TROPEA, Italy (VN) ─ Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) didn’t like what he saw in the morning papers when he woke up ahead of Saturday’s long stage along Italy’s southern coast.
The Italian papers roasted him, saying he revealed weakness up Montevergine when he couldn’t follow the late-stage accelerations of Michele Scarponi. They also criticized him for not speaking to journalists after the stage.
A few hours later, Contador responded to critics the way he always does ─ with vicious accelerations from his spindly legs. With just over a kilometer to go in the technical, climbing run to the line, Contador shot free of the pack to put everyone on notice a day of ahead of the Giro’s first major mountaintop finish up Mount Etna. He didn’t win the stage, but he gained five precious seconds on his rivals and 12 more with time bonuses. That was enough to slot him into fifth overall behind race leader Pieter Weening (Rabobank), but “first” in the virtual GC among the “Giro big” for Sunday’s decisive climbing stage.
“I knew it would be difficult in the end and maybe we can gain an advantage,” Contador said, speaking to journalists at the line. “The team did a great job to keep me at the front all day. I gained a few seconds and the time bonus, so the sensations are good. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Contador always finds motivation out of negative pressure. He withstood an uncomfortable year racing with Lance Armstrong at Astana and still managed to win the 2009 Tour. This year, he’s racing under tremendous psychological pressure by racing at the Giro with his still-unresolved clenbuterol doping case hanging over his head. All eyes will be on Contador on Sunday.
“(Montevergine) was like an uphill sprint and I was suffering a little bit from allergies,” Contador said. “Etna is a real climb. Some important differences will be made.”
Contador now takes the pole position going into Etna. The virtual GC might not mean much now, but it serves as an important psychological measure of where the riders stand. Contador now “leads” Scarponi by one second, with Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) at a further 11 seconds back.
Saturday’s stage wasn’t expected to deliver much fireworks among the GC favorites. Scarponi was carrying all the momentum into Etna after Lampre drilled it up Montevergine. Though he missed victory by a meter to Bart de Clerq, who hung on from a late-stage attack to win the stage, Scarponi was full of confidence going into Sunday’s showdown.
“We’ve shown yet again we’re a complete team and that we’re here to win the Giro,” Scarponi said. “The legs are responding and I want to take advantage now if I have the form. This Giro is just beginning, but you don’t want to let an opportunity pass by. Etna will be a real dogfight.”
Everyone will be watching to see the reactions from Contador, Scarponi and Nibali, the three big favorites for overall victory.
Behind them is a second tier of riders looking to stay hidden away and let the other teams carry the weight of the race. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) finished with the main pack Saturday and is feeling confident after riding to third in Friday’s summit finish at Montevergine.
“I think Contador will attack for sure (Sunday). He will not want to miss the chance to get time on Nibali and Scarponi,” Kreuziger said. “I think we can race our own race. Yesterday (Montevergine) we demonstrated that the team is solid on the climbs. I will do my best to stay close to the front of the action. It’s a decisive stage that will show us who can later win this Giro.”
Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) might not be a favorite for overall victory, but the 2000 champion is showing good form in the first week of the Giro. He crashed, however, at the worst time in the closing kilometers with the peloton was ramping up the chase at 60kph. Six of his teammates helped tow back to the team cars and he was able to claw his way back to the peloton just as the bunch roared into the final 3km, though he slipped from 22nd overall to 29th, at 1:50. That hard effort could cost him tomorrow.