Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) sealed overall victory in the Giro d'Italia on Sunday with a third place finish in the concluding time trial in Milan, won by David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo). In the battle for second place, Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) held off the challenge of a flagging Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), on a day that saw few decisive brushstrokes added to the Giro's overall picture.
Although Contador didn't add to his tally of stage victories on the race's final day, his performance encapsulated the unnerving ease with which he has governed this year's corsa rosa. The Spaniard roared out of the start house to post the quickest time at the first intermediate check, but then once the pink jersey was emphatically secured, he relented over the remainder of the course to come home 36 seconds down on Millar.
By the time he reached the finish amid the grandeur of Milan's Piazza del Duomo, Contador had long since forgotten about trying to win the stage and he was careful to take time to savour his overall victory as he cruised to the line. Underneath the race's final Arrivo banner, he even sat up and delivered the trademark pistol celebration, the final shot of a Giro resoundingly dominated.
"This piazza is fantastic, it was a dream finale for the Giro," an emotional Contador said on crossing the line. "I didn't win this race alone, the whole team did."
It is hard to gauge how close the rampant Contador could have come to Millar's time had he not taken such a conservative approach to cornering once he entered the more intricate section of the course in the streets of Milan. That said, Millar was just ahead of Contador at the last time check, and the Scot hurtled around the course at an average speed of 51.627kph to take the win.
The hard luck story of the day belonged to second-placed Alex Rasmussen (HTC-Highroad), who was among the earliest starters. His last intermediate time check remained unbeaten for the whole afternoon, but unfortunately for the Dane, the time that counts is the one taken at the finish line.
Inside the final kilometre, he suffered a most untimely puncture and the time he lost in negotiating the closing section on a flat tyre would ultimately prove costly, and he lost out to Millar by seven scant seconds.
An Italian battle for second
Many of the tired legs remaining in the 2011 Giro will doubtless have been pleased with the late alteration to the course of Sunday's final stage that saw the distance reduced from 31km to 26km. Local elections in Milan meant that the Giro did not have full licence to asphyxiate city centre traffic, and so instead of starting from the picturesque surrounds of the Castello Sforzesco, the riders set off from the rather less glamorous Fiera exhibition centre near Rho on Milan's northwestern fringe, before the grandstand finish in the outside the Duomo.
The early pace-setter was the flying Rasmussen, but he was already shaking his head even as he crossed the line with the best intermediate time, frustrated by his late puncture. Millar duly stepped up to the plate and shaded him for top spot soon afterwards, but from there it was a long wait for Contador et al to see if anybody could threaten his time.
The primary suspense of the final day ought to have been provided by the battle between Vincenzo Nibali and Michele Scarponi, the latter beginning the stage with a 56-second advantage. With a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing still hanging over Contador, there remains the possibility that he could be stripped of his overall win at a later date, and so the Scarponi-Nibali dual was lent an additional, albeit unspoken, significance.
Officially, of course, their race was for second place on the podium and the honour of being the highest-placed Italian in Milan, but in spite of a defiant start by Nibali, the outcome was already apparent by the midway point of the time trial.
In the opening 6km, Nibali opened up a 13-second lead on Scarponi, and it briefly looked as though the Sicilian might upset the applecart and overturn his deficit. However, Scarponi had appeared the fresher of the two in recent days, and that impression was borne out over the following kilometres.
It was soon evident that the flagging Nibali was riding on borrowed legs by this stage and he was visibly struggling to keep the big gear turning as he grinded his way to the line in 11th place, 1:18 down on Millar. For his part, Scarponi refused to be thrown by Nibali's opening salvo and he rallied to storm to more or less break even with his rival thereafter, eventually ceding just 10 seconds of his cushion and avenging his defeat to Nibali in the battle for the third step of the podium on the corresponding stage in Verona last year.
Kreuziger pips Rujano
The main change in the overall standings came about thanks to José Rujano's (Androni Giocattoli) relative weakness against the watch, although to the Venezuelan's credit, he dropped only one place on the day, with white jersey Roman Kreuziger (Astana) the beneficiary. The Czech had his share of difficult moments in this Giro, but tactically he was irreproachable throughout, and he was good value for his best-ever Grand Tour placing of 6th.
With Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) having an off-day against the watch, Rujano just about escaped falling any further and his 7th place puts the seal on what has been a hugely successful return to form for the prodigal son of Gianni Savio's Androni set-up.
Elsewhere, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) managed to put his Vuelta a España time trial nightmare behind him by holding on to 5th place overall, while John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale) enjoyed an incident-free ride to seal 4th, and the only other change at the business end of proceedings was Kanstantin Sivtsov's leapfrog over Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) into 10th place.
Contador for the ages - but for how long?
The day belonged to Alberto Contador, however, and as he clambered atop the podium, he was feted as a champion by Italian hosts who had been rather more circumspect in their welcome at the start in Turin three weeks ago.
Contador has dominated this Giro from start to finish, on all terrains. Stronger, faster and tactically more astute than his rivals, the Spaniard has been in a race all of his own ever since he ripped clear of the peloton on the seemingly innocuous stage to Tropea at the end of week one. Since that moment, the Giro has been a procession, with one superlative tripping over the next in praise of Contador's other-worldly performances.
And yet, for all the spettacolo that Contador has given en route to his sixth Grand Tour win out of seven attempts, the story of his Giro has not necessarily ended with a pink jersey in Milan, a bottle of champagne and a kiss from the podium girls.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport will decide - sooner or later - whether the Spaniard is to be sanctioned for his positive test for Clenbuterol at last year's Tour de France, and until a verdict has been announced, there is an overwhelming lack of finality about this Giro and an understandable hesitancy over what place this performance will occupy in history.
As Contador signed off with his "pistolero" celebration in the shadow of the Duomo on Sunday afternoon, he did so believing that he had put the finishing touches to a Giro for the ages. But the lingering question remains over whether that feat will survive in the record books.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.