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Giro d'Italia

With mountains looming, Contador survives to fight another day

With mountains on the horizon, a banged up Contador endures the Giro's longest day in the saddle to retain pink and to fight another day

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FIUGGI, Italy (VN) — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) knows how to grit his teeth through the pain. He’s had plenty of it throughout his career, both on and off the bike, and Thursday’s long march across Italy added another chapter to his reputation as a fighter.

The 32-year-old survived the Giro’s long slog, a 264km monster march Friday, to fight another day. A day after crashing and dislocating his left shoulder, Contador safely navigated the possible traps in Friday’s sprint finale to arrive into the Giro’s second weekend still in pink.

“I am happy to have gotten through the day, something that I wasn’t sure about. I really suffered a lot of pain, and today was a stage of seven hours, 20 minutes, and after four hours, I really didn’t even know where to put my hand,” Contador said. “All I can think about now is to get some ice on my shoulder, and rest.”

Despite some discomfort and pain, the stage went relatively smooth for Contador. An early breakaway and steady headwinds made for a fairly routine, albeit long, day on the bike for most in the peloton. Tinkoff-Saxo kept Contador safely positioned at the front until they hit the 3km banner, allowing the sprinters’ teams to take over.

Perhaps Contador’s most dangerous moment came when he crossed the line safely in 30th place, three seconds behind stage-winner Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), and pedaled headlong into the chaotic finish-line scrum that accompanies any Giro stage.

TV cameras, photographers, and journalists pressed in to catch a glimpse of his condition. Contador was in no mood to chat, and provided a few comments, donned the pink jersey, and headed toward the team hotel.

Contador’s direct rivals — Fabio Aru (Astana), second at two seconds back, and Richie Porte (Sky), third at 20 seconds back — were magnanimous and did not attack their stricken rival. Contador looked relatively comfortable on the bicycle, and the terrain was far from favorable for an attack, but the GC favorites respected Contador’s pink jersey, and did not try anything to take advantage of his injury.

There will be no room for such charity in Saturday’s mountaintop finale in the 186km, two-climb stage 8 from Fiuggi to Campitello Matese. As the Giro’s second mountain stage, the profile is more difficult than what the peloton faced at Abetone, where Contador took over pink. Contador will have more trouble handling the descents, curves, braking, and positioning to the climbs than the actual uphill portions. As he revealed Friday, Contador can put some weight on his shoulder during a few tests ahead of Saturday’s decisive stage.

It’s important to remember that Contador dislocated his shoulder, and did not suffer a shoulder separation, a much more serious injury. A dislocated shoulder, though painful, certainly does not require surgery or indicate any serious ligament or tendon damage that can sometimes knock riders out of the peloton for months. And X-rays and scans Thursday confirmed that Contador did not break any bones.

Under normal circumstances, Saturday’s stage wouldn’t be so decisive, especially with the monsters looming in the final week. There’s nothing normal about what’s happening now for Contador, and he will pressed to use all of his accumulated racing acumen to limit the losses.

“Tomorrow is a complicated day for me. A day, that in principal, was good for me to have some terrain to attack,” Contador admitted. “Now I might have to race a little more prudent and be calmer.”

What’s sure is that his rivals will attack. Riders such as Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step) and 2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), who both lost time in the first week, will be hoping to revive their GC aspirations. Stage-hunters will be coming out of the woodwork, and both Aru and Porte will not want to let an opportunity slip past to try to take major gains on Contador.

So far, Porte has been following wheels, biding his time for the stage 14 individual time trial that favors him against both Aru and Contador. He’ll likely follow early accelerations, and then go hard near the summit if he has the legs. Saturday presents Porte a huge opportunity to reconfirm his status as a Giro favorite.

Perhaps even more so, Aru will be gunning for the pink jersey and a chance to distance both Contador and Porte. The stage 14 time trial is not ideal for the Italian climber. With Contador hobbled, and the pink jersey there for the taking, Astana will be drilling it to set up Aru for the lead. This is Aru’s big moment on home roads.

Although questions remain about the severity of Contador’s shoulder injury, it’s important to remember that his motor remains largely intact. His crash Thursday is in sharp contrast to the high-speed impact in stage 10 that took him out of last year’s Tour de France. Contador’s legs look anything but dislocated.

“I hope and I confide that in the next few days I will feel better and better,” Contador said. “I know I have a few very hard days ahead of me, and I hope to save the day in the best way possible.”

Contador is against the ropes. It will be interesting to see if Aru or Porte can deliver the knockout punch. As he’s shown before, if Contador goes into the late rounds, he almost always comes up the winner.