Astana’s plans to ride Fabio Aru into the pink jersey took another hit on Tuesday, but for the Kazakhstani team, stage 16 was far from fruitless. Mikel Landa rode to another stunning stage win in the Giro d’Italia.
Landa delivered Astana’s third win of the race, soloing to victory in Aprica after a 177km day that included four categorized climbs.
The 25-year-old Spaniard was up against race leader Alberto Contador (Astana) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the day’s final climb, a category 3 trip up the Aprica. Landa launched his move just inside of five kilometers to go and took the stage handily.
Behind, Kruijswijk sprinted to second place ahead of Contador.
“Today I really proved that I can be one for the strongest riders on the climbs, and we still have several uphill finishes left,” said Landa. “As a team, we will have to stick together and stay attentive.”
Aru — ostensibly Astana’s leader — did not have a strong showing, losing 1:13 to Contador. He slipped to third on GC behind Landa. Contador shored up his overall lead; he’s now 4:02 ahead of second place. Aru trails his teammate by 50 seconds overall.
“It was a very hard day, an incredible stage,” Contador said. “Cycling isn’t mathematics. I had a puncture on the descent [before the Mortirolo]; Ivan Basso gave me a wheel, but ahead they were going at full speed, and it was impossible to close the gap immediately. It was hard for me, but I’m very happy with the time gaps now.”
The battle for GC unfolded on the Passo del Mortirolo, the day’s only category 1 climb.
Contador was distanced prior to the base of that penultimate climb due to a puncture. His group was 50 seconds behind Aru’s at base of Mortirolo. Unfazed, the race leader set off alone on the steep climb to chase back the gap.
Ahead, the lead group was pared down to Aru, Landa, Yuri Trofimov (Katusha), and Kruijswijk.
“We saw that Alberto had a problem, and Katusha went full gas, so we worked with them,” Landa said. “On the Mortirolo, Fabio Aru wasn’t feeling good and he told me to go with Contador and Kruijswijk.”
Trofimov was dropped as Contador trimmed the gap to under 30 seconds.
With Contador’s pink jersey looming in the distance, Kruijswijk attacked the Astana duo on the steep slopes. The Tinkoff leader caught Aru’s group just before 40km to go and then attacked, right after Trofimov had clawed his way back to the four riders.
Only Landa could follow Contador on the steep upper slopes. It took about a kilometer of climbing for the two to bridge up to Kruijswijk.
Aru labored up the climb’s steep ramps with Trofimov, 16 seconds behind. The leader in the young rider’s classification was soon dropped by the Russian. Then, he was caught and dropped by Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) as well.
Three kilometers from the summit, Aru was about one minute behind the Contador trio. He continued to bleed time and was nearly two minutes behind at the top of the Mortirolo.
After a harrowing descent that was rainy in parts, the lead trio was 33 seconds ahead of Trofimov, who had distanced Hesjedal.
Aru, who was chasing with Movistar’s Andrey Amador, was 1:30 behind with 20km left.
But soon, Aru had trouble with his bike’s chain. He quickly dismounted and got a new bike but was left behind by Amador. With 15km left, after the costly mechanical, Aru was 1:50 behind Contador’s group.
Amador and Hesjedal joined forces and caught Trofimov at the base of the Aprica, the day’s final ascent.
With 10 kilometers to go, the three chasers were 1:16 behind the leaders, and Aru was 1:40 back. Those gaps were mostly steady for the next five kilometers.
But inside of 5km to go, the leaders began to launch attacks. First it was Kruijswijk. Then, Landa countered, distancing Contador and the LottoNL rider.
With two kilometers left, Landa’s lead was 30 seconds and that was all he needed to ride alone to his second consecutive stage win at this year’s Giro d’Italia.
“To Mikel Landa, I can only say: chapeau. These are the stages that people remember,” Contador said.
After Tuesday’s violent return to racing, this final week of the Giro, the GC riders will get a breather in Wednesday’s stage 17, a relatively flat 134km ride from Tirano to Lugano.