Alberto Contador entered the 2011 Giro d’Italia as the odds-on favorite to take his second overall victory in the race and on Sunday, he showed why he topped the picks of anyone betting on the first grand tour of the season, winning the ninth stage and taking the overall lead in impressive style.
Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) rode a conservative and cautious race until the day’s second trip up the slopes of Mount Etna, when he launched a devastating attack halfway up the 17.4km finishing climb and rode away from a host of others once considered top contenders for this Giro.
Contador scored an impressive win, finishing just ahead Venezuelan climbing specialist José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli-Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni), with 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) grabbing third as he led a power-packed chase group across the line, nearly a minute back.
Overnight leader Pieter Weening (Rabobank) suffered on the climb and finished 45th, at 6:35, dropping from first to 32nd on GC.
A break with a threat?
After a quick evening ferry transfer from Trofeo, the scene of Saturday’s finish, to Sicily, the Giro faced a 169km stage from Messina to Mt. Etna, a route that involved two trips up Europe’s largest active volcano. Rumblings from the mountain earlier in the week had prompted concerns that the stage might have to be rerouted, but the activity subsided and the stage was contested as originally planned.
While a number of riders tried to slip off the front in the relatively flat opening portion of the stage, it took nearly 50km for the day’s break of nine to be established. Remarkably, the escapees included Pablo Lastras Garcia (Movistar), who began the day in seventh on GC, just 22 seconds out of first.
Along with the major GC threat were Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Alessandro Vanotti (Liquigas-Doimo), Mathias Frank (BMC) Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli), Juan Horrach Rippoll (Katusha), Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack) Mikael Cherel (Ag2r) and Filippo Savini (Colnago-CSF).
If Latras’ presence in the break was cause for concern, none of the major GC contenders appeared too worried as the nine set about establishing a lead that approached five minutes at times.
The nine cooperated, but the peloton kept the gap within reasonable limits over the first of two climbs up the slopes of Etna. The first ascent began in the village of Linguaglossa and lasted 18km with an average grade of 6.1 percent, although portions offered up ramps as steep as 11 percent.
While the peloton didn’t respond to the break, beyond keeping a tight watch on the gap, Maxim Belkov (Vacansoleil) made a solo effort to join the escapees and came to within 1:30 by the top of the climb. The peloton crested at 4:23 and Belkov eventually faded back into the main field.
That gap stayed relatively stable with the nine escapees rode through the village of Nicolosi, reaching the lower slopes of the final climb three and a half minutes ahead of the peloton. Ahead was a 17.4km ascent that averaged 6.2 percent, with ramps that topped 12 percent.
The cooperation that characterized the nine-man group soon evaporated on the slopes of the climb with Frank trying to go it alone. He was reeled in but the attacks continued, first whittling the group to four leaders —Bakelants, Frank, Visconti and Lastras — and finally down to just one: a tenacious Bakelants trying to hang on over the final 10km.
While the peloton covered the lower slopes of the climb in a steady manner, the pace gradually increased as more and more riders slipped off the back. As the peloton reached the 8.5km-to-go mark, three of the day’s original escapees were pulled back.
Alberto and the volcano
Rujano launched a strong attack and appeared to be on his way to catching the remaining escapees and grabbing a stage win. He soon passed Lastras, who eventually drifted back to the peloton and then slipped off the back, his threat to the overall standing fading as quickly as Weening’s hold on the leader’s jersey.
But Rujano’s time alone didn’t last long. As the route hit a steep section, the Saxo Bank rider with wins in each of the three grand tours launched a devastating attack. Only Lampre’s Michele Scarponi was able to stay with him, and only for a few hundred meters. Contador reaccelerated and Lampre’s top GC hope drifted back to the chase group.
Contador soon joined Rujano and the feisty Venezuelan responded to repeated attacks and managed to stay with him all the way until 1km to go. But it was that final surge that left Rujano chasing. Contador crossed three seconds ahead of Rujano and a full 50 seconds ahead of his chief rivals. Contador now enjoys a 59-second lead over HTC-Highroad’s Kanstantsin Sivtsov in the overall standings.
“The wind was gusting up the ascent and I knew I had to attack between eight and five kilometers out,” said Contador. “I wasn’t thinking about the maglia rosa. The race is only beginning, the Giro is hard and anything can happen.”
Contador is competing at the Giro while still awaiting a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which could overturn a Spanish cycling federation decision to clear him of wrongdoing following a positive test for clenbuterol at last year’s Tour de France.
Contador said the case is not far from his thoughts.
“I dedicate this win above all to my fans, it’s they who have given me the strength to keep going, and also to my family, who have been there for me through the tough times, to my team and my sponsors.”
Racing resumes on Tuesday, following a retun to the mainland and Monday’s rest day, the first of two in the Giro. Stage 10 is likely to have little effect on the overall standings, as the mainly flat 159-kilometer race along the Adriatic coast from Termoli to Teramo will offer the sprinters in the field a chance at a win.
Veteran Australian sprinters Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) and Graeme Brown (Rabobank) finished 59:35 behind Contador, outside of the official time cut, and have been eliminated from the Giro.
HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish finished at 26:35 with a number of other sprinters, including his lead-out man Mark Renshaw and Danilo Napolitano (Acqua & Sapone).
- 1. Alberto Contador (Sp), SaxoBank-Sungard , 4:54:08
- 2. José Rujano Guillen (Vz), Androni Giocattoli-Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni, at 0:03
- 3. Stefano Garzelli (I), Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo, at 0:50
- 4. Vincenzo Nibali (I), Liquigas-Doimo, at 0:50
- 5. Roman Kreuziger (Cz), Astana, at 0:50
- 1. Alberto Contador (Sp), SaxoBank-Sungard , 33:03:51
- 2. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr), HTC-Highroad, at 0:59
- 3. Christophe Le Mevel (F), Garmin-Cervelo, at 1:19
- 4. Vincenzo Nibali (I), Liquigas-Doimo, at 1:21
- 5. Michele Scarponi (I), Lampre-ISD, at 1:28