Giro d'Italia 9: Contador climbs to pink on Mount Etna

Rujano and Garzelli round out podium

Alberto Contador demonstrated why he's the favourite for this year's Giro d'Italia crown with victory atop Mount Etna on an afternoon where the contenders for overall honours came out to play on the day's final climb, which proved to be a decisive test of their mettle.

Contador took the stage and the maglia rosa - which he won in the 2008 edition of this race - in stunning style with a stinging attack at 6.7km remaining in the 169km stage. He eventually put 50 seconds into his rivals by the summit finish atop one of the world's most active volcanoes.

It was reminiscent of his attack to Andorra-Arcalis in stage seven of the 2009 Tour de France - the edition of which he eventually won in Paris two weeks later - and the venom of his move must surely have the big names for the Giro title worried.

"I felt good today and my legs were good, so I had to try something," said Contador after the finish. "I only had one doubt because there was a lot of wind but I kept going. Scarponi came with me at the start, but he faded and I just carried on."

"I didn't want to prove anything to anybody. I just wanted to win. I just wanted to give something back to the public along the roadside for all the support they've shown me.

"I ride to take advantage of the race situation. I like racing. When I've got the legs I take all the opportunities I can. It wasn't a long stage, but I think it was a spectacular stage for everyone to watch."

And the riders listed as favourites before the start of the Giro in Turin - Vincenzo Nibali, Roman Kreuziger, Michele Scarponi and Stefano Garzelli - couldn't respond to the Spaniard's move and now find themselves on the back foot heading into the event's second week, and it only gets more difficult from here.

"I'm disappointed but it's normal to be disappointed," said Scarponi afterwards. "Contador gave us all a lesson today. I tried to follow him but I went into the red hoping the climb wasn't too steep and that I'd recover. But he went again and after that it was really difficult for me.

Regardless, Contador's rivals remain optimisitic and know the Giro isn't over yet; even the Spaniard himself admitted as much and was pleased he could take advantage of the opportunity he was presented to take time on the overall standings and reap the fruits of his move.

"The Giro isn't over though. He won an important battle, and it landed a big blow but the race goes on," said Scarponi.

"Contador was the favourite to win the Giro at the start and he proved he's strongest today. But I won't give up. We'll rest up tomorrow and then we'll see what happens. But there's a still along way to race."

Nibali also gave Contador his dues and admitted that his companions behind made the mistakes for which they eventually paid. "Contador showed he's got an extra gear when he went," he said.

"He was almost impossible to go after - Scarponi tried but he paid for it. We rode steady and then went hard near the finish but Contador had already gotten a gap."

A quality move to take on the volcano

Following a "false start" of sorts to find the day's break, eventually a nine-man move made it clear and rode off the front of the peloton after 50km of racing.

Maglia rosa aspirant and wearer in 2008, Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini - Neri Sottoli), was joined by Yaroslav Popovych (Team RadioShack), Mickaël Chérel (AG2R La Mondiale), Jan Bakelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Alessandro Vanotti (Liquigas-Cannondale), Pablo Lastras Garcia (Movistar Team), Filippo Savini (Colnago - CSF Inox), former stage winner Mathias Frank (BMC Racing Team) and another former Giro stage victor Joan Horrach Rippoll (Katusha) in the move.

Having gained a maximum advantage of around five minutes the inevitable chase began in earnest and just as it seemed the break's number was up and the gap was on its way down, it shot from 3:32 back up to 4:27 with 28km until the finish.

In five kilometers that advantage had been cut by a minute, although with 20km left to race the escapees had more than three minutes over the peloton - the harder slopes of Etna beckoned however, and the men in the break knew it.

And it had the expected effect as the break's advantage dipped under three minutes with 18km until the summit of the volcanic climb. It spurred its members to try and get away solo and eventually Popovych, Savini, Chérel, Vanotti and Horrach exited a dietro.

With Llastras, Visconti, Frank and Bakelandts formed a leading quartet and held a lead of 2:30 with 13km to race. The Belgian contingent of the move thought he could emulate teammate Bart De Clercq's heroics of Friday and go it alone.

The only problem was Visconti and Frank decided to follow, dropping Llastras and making it a threesome up front. Approaching the final 10km of the 169km journey, two minutes separated these three from the bunch, where the likes of Contador, Kreuziger, Nibali, Garzelli and Scarponi were foxing with their remaining teammates.

With the shadow boxing going on up front, the real eruption was to take place in the main group as maglia rosa Pieter Weening blew on the slopes of Etna and said "bye bye" as the big names said "vai vai" in pursuit of the plucky three escapees who remained at the head of proceedings.

José Rujano thought that might be a suitable time to launch a stinging attack, setting off muy rapido a solo from the pack in a style reminiscent of his breakthrough performance at this race in 2005.

Meanwhile, at the front of the race, Bakelandts was at it again, this time shaking his breakaway companions and holding an advantage of 52 seconds with seven clicks to the finish. Surely it was only a matter of time

Time to step up to the plate, Alberto

Just as it seemed Bakelandts had found his groove off the front, Contador hit the gas with 6.7km remaining in the stage, dragging Scarponi with him, as Garzelli, Nibali, Kreuziger and the rest of the hitherto favourites' bunch tried to minimize the damage. In reality it was a race of two - the all-conquering Spaniard and the Italian veteran going mano-a-mano on the slopes of the volcano.

But that two-man act didn't last for long - a damaged Scarponi raised the white flag and receded to the safety of the bunch behind while Contador continued on unabated, negating both Rujano's and Bakelandts' attempted solo strikes and providing a shelter for the Venezuelan over the remaining five kilometers.

In the space of 1,500 meters, the reigning Tour de France champion showed why he is such by closing down the gap between himself and the leading rider in the manner with which we've become accustomed; as he entered the final five kilometers with Rujano desperately trying to stay on the Saxo Bank-Sungard captain's wheel, fans could smell the reshuffling of the general classification which was about to occur.

"Contador went really hard on this climb," said Rujano. "It's a fast climb, my form is good and I rode well but Contador is a great rider. I tried to go with him but I can only congratulate him for his ride."

Behind him, those other aspirants to the crown were fighting to stay in touch with the Spaniard; Nibali, Kreuziger, David Arroyo, Kanstantin Sivtsov and Garzelli pushed hard to sweep up the crumbs left by the soon-to-be maglia rosa of this year's Giro.

And the man who would assume that title finally shook his Venezuelan companion with a savage acceleration at 1,500 meters left to race, hanging onto his advantage to ride to a sensational solo win.

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