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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Alberto Contador is a long way from winning this Giro

His eventual GC challengers might even include José Rujano

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 14th installment.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 9
Contador caught Rujano on Sunday, and the little climber stayed with the Spaniard nearly to the end. Photo: Graham Watson

When Alberto Contador lit his climbing after-burners on Mount Etna Sunday afternoon and streaked through the translucent Sicilian air toward his first-ever Giro d’Italia stage win (and a new grand-tour leader’s jersey), observers said the race was over. But Contador’s victory, only three seconds ahead of the enigmatic Venezuelan climber José Rujano and almost a minute ahead of his declared rivals, can be seen as a first salvo in a Giro that features six more mountaintop finishes and a couple of time trials before the checkered flag drops in Milan on May 29.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through May 15)

1. HTC-Highroad 18 (seven riders)
2. Lampre-ISD 14 (six riders)
Rabobank 14 (six riders)
4. Garmin-Cervélo 13 (eight riders)
5. Movistar 13 (seven riders)
6. Team RadioShack 12 (seven riders)
7. Saxo Bank-SunGard 11 (four riders)
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto 11 (three riders)
9. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
Vacansoleil-DCM 8 (four riders)
11. Sky 7 (four riders)
12. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
13. Katusha 4 (three riders)
Astana 4 (three riders)
15. Euskaltel-Euskadi 4 (two riders)
16. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
17. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)
18. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)

Conditions in southern Italy over this past weekend were perfect for Contador, who thrives in hot, clear weather; his allergies had been flaring up in earlier stages, just as they could when the race returns to the north of Italy later this week. And as Contador himself said on Mount Etna, “The race has only just begun. This Giro is hard and anything can happen.” Those words may prove more prescient than he thinks.

The critics who believe that the Giro is over saw Contador put 50 seconds into the other main contenders in just 7km of uphill effort last Sunday, but he actually conceded nine seconds to his pursuers over the final 3km and Saxo Bank’s 28-year-old Spanish star couldn’t drop Rujano by more than 25 meters, even after one of his trademark bursts.

Don’t expect Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale, Michele Scarponi of Lampre-ISD, Roman Kreuziger of Astana and Stefano Garzelli of Acqua & Sapone to roll over and give this Giro to Contador. And a few people are even talking about the petite Rujano of Team Androni, who stayed glued to Contador’s wheel on Mount Etna on a rapid climb that didn’t truly suit the Venezuelan’s best qualities.

Rujano made a big mark in the 2005 Giro. It's just that he hasn't made much noise since.

Forget Rujano, the critics say; he’s buried in 30th place on GC, exactly 6:05 behind Contador. But everyone was saying the same thing six years ago, when Rujano, then 23, went into the Giro’s first rest day in 40th place. And his time gap on then race leader Danilo Di Luca was 6:04, almost identical to his current deficit! But by the end of that 2005 Giro, Rujano finished third overall, ahead of Di Luca and only 45 seconds down on winner Paolo Savoldelli.

Critics will say that in the six years since that startling Giro performance Rujano has done practically nothing worthwhile. Yes, he did drift from team to team, from Selle Italia (2005), to Quick Step (2006), to Unibet (2007) to Caisse d’Épargne (2008), with no standout results, before returning to the elite ranks in Venezuela. But he did win some races through those years, including the 2009 Tour of Colombia, 2010 Tour de Langkawi and three national time trial titles.

And this year at 29, only three months older than Contador, Rujano is back with the team manager, Gianni Savio, who discovered this climbing talent in the Andes of Venezuela more than eight years ago, brought him to Europe and guided him to the Giro podium. The two were reunited this past winter, and when Savio spoke about Rujano to La Gazzetta dello Sport last November, he said to the Italian sports newspaper: “I’ve told José this is his last chance. He has great talent (but) he just has to be taken care of.”

And Savio, perhaps the most gentlemanly sports director in cycling, has nurtured Rujano back to competitiveness in Europe this past spring. In March, the Venezuelan was 15th at the Coppi & Bartali Week (after helping his Italian teammate Emanuele Sella win the race), and in April he was sixth in the Tour of the Apennines semi-classic (in the winning six-man break with teammates Sella and Jackson Rodriguez) and eighth overall at the very difficult Giro del Trentino (best in his team).

As for his form at this Giro, Rujano has ridden well. He lost most of his current six-minute deficit in last Wednesday’s stage across the strade bianche, the dusty dirt roads of Tuscany on a day when many were delayed by crashes and flats; but even then Rujano finished alongside Italian champion Giovanni Visconti. And his Androni-Giocattoli squad is packed with men who will be able to support him in the upcoming mountain stages.

This doesn’t mean that Rujano has a good chance of winning the Giro but his presence in the race at a high level is certain to impact the tactics adopted by Contador’s Saxo Bank-SunGard team — especially if the Venezuelan, say, gets into a breakaway on this coming Sunday’s gigantic stage to Monte Zoncolan that features the much-feared Monte Crostis climb.

This is a mountain that does suit Rujano, averaging more than a 10-percent grade for 14km on a narrow, switchback road that turns to dirt on the perilous descent. And it’s immediately followed by the dreaded Monte Zoncolan, whose middle 6km average a vertiginous 15 percent. And that’s just one of six high-mountain stages packed into the final nine days of this ultra-tough Giro.

In other words, Contador has a long way to go before winning a sixth grand tour in six attempts. And even if the Spaniard does end up wearing the maglia rosa in Milan, there remains a possibility (some say a probability) that when the Court of Arbitration for Sport convenes next month in Switzerland that the three three-man panel will knock down the Spanish cycling federation’s exoneration of Contador for his clenbuterol positive at last year’s Tour.

If that’s the case, then Contador loses the 2010 Tour and all of his 2011 results, and the fight for second place at the Giro would equate to a fight for the title. It’s a long shot to say Rujano will be one of those contesting the podium, but don’t rule him out, or any of those other contenders still knocking on Contador’s door.

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