 down, with Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha clawing his way to third at 4:50.
The real race, though, was behind him. Seemingly only maglia rosa Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank -SunGard) stayed calm and collected as he easily stayed with the other top favourites, and seemed content to watch them wear each other out. Michele Scarponi cemented his overall second place by putting another 22 seconds into third-placed Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas, who exploded on the closing climb.
Kanstantsin Sivtsov of HTC-Highroad dropped from 5th to 11th, and Euskaltel's Mikel Nieve dropped out of the top ten entirely, as Rodriguez and Rujano moved up to fifth and sixth, respectively, with AG2R's John Gadret holding on to his fourth place, just off the podium.
It was the second career Giro win for the Belarusian, who after six hours and 17 minutes of effort calmly pulled his jersey into position and pointed to his sponsor name as he crossed the line.
Kiryienka raised his eyes and hands heaven-ward as he crossed the finish line, sending thoughts to teammate Xavier Tondo. “This was the best way to remember a teammate that was with us only for this season, but yet seemed to have been here for so much time,” he said on the team's website. “We decided that the best form to pay him tribute was staying into the Giro, and I think we made a good choice because winning in such a hard mountain stage and from such a long break, it was a kind of winning that he liked so much.”
Race within a race
The race of the day was between Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali, only 34 seconds apart coming into the stage.
A group of 13 broke away early: Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step), Eduaord Vorganov (Katusha), Angel Vicioso (Androni), Frederik Veuchelen (Vacansoleil), Luca Mazzanti (Farnese Vini), Josep Jufre (Astana), Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar), Sebastian Lang (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Cristiano Salerno (Liquigas), Diego Ulissi (Lampre), Carlos Betancourt (Acqua & Sapone) and Miguel Minguez (Euskaltel).
The stage was flat to rolling for the first 194 kilometers, but from there on it was up and down – and often very steep.
The first climb of the day was the biggest one, the category one Finestre, with an average nine per cent gradient and a spell of gravel roads. The leaders, who had built up a lead of over 11 minutes on the early part of the course, started on their way up with a gap of 6:24.
Liquigas moved to the head of the peloton, as the field more or less ignored the escape group, which contained no one of danger to the GC.
As the road went up, the gap came down. The GC riders moved to the front of the field early so as not to get caught on the sleep slopes when the field broke up – which it soon did. Rujano jumped early, and Liquigas led the chase to catch him, with the group quickly reduced to 30 riders and diminishing rapidly.
Up front, the non-climbers started dropping back from the group. Kiryienka gradually pulled away from his former companions and built up a good lead.
Sylvester Szmyd did yeomen's work for Nibali, grinding his way up the mountain and pulling the group behind him. Scarponi was never far from Nibali, with Contador also close behind. Denis Menchov (Geox) was also in the group, but Euskaltel's Igor Anton soon ran into difficulties.
It was a true war of attrition, as Liquigas mercilessly kept the pace high. Big name after big name dropped off the back and gave desperate chase.
Rujano jumped again, making time on the endless number of hairpin curves. He slowly moved his way up through the riders falling back from the lead group.
Kiryienka continued to move easily along on the gravel section near the top, and showed his strength by maintaining a lead of about four minutes. Szmyd continued his near super-human effort and was joined briefly by Salerno, who had dropped out of the break group.
Kiryienka was first over the top, and as he started the descent, Rodriguez attacked out of the chase group followed by Kruijswijk and Menchov. Scarponi and Nibali were hard put to catch up, with Nibali in the end losing significant ground. The maglia rosa had as usual, no problem at all.
Nibali could only look to the backs of the other favourites disappearing up the climb away from him. Six riders crossed the top together as Nibali struggled behind them, although he was greatly encouraged by the thousands of fans. He came over the top about 20 seconds back.
Nibali's forte is descending, and soon it was Scarponi's turn to worry. He moved up as far as he could, but still expected to see his rival zoom by his any minute. And sure enough, Nibali was soon on the group again, and even moved to the lead.
Kiryienka maintained his lead and took 4:21 over Rujano with him as he started up the closing climb of the legendary Sestriere. The Contador group was over five and a half minutes back.
Rujano had caught Betancourt, the only other rider of the former escape group, but the Colombian was dogged and hung close to his fellow South American.
The favourites' group was back together and on the verge of growing, as Roman Kreuziger had worked his way back up. He and Kruijswijk then slugged it out for the best young rider's jersey.
Battling the Giro's final climb
As the group started up the closing climb, many in the group became uneasy. Attacks were launched and parried, many nervous glances were exchanged. Only Contador remained calm and unworried.
Rodriguez was finally able to get away at about the 10km marker in his bid to move up into the top five overall, ahead of Kreuziger who couldn't keep up with the attack.
Nearly forgotten up front, Kiryienka cruised into the final 5km with more than five minutes over this nearest chasers, Rujano and Betancourt. Only with 5km to go was Rujano able to drop Betancourt.
Rodriguez built up a good lead, and Gadret and Menchov took off after him. Nibali got nervous and attacked, with Scarponi as expected, reacting as well. Kreuziger was unable to keep up with it all, and Kruijswijk jumped on is chance to take the white jersey.
Rodriguez in fact moved up far enough to pass Betancourt and claim third place on the stage for himself. Behind him, Nibali had cracked, falling off the group and finishing behind Kreuziger, who made a major effort at the end.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.