Giro d'Italia
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) looked to be in...

Ulissi emerges victorious on Giro’s longest day

On a day marked by uncertainty over Alberto Contador's condition, Ulissi surprises with a sprint victory at the end of 264km stage 7

Uncertainty — that’s the single word to describe Friday at the Giro d’Italia. The epic, 264-kilometer stage from Grosseto to Fiuggi could have been a day for an intrepid breakaway or the sprint. It was the latter.

It could have been a day that saw race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) withdraw after yesterday’s crash. It wasn’t.

Instead, the race culminated in a gritty sprint, won by Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida). Contador finished with the peloton after more than seven hours, wearing a custom-tailored pink jersey and looking much like his ordinary, placid self.

“It was a hard day for me, but I’m happy because I got through it,” Contador said. “After three and a half or four hours, I didn’t know what to do with my arm, but I hope and trust that, as the days past, it will improve.”

The sprint seemed to happen in slow-motion as the field was clearly exhausted from the long day in the saddle.

Orica-GreenEdge and Lampre-Merida were both well-positioned in the final kilometer to deliver Michael Matthews and Sacha Modolo, respectively, for a sprint showdown. But Ulissi, a rider who served a nine-month doping suspension in the wake of the 2014 Giro, emerged from the middle of the bunch to win ahead of JJ Lobato (Movistar). Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) was third.

“There are some big sprinters here, so I knew I wasn’t the number-one favorite today, but I had great legs,” said Ulissi. “I went early because I was afraid of getting caught from behind. This is a special win for me after the difficult year I’ve had, and I want to thank my family — my wife, my parents, and my in-laws— and also my friends for all their support.

“The strategy was that, if Sacha [Modolo] was there in the final, Polanc and Richeze would lead him out, while I covered the other rivals for the stage. I went with Orica, then I found Gilbert’s wheel, but when I saw he was badly positioned, I jumped on Gerrans’ wheel. I went from a long way out because I was afraid of being blocked in, and I had good legs, thankfully, which helped me hold on to the finish line.”

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On the Giro’s longest day, four riders made the early breakaway: Pier Paolo De Negri (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Nikolay Mihaylov (CCC Sprandi-Polkowice), Marco Bandiera (Androni-Sidermec), and Nicola Boem (Bardiani-CSF).

For much of stage 7, the escape had a healthy gap, often over six minutes to the field.

As the break approached the final 30 kilometers of racing, the gap went down to less than one minute.

Just outside of 20km to go, the peloton had made the catch.

As the race approached the final run-in to Fiuggi, Tinkoff-Saxo controlled the front to protect Contador, who appeared to be riding comfortably in the bunch, standing to pedal out of the saddle despite his shoulder injury.

In an impressive display of force, Tinkoff rode the front all the way until 3.5km to go. Then, Team Sky took over.

As the finish neared, Lotto-Soudal moved up to the head of the peloton, riding for points leader André Greipel.

Orica-GreenEdge also brought a train up to contest the sprint.

With four men on the front, Orica was in the driver’s seat as the peloton reached one kilometer to go.

But then, Lampre pushed up with three riders and seemed poised to deliver Modolo. However, the riders in pink and blue fizzled with about 300 meters remaining.

Though he may not have been marked as the day’s sprinter, Ulissi slugged out a grinding turn of speed in the closing meters, proving to have the freshest legs in the bunch, delivering an emotional win — Lampre’s second victory so far this Giro.

Saturday’s stage 8 should be a true test of the GC favorites as the race runs from Fiuggi to Campitello Matese over 186 kilometers, finishing on a 15.7km-long category 1 climb. After Friday, the overall standings are unchanged. Astana’s Fabio Aru trails Contador by two seconds. Richie Porte (Sky) is third, 20 seconds back.

“Tomorrow is a stage that I was looking forward too,” Contador continued. “Now, it’s going to be hard for me, and I expect attacks. Now I’m just thinking of resting and putting ice on my shoulder. Then we’ll see.”

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Giro d'Italia 2015: Stage 7 / Tappa 7 highlights 7 by giroditalia