By Andrew Hood
Monday’s spectacular yet controversial stage up Plan de Corones capped a trio of decisive mountaintop finishes that saw Alberto Contador whittle out a slender but perhaps decisive lead going into the final week of the 91st Giro d’Italia.
Contador hasn’t won a stage yet, but he’s finessed his way into a 41-second lead over Riccardo Riccò thanks to a superb time trial in stage 10 and three consistent performances across the Dolomites.
Aging warrior Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni-Androni) is third at 1:21 back with Marzio Bruseghin, Franco Pellizotti, Danilo Di Luca and Denis Menchov all more than two minutes in arrears.
There’s still a lot of racing ahead, but Contador is poised to become the first Spaniard to win the Giro since Miguel Indurain claimed back-to-back editions in 1992-93.
“The Giro is not over yet,” Contador cautioned. “In theory, the final time trial suits me best, but there are other stages that can put me in difficulty, especially the stage over the Mortirolo.”
Count Eddy Merckx, who arrived at the Giro on Monday to present the maglia rosa at the end of the stage, among the believers. The Cannibal, who won five Giros, is convinced Contador is about to win his first.
“I think Contador will win,” Merckx said. “He’s a smart rider, he has a strong team and he’s only getting stronger.”
With five days to go, including two challenging mountain stages over such legendary climbs up the Gavia and Mortirolo as well as Milan’s final 28.5km time trial, Contador’s rivals aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
“Without the team time trial and my fall in the individual time trial, I’d be in the pink jersey right now,” said Riccò. “There are still two mountain stages to go where we can try to lay a trap for Contador. I’d rather lose by two minutes and have tried and failed. I’m going to go for it.”
Despite what Riccò might want to believe, Contador is in the driver’s seat with several factors adding up in his favor. Here’s why:
Team by his side
Astana showed up at the Giro with a week’s notice, but the team has grown stronger during two weeks of racing. Experience and pride will make up for any lack of fitness the team carries into the final week of racing.
The team lost Steve Moribito with a dislocated shoulder in the first week, but with Contador in the pink jersey, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden will now ride to support the Spanish climber. Astana’s arm of unsung Kazakh troopers along with Vladimir Gusev and Toni Colom will join forces to bring the pink jersey to Milan.
“The team is going well, very motivated and with all the riders willing to work to win. To have companions like Klöden and Leipheimer is a guarantee and gives me a lot of confidence,” Contador said. “I have full confidence on them and the demonstration is that on the time trial, instead of disputing it, they have lost time. That is a sign that all are for the team.”
While the pink jersey buoys Astana, rival teams are struggling.
Riccò will only be able to count on four teammates on his depleted Saunier Duval-Scott team. Climbing ace Leonardo Piepoli crashed out with a broken collarbone Sunday and Raivas Belohvosciks didn’t make the time cut Monday, leaving the team with just five riders.
There are questions about the depth of Simoni’s Diquigiovanni-Androni team while Bruseghin and Menchov will be pretty much on their own in the climbs to keep close to try to make Sunday’s time trial count.
Pellizotti’s Liquigas team has already shown it can control the race, but it worked hard in the first week to defend his jersey and over the weekend in the Dolomites. Di Luca’s LPR team, on paper, as the most dangerous with Alessandro Spezialetti, Gabriele Bosisio and Paolo Savoldelli, but Di Luca will have a race on his hands just to make the podium at this point.
A question of depth
Contador’s weakest link could be his durability in the final week.
Until a week before the Giro U-turn by race organizers, Contador had pulled the plug on his early season (with victories at the Vuelta a Castilla y León and Basque Country) and was taking a break at the beach before reloading for the Dauphiné Libéré, the Summer Olympic Games, the Vuelta a España and the world championships.
Contador came into the Giro short of racing fitness, but he says he’s already overcome the toughest challenges and expects to be able to finish off the job.
“My form is improving or at least staying the same,” he said. “The most difficult stages were in the beginning and over the past three days. Now we have a rest day and two easier stages before the final mountains. Climbs like the Mortirolo can be troublesome, but I think the worst is behind us.”
His Italian rivals, meanwhile, pegged the Giro as their season’s top goal and built their entire season around arriving in peak form. They promise to pounce if they smell blood.
“One of Gilberto’s strengths is his durability and his mental toughness,” said Simoni’s team manager, Gianni Savio. “This Giro has already been very hard and it will only get harder in the final week. This is when Gibo always shows his class. He will attack to put his rivals to the test.”
Another worry for Contador will be his allergies that plagued him in the first week. Cooler weather and rain helped tap down the pollen count in Italy’s robust spring, but warmer weather and lower elevations through the next few days could revive his allergic reactions heading into next weekend’s decisive finale.
Italian civil war
Contador will also be able to exploit tensions between his top Italian rivals.
Instead of working together to topple the Spaniard, the Italians will likely ride for their team’s interests to protect their respective GC positions and perhaps even ride against one another to prevent a national rival from bettering them.
It’s unlikely that Riccò can count on help from the likes of Pellizotti or Di Luca, who now will be fighting to at least gain the podium.
Riccò’s sometimes-caustic remarks about his rivals (remember his “riders are vegetables” remark before last year’s Milan-San Remo?) will put the kibosh on any sort of alliances. It’s hard to imagine that jealous Italian rivals will want to see Riccò benefit from a collaborative effort.
Pellizotti said his Liquigas team didn’t get much collaboration when they tried to blow up the race on the Passo Giau and put Contador under pressure.
“When I tried (Sunday), no one wanted to give me a hand. We are all here to try to win the Giro,” Pellizotti said. “Simoni said we’re riding scared, but maybe it was him who’s afraid.”
One scenario gaining steam is Riccò and Simoni attacking together over the Mortirolo isolate Contador, with Simoni taking a prestigious stage victory in what’s likely his final Giro and Riccò riding into the pink jersey.
“We made a mistake by not working together to try to gap Contador on the Giau,” Simoni admitted. “We missed an opportunity to try to eliminate him.”
Final TT could crown winner
Even if his legs falter, his rivals attack him, create alliances and his allergies flare up, Contador can count on the final, 28.5km flat time trial in Milan on the Giro’s final day.
Contador doesn’t have to attack in mountain stages to Presolana on Friday and over the Gavia and Mortirolo to Tirano on Saturday. He can ride defensively, marking the wheels and saving his legs to battle Riccò for finish-line time bonuses.
Any amount of time going into Milan will be time that his rivals will have to take back in the time trial.
“At the final summit finish at Presalana, I expect that the differences will be small, more or less like they are now. On the day of the Mortirolo, it’s obvious that it’s going to be very hard. It could be a race right from the beginning,” Contador said. “Later, we have the final time trial. In respect to my rivals, I can have a certain advantage, even if I lose some time, I could recover it.”
Riccò believes if he can take time on Contador in the final mountain stages and slip into the maglia rosa.
“I would like to have at least two minutes on Contador. That’s the goal, but even if it were a smaller gap, the Spaniard would have to make the time trial of his life, because I will give 1000 percent,” said Riccò.
“But before Sunday, there’s still the entire Giro to be written. A day of crisis can happen to anyone, with Contador or myself, because we are men, not robots.”
It could all be decided in Milan on Sunday, just as the race organizers have hoped.