Alberto Contador was much like the smoldering cauldron of Mount Etna as he ripped the legs off the Giro d’Italia on Sunday and roared to victory and into the maglia rosa.
Contador blew the top off the Giro, taking nearly a minute out of his most dangerous rivals and putting everyone on notice that he’s here to win his second pink jersey inside four years.
“I wasn’t trying to demonstrate anything. The legs felt good and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity,” Contador said after notching his first career Giro stage win. “This Giro is just starting, so nothing is decided yet. Far from it, but it’s nice to confirm that the form is there.”
Contador sprung out of the front group of about 20 riders with just under 6km to go. Michele Scarponi (Lampre) was the lone rider willing to stick his neck on the line. His confidence soon wilted under Contador’s onslaught and Scarponi quickly melted back into the top GC group. Jose Rujano (Androni) was up the road from an earlier sortie and soon sucked Contador’s wheel. Contador urged the Venezuelan to take pulls, but Rujano’s grimace suggested that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to, but that he couldn’t. Contador punched the accelerator again with just over 1km to drop Rujano and shoot his “pistolero” victory salute across the line in what was his first Giro stage-win of his career.
“The legs felt good today, so I had to take advantage of the chance. My only worry was the wind,” Contador said. “I drove 100 percent to the final. I wasn’t worried so much about the stage victory. I wanted to get to the finish line as quickly as I could, but it makes it even sweeter to win a stage on a summit so singular as a volcano like Etna.”
When the dust settled, Contador slipped comfortably into the maglia rosa, carrying a 59-second lead into Monday’s rest day on Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC) and 1:19 to Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervelo). Arch-rival Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) settled into fourth at 1:21 back while Michele Scarponi (Lampre) — the third of the “three tenors” as Contador, Nibali and Scarponi have been dubbed by the Italian media — is fifth at 1:28 back.
The reaction from his rivals was muted at best. Nibali rode intelligently and knew better to try to follow Contador’s early acceleration. Instead, the defending Vuelta champion bided his time and ramped up the speed in the closing kilometers to limit the damage. The “Shark,” who knows well these waters from his hometown in nearby Messina, was fuming at the line when he lost the third-place time bonus sprint to Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), eight seconds that Nibali will have a hard time taking back on Contador.
“We all knew Contador was strong, but what he did today was impressive. Scarponi tried to go with him, but he paid for it later,” Nibali said. “We were riding at a good pace together, but he was putting time into us. I didn’t feel so good at the bottom of the climb, but felt better later, so I was able to make up some time in the end. I tried the best I could. I couldn’t do better than I rode today. The strongest rider conquered the pink jersey today.”
Scarponi, meanwhile, tried to put on a brave face during the aftermath of his disastrous ride. The Lampre captain was indeed feeling brave and was the only one who dared to try to follow Contador’s wheel when the Spaniard shot out of the bunch with just under 6km to go. The contrast in pedaling styles were striking. Contador was spinning a smaller gear, his cadence nearly twice as fast as Scarponi, who quickly went into the red trying to match the pace. Scarponi soon slinked back into the lead GC pack, but faded in the final kilometers when Nibali and others turned the screws.
“Alberto made an impressive demonstration today. I was hoping to stay with him, but he was too strong,” Scarponi said. “Later, when the group split, my legs were just dead. I could barely turn my pedals. Contador was the favorite at the start of the Giro and he proved it on the road today.”
Contador’s aggression will have a demoralizing psychological effect on his rivals. Not that anyone is ready to throw in the towel yet, especially with two weeks of racing left, with the Zoncolan and the Dolomites still to come, but many will be quietly wondering if they should start racing for a place on the podium instead.
“It’s a big mental blow what Contador did today,” said two-time Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli. “The others today saw how strong Contador is and saw what happened to Scarponi when he tried to go with him. The others now will be cautious about going too deep to try to attack him.”
Contador also played down the notion that the Giro is suddenly his to lose.
“This Giro is far from over,” Contador said. “There are still a lot of chapters left in this Giro.”
But with the show Contador put on up the side of the Mount Etna on Sunday, everyone might already know how the book is going to end.