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MONTE ZONCOLAN, Italy (VN) – Igor Antón had tunnel vision – literally – to claim the biggest stage of his rocky career.
The 28-year-old Basque climber rode up the narrow funnel of asphalt up one of Europe’s steepest roads Saturday to deliver a dramatic victory at the Giro d’Italia and climb into contention for the final podium. Thousands of rabid tifosi cheered his winning surge with 7km to go as he soloed home a 33-second victory ahead of Alberto Contador, and nudged into third overall at 3:21 back.
“You’re so concentrated in a climb like that. It’s a beautiful sensation. You can’t hear a thing. The tifosi were cheering so loudly. I wanted to know how far ahead I was, whether it was 10 meters or 1 minute, but it was impossible,” Antón said of climbing the 22-percent steeps of the Zoncolan. “It was pure suffering, pure hell, but here I am at the Giro, riding at the front as a protagonist. It was beautiful.”
The victory confirms Antón’s rise among the climbing specialist’s ranks. He made a big splash by winning a mountaintop stage at the 2006 Vuelta a España in just his second year as a pro, but suffered through injuries and personal setback that stymied his progression.
In the 2008 Vuelta, he crashed and broke his leg on the stage to the Angliru, another monster climb where Antón says he hopes to make his mark someday. He was back at his best in the 2010 Vuelta, but crashed out again, this time while in the leader’s jersey, an experience that he says has only made him more determined to win.
“It’s never easy in cycling, when you’re down with a crash, you have to really sacrifice to come back, but when you win a stage like today, it’s like a gift. It’s worth all the sacrifice,” he said. “I have a piece of metal in the shoulder, another in the femur, but that’s part of cycling. You have to overcome the injuries and keep moving forward.”
Antón came into this Giro as an outsider, with winning a mountain stage as the primary goal. Targeting the Vuelta in September is Antón’s season focus, but with the GC highly unsettled behind Contador’s dominance, Antón says he’s now ready to ride to defend his spot on the podium.
“To win the Giro, that’s impossible with Contador so strong. I have a good position in the GC so I will try to defend it now. The podium might be possible, why not?” Antón said. “There are some more mountain stages, so if the legs respond, maybe we can think of more. The most important is to have won the stage. I have to be realistic. To win? Impossible.”
Antón said he saw Contador riding “intelligently” up the Zoncolan, marking Nibali and distancing Michele Scarponi (Lampre)and Roman Kreuziger (Astana) as they struggled up the punishing steeps. He shrugged off suggestions that Contador rode easy to allow Antón, a compatriot and friend, to win the stage.
“Nobody gives anything away in this sport. Contador is racing intelligently. Yesterday, we saw he gave a little away to Rujano, but he also profited from the situation,” he said. “Nibali and Scarponi are his principal rivals and I think he was making his race in a manner that would benefit him in the GC. You could see that he was racing to win the Giro, not to win the stage. ”
For a climber like Antón, winning in the Giro is something special. He will be the third winner up the Zoncolan – Gilberto Simoni won twice and Ivan Basso won last year.
“It’s a great satisfaction to join such great champions as Basso and Simoni as winners here. I risked a lot by attacking from far away. It was a bet more than anything. It was a struggle, not against Contador or Rujano. The rival was myself. I was so concentrated, calculating the efforts,” he said. “It’s a climb that never ends. It was perhaps the hardest climb I’ve ever ridden.”
With four more summit finishes on tap, Antón might have a few more chances to barrel through the waves of tifosi again.