Giro d'Italia

Nieve hangs on as Contador powers on

BELLUNO, Italy (VN) – The last kilometer of Sunday’s monster, five-climb, seven-hour 229km trek across the Dolomites may well have been the longest Mikel Nieve has ever ridden.

BELLUNO, Italy (VN) – The last kilometer of Sunday’s monster, five-climb, seven-hour 229km trek across the Dolomites may well have been the longest Mikel Nieve has ever ridden.

The nimble Basque climber looked up to the final ramps of 15 percent and wondered if he still had the legs to hang on.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 15
Nieve moves ahead of Garzelli ... to stay.

Behind him was Stefano Garzelli, the dogged former Giro winner perhaps chasing his final bit of glory before fading into retirement. And not too much further back, but closing in fast, was Alberto Contador, attacking with all he had to try to firm up the maglia rosa in order to go into the final week of the Giro on cruise control.

Nieve moved out of an 18-man break in the Giro’s longest, hardest stage to win the most important victory of his career.

“The last kilometer just went on forever,” Nieve said. “After the past three days that we’ve been through, I really cannot believe that I won. I never thought I would win something at this level, but I woke up today feeling good and I wanted to try to get into a break.”

The setting for Nieve’s win was nothing short of epic. The route plowed over some of the Giro’s most spectacular landscapes, with towering limestone cliffs, narrow roads snaking through gorges and thousands of cheering tifosi to keep the riders on edge.

Heavy afternoon showers added just the right touch of drama to the day to cap three brutal days in the Dolomites.

While Nieve was savoring Euskaltel-Euskadi’s second consecutive stage-victory, Contador was turning the screws one more time.

After overcoming an dicey moment, when arch-rival Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) attacked coming off the Passo Giau with about 60km to go, Contador suddenly found himself without teammates. Nibali, the peloton’s best descender, gapped Contador by 45 seconds.

But the collective interests of the peloton helped save the day for Contador. Podium contenders Michele Scarponi (Lampre), John Gadret (Ag2r) and Roman Kreuziger (Astana) helped reel in Nibali coming into the Fedaia.

Nibali was later dropped, only to reduce a one-minute difference on the Fedaia descent to reconnect with the pink jersey group of about a dozen for the final charge up the 6km Gardeccia summit.

Perhaps thinking that the best defense is a strong offense, Contador slung out of the pack yet again. That put Nibali into the red, and though he later recovered fairly well, the Italian ceded 1:43 to Contador and fell from second to third.

Contador looped across the line third to pick up an eight-second bonus and confirm his lead going into Monday’s rest day. But it wasn’t easy and Contador called the marathon stage the hardest in his career.

“It was the hardest stage of my life,” Contador told Spanish radio at the finish line. “It was hard, super-hard. There were some moments when I was completely isolated, 50km from the finish line. I played with the interests of the others in my favor and measured by strength. I believe that I met the objectives to open more differences and further distance my rivals.”

After racing seven-and-a-half hours (more than eight for the stragglers in the gruppetto), officials canceled post-race interviews.

But with six stages still to go in the 94th Giro, Contador is firmly in the driver’s seat.

“Contador is so strong, he must really have to have a bad day if he could lose this Giro,” said Scarponi, who clawed his way into second place overall. “I will keep fighting to Milan, but Contador is looks good, you have to admit.”

With Tuesday’s climbing time trial up next on a steep road to Nevegal, Contador will be the red-hot favorite for another stage win.