MONTE ZONCOLAN, Italy (VN) — Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) scored an impressive solo victory atop the brutally steep Monte Zoncolan in the 14th stage of the Giro d’Italia, his first grand-tour win since crashing out of the 2010 Vuelta a España while wearing the leader’s jersey.
The stage from Lienz, Austria, twice shortened from its original 210 kilometers — once for safety concerns and again to bypass a fans’ protest, — nonetheless provided ample drama on the slopes of the steep and narrow Zoncolan.
Anton, who began the day in seventh place on GC at 4:02, crossed the line 33 seconds ahead of race leader Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard), who easily preserved his solid three-minute lead on the overall standings.
Queen demoted to princess
When the route for the 2011 Giro d’Italia was originally unveiled, the 210km stage 14, which would bring the peloton back from its trip into Austria the day before, triggered gasps from those in attendance.
Those gasps turned into outright objections when riders, including Contador, traveled to northern Italy to reconnoiter the roads. While most experienced grand-tour riders were painfully familiar with the road up the Zoncolan, it was the descent race director Angelo Zomegnan had inserted before it that was the focus of concern.
The twisting, narrow dirt road off of the Monte Crostis featured sheer drops down towering cliffs, no railings and steep grades. In an earlier trip to the stage route, Contador characterized it as “something you have to see to believe.”
Rider and team protests eventually found receptive ears and, on Friday, the UCI race jury ordered the climb — and its harrowing descent— removed from the day’s menu.
Team directors and cautious descenders were satisfied. Fans, however, were not.
Fan protest of riders’ protest?
On Saturday, as the day’s expected break moved away from the peloton at km 30, riders had already seen several signs expressing fans’ objection to the decision … and even a few characterizing the riders themselves as “cowards.”
What the peloton didn’t yet know, as the three escapees — Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF) and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) — went about building up a 10:30 lead, was that the usual calculus employed to reel in a break would be disrupted by the angry fans themselves.
With the stage already shortened to 190km, Liquigas had moved to the front of the peloton to reel in the break with hopes of getting a win for team leader Vincenzo Nibali, and perhaps reducing some of his 3:09 deficit to Contador.
But fans, still angry over the Crostis decision, were busy organizing a group intent upon expressing its displeasure as riders were ascending a lesser climb, the Tualis, on the approach to the Zoncolan.
Mindful of the protest and the effect it might have on the race, that same UCI jury quickly ordered the stage be routed away from the Tualis, cutting another 20km from the stage. What was once 45km to go suddenly turned into 25km to go.
The decision gave greater urgency to the peloton’s chase and the three escapees reached the lower slopes of Zoncolan with a margin of slightly less than five minutes. That would have been an ample buffer for the final 10.1km of a flat stage, but these 10.1km averaged 11.9 percent with ramps approaching 20 percent at points.
The steeps quickly took its toll on the break and Rabottini slipped off the back.
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez was the first major contender to try his luck on the Zoncolan, attacking out of a quickly shrinking peloton, reduced to about 10 or 15 of the top riders of this Giro.
Ahead, Tankink and Brambilla soldiered on, but both were caught, first by Rodriguez and then by Anton, Contador, Nibali and Lampre’s Michele Scarponi.
Contador, with a lead of more than three minutes over Nibali, played a conservative game, not responding to every attack and leaving the chase work to his rivals who had much more to lose.
As the contest sorted itself out over the final 5km, Anton moved past the stragglers from the break, caught and passed Rodriguez, and fended off the efforts of Contador and Nibali as he approached the final kilometer of the climb.
Indeed, he seemed almost surprised as he ground his way up the final 500 meters, casting glances back behind him as Contador and then Nibali also struggled through the steep, fan-packed portions of the climb.
Contador, who attacked Nibali twice on the final steeps of the Zoncolon, crossed 33 seconds behind the day’s winner, well ahead of his rival and easily defending his hold on the maglia rosa, even extending his GC lead over Nibali by 11 seconds.
As heroic and dramatic as the Zoncolan might be, the crowds expressed their disappointment with the elimination of the Crostis by booing riders as they crossed. The protest seemed to confuse several of the riders, Contador among them, who were not accustomed to a reception like that at the end of a brutal climb in a grand tour.
Anton, however, was unfazed. He was just happy to get back into winning form.
“I went at my own rhythm,” he said of the final climb. “I wasn’t looking at what was happening behind me — the only rival I had was myself. I had a moment when I didn’t feel so great but I was able to keep going in the end.
“I am really happy to win this stage — to join Simoni and Basso as winners on this mountain — it’s a big honor.”
Contador finished just 33 seconds behind Anton, crossing the line just as a rain storm hit the summit.
Anton jumped from seventh to third in the overall standings, now, just one second off of Nibali’s and 3:21 behind Contador.
“I’m very, very tired. Igor did well, and me, well I was thinking about the overall standings,” said Contador.
“Vincenzo (Nibali) had a great ascent. When I kicked before the 1km mark, I, above all, sought to gain a few seconds which could be very useful at the finish in Milan.
“Nibali showed that he’s a very strong rival, to watch in the Giro’s last week.”
Nibali said his team had been instrumental in setting up his third place finish.
“I felt great. I know the ascent well and I asked my teammates to work at the foot of the Zoncolan,” the Italian said. “During the climb, I asked Contador to take it in turns, to have a bit of a breather, but he didn’t want to and accelerated.
“I wouldn’t have done as he did but everyone’s free to race their own race. He’s very strong. It’ll be tough to claw back the three minutes he’s up. But the Giro’s not over.”
- 1. Igor Anton Hernandez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 5:04:26
- 2. Alberto Contador Velasco (ESP), SaxoBank-Sungard, at 33
- 3. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Liquigas-Doimo, at 40
- 4. Michele Scarponi (ITA), Lampre-ISD, at 1:11
- 5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Geox-TMC, at 1:21
- 1. Alberto Contador Velasco (Spain), SaxoBank-Sungard, 54:45:45
- 2. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), Liquigas-Doimo, at 3:20
- 3. Igor Anton Hernandez (Spain), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 3:21
- 4. Michele Scarponi (Italy), Lampre-ISD, at 4:06
- 5. John Gadret (France), Ag2r La Mondiale, at 5:23