RAVENNA, Italy (VN) – Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard) is getting comfortable after four days in the pink jersey. The Spaniard finished safely in the main bunch Thursday to carry a 59-second lead into three decisive stages looming in the Dolomites.
Following his dominant performance up Mount Etna, when he attacked with nearly 7km to go to the finish and fended off a 15-man chase group, Contador looks to be in the driver’s seat to win his second pink jersey in four years.
Many are wondering what it will take to try to dislodge Contador in the mountains.
“They have to try to isolate him and then take turns attacking him,” said BMC sport director Max Sciandri. “That’s the only weakness he would have. Contador’s too strong. He will be able to stay with the group and then he will attack. If the others collaborate, then they might be able to get him alone and take turns attacking him. If not, the race might be on for the podium places.”
Contador will use his momentum he gained on Etna against his rivals. With 1:21 to arch-rival Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Contador can mark wheels and then turn the screws with his own attacks on the final climbs. Finish-line time bonuses will also play a major role in shaping the action.
The others will have to attack, but after watching Michele Scarponi (Lampre) blow up after trying to stay with Contador on Etna, some might be gun-shy.
But would the Italian riders gang up on Contador? That’s highly unlikely, especially with each team pressing its own interests and each rider desperately trying to at least gain a spot on the podium or win a stage to salvage their Giro.
“I am not giving up,” Scarponi said. “If we all give up now, why even bother racing to Milano? This talk of an alliance is a myth. It’s never existed and it never will. Everyone will make their own race, just as they always have. If you want to win this Giro, you have to attack. I will try again.”
Riders agree that the upcoming three stages will prove decisive. While there are still two more time trials and three hard stages across the Alps following the Giro’s second rest day next Monday, many expect the Giro to be quite settled by the end of Sunday’s “queen stage” across the heart of the Dolomites.
The stages are so hard and so demanding, it simply might be a matter of the last man standing.
“Even though there’s still a lot of racing yet to come after the rest, I think the Giro will be decided in these three climbing stages and the (Nevegal) time trial,” said David Arroyo (Movistar), who was second last year. “The cost is going to be tremendous over the next three days, not only on the bike, but in the transfers. When we’re not on the bike, we’re on the bus, and this is going to start to add up. There’s almost no time to recover.”
Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis cautioned that nothing is decided yet in this Giro.
“The Giro over? No! Of course not. This Giro is just starting,” Riis continued. “The hardest climbs are still ahead of us. We must be careful not to think the Giro is already decided. Far from it. There are so many difficult moments to come.”
The first half of the Giro has seen a few of the pre-race favorites lose considerable time, including 2009 Giro winner Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), now 16th at 3:18, and José Rujano (Androni), who lost six minutes on the stage over the strade bianche in stage 3.
Both are so far back they might just lay it all on the line with a long-distant, daring raid. Rujano was the only rider who could stay on the wheel of Contador up Mount Etna and is showing glimmers of his 2005 form, when he lit up the Giro as a newcomer from South America.
“The only way to win the Giro is to attack!” said Androni manager Gianni Savio. “This Giro is very hard and nothing is decided. Talk to me in a few days, then we will see how things stand. The real fight is yet to begin.”
Eddy Merckx, who’s been at the Giro for the past several days as a guest of RAI TV, says that riders need to make a huge gamble if they want to try to beat Contador. He says if they wait to the final climb, it will be too late.
“The favorites have to try to knock Contador off-balance. They need to try to get into a long breakaway. Then that would put pressure on his team, which isn’t the strongest anyway. That would force them to work every day and they could isolate Contador,” Merckx said on RAI TV. “That would be the moment to attack the pink jersey. They need to surprise him, to cause problems, to do exactly what he did on Mount Etna.”
Whether anyone’s strong enough to dare remains to be seen.