HEILIGENBLUT, Austria (VN) – With the Giro d’Italia heading into a tough run in the mountains, Eddy Merckx observed that the only hope the GC rivals had to knock Alberto Contador off-balance was to attack from afar and try something truly daring.
No one dared.
Instead, it was Contador who delivered another long-distance attack against his rivals in Friday’s grueling Grossglockner climb.
With 10km to go, José Rujano hitched a ride and won the stage after helping to pace Contador, but it was the Spanish climber who instead took the wind out of the sails of his GC rivals. After surging into the pink jersey five days ago on Mount Etna, Contador once again looked untouchable. He followed a surge from Rujano and sensed he was opening up a gap, so Contador kept right on going.
“I didn’t want another opportunity pass by. When I saw the others staying behind, I knew I had to keep going,” said Contador, who now widened his grip on the pink jersey to 3:09 to Vincenzo Nibali. “It was not an easy stage for anyone. We were all suffering. I was glad to have Rujano there, so we agreed to work together and he would get the stage win.”
Contador’s agile riding spelled doom for two riders who were hanging close. Kanstantsin Sitvsov (HTC-Highroad) sunk from second to sixth, now 3:53 back, while Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo) slipped from fourth to 16th at 5:29 back.
As expected, Nibali and Michele Scarponi (Lampre), now third at 3:16 back, are shaping up to be Contador’s most dangerous rivals. Contador has a much bigger lead and can use a close fight for the podium to his advantage. There’s only two minutes dividing second-place Nibali from 12th place Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar), so riders will be riding to defend their own GC interests rather than risking all in trying to attack a dominant Contador.
“What a masterpiece. We were in control throughout the whole stage and according to the original plan, Alberto only had to keep up with his opponents. But as they showed weaknesses, I asked him to launch two attacks without going too deep and in the second punch, only Rujano was able to compete and we’re very content with that,” said Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis. “The lead to Nibali is increased significantly and we got more from the stage than we had expected beforehand. That doesn’t mean that the race is won. There are several high mountain stages to come and we all know how you can lose minutes on a bad day in the mountains, so we need to stay focused on the job.”
Contador, too, cautioned about counting his eggs before they’re hatched.
“Nothing is finished in this Giro. Tomorrow is another hard stage. You could have a bad day and lose 15 minutes easily,” Contador said. “I’ve felt good over the past few days. I had some doubts about attacking today, but I am glad because now I have a bigger lead.”
Having missed their chance on Grossglockner, Contador’s GC rivals will have to try something before it’s too late. Saturday’s epic stage up Zoncolan presents an ideal testing ground. If Contador shows signs of weakness, Nibali and Scarponi must attack. Otherwise, Contador can mark the wheels and then make his own attacks late in the stage.
What would Merckx suggest now on how to crack Contador?