Rivals to face off in epic Dolomites showdown

Alberto Contador (Astana) is poised to become the first Spanish rider to wear the pink jersey since Juan Carlos Dominguez won the opening prologue in 2002. The only question now seems to be which day it will happen as the defending Tour de France champ enters a trio of tortuous climbing stages across the heart of the Dolomites positioned perfectly for a maglia rosa assault.

Contador in pink this weekend?

By Andrew Hood

The Alpe di Pampeago has been the scene of epic Giro battles in the past.

The Alpe di Pampeago has been the scene of epic Giro battles in the past.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Alberto Contador (Astana) is poised to become the first Spanish rider to wear the pink jersey since Juan Carlos Dominguez won the opening prologue in 2002.

The only question now seems to be which day it will happen as the defending Tour de France champ enters a trio of tortuous climbing stages across the heart of the Dolomites positioned perfectly for a maglia rosa assault.

There’s a growing sense of inevitability ahead of Saturday’s two-climb summit finish stage to Alpe di Pampeago that Contador will end the day in the leader’s jersey, but the Spanish climber refuses to assume anything.

“My confidence is growing with my form just as I imagine the doubts are growing among my rivals. I prefer to take it day to day and accept what comes from the race without pretensions,” said Contador. “This is the first approach to the big mountains of this Giro and no doubt there will be a big selection and even more surprises.”

Is Contador ready to take over?

Is Contador ready to take over?

Photo: Graham Watson

Contador is in third place overall at 6:59 behind race leader Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step) and only 1:01 behind second-place rider Gabriele Bosisio (LPR).

Three stages are set to define the outcome of the 91st Giro. Saturday and Sunday end on summits at Pampeago and Marmolada while Monday’s climbing time trial up Plan de Corones should be nothing short of spectacular.

Astana team brass are quietly preparing to cut loose Contador, who has made the unexpected journey from sipping a beer at the beach a week before the team got a last-minute invitation to the Giro to becoming the first Spanish rider to win the Giro since Miguel Indurain won back-to-back in 1992-94.

“Alberto is feeling better every day, so his confidence is improving,” Astana sport director Sean Yates told VeloNews. “On paper, Alberto could be in the jersey this weekend, but we’re taking it as it comes in this Giro. We can expect everyone to attack Alberto, because if they wait, it will be too late. Sooner or later they will have to attack him.”

Yates said the team is in great position with Andreas Klöden (4th at 7:51) and Levi Leipheimer (14th at 9:10) to be able to fend off challenges from Saunier Duval-Scott, Liquigas and LPR.

Visconti isn’t going to give up without a fight, though many expect Quick Step to let the jersey ride away without much of a battle after holding it since stage 5.

“I will do all I can to keep the jersey. Of course I cannot win this Giro, but I have a good lead and maybe I can honor it another day or two,” said Visconti, 25. “This experience in the maglia rosa has changed me. Who knows, maybe in another four or five seasons, I can come back to the Giro to challenge for victory.”

And don’t forget about Bosisio, who has more than one minute on Contador and promises to be there for team captain Danilo Di Luca along with looking out for his interests.

“I dream of taking on the maglia rosa. I’m in position to do it and I will give everything tomorrow,” Bosisio. “It would be a great honor for me and for my team, so I will try to be with the best over the first climb and we’ll see how the legs react in the final climb.”

Contador is confident, but others are equally bullish about their chances. Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval) said the race is “entering my roads” while two-time winner Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni-Androni) could tough out the competition in the decisive stages of the 91st Giro.

“This is another Giro that’s starting, a harder Giro,” Simoni said. “Who is going to survive? We’ll soon find out. One thing’s for sure though – whoever is the winner is going to have to fight.”

In fact, it’s Simoni that Contador is watching.

“After the time trial he did, he’s the one I’m most worried about of the top riders,” Contador said. “He has the experience, which I think will be a key factor in the final week.”

Leave it up to team manager Diquigiovanni-Androni Gianni Savio to put a nice touch on the pending showdown.

“Tomorrow will be an important stage for our fighter, Gilberto Simoni. He’ll be riding on ‘home roads’ and we hope we’ll see him come alive,” said DS sport director Gianni Savio. “He’s been riding with the intelligence that we can expect from such a rider of his level. His time trial performance proved he’s going to be a player in the final drama of this Giro.”

Whoever ends up in pink, this weekend should provide plenty of drama.

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