Mikel Landa proved the beneficiary of Astana’s attempts to dislodge Alberto Contador from the lead in the Giro d’Italia on Sunday.
Landa and his team tried to shake the Tinkoff-Saxo captain on the mountainous 165km stage 15 from Marostica to the ski resort at Madonna di Campiglio. But instead, the unruffled Contador grabbed bonus seconds en route and at the line, finishing third on the day, to extend his lead over Astana’s Fabio Aru on the overall.
Landa took the stage win ahead of Yury Trofimov (Katusha), but Aru found himself unable to take any advantage over the race leader, who was completely isolated in the final kilometers, without teammates.
Indeed, Contador now leads Aru by two minutes and 35 seconds going into Monday’s rest day, with Movistar’s Andrey Amador sitting third at 4:19.
Contador’s Tinkoff team had shouldered the burden of setting the pace on the penultimate climb, the 8km-long Passo Daone, a strategy that left two-time race runner-up Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick-Step) struggling to keep pace.
“It was a brutal day,” said Uran. “On the first climb I was struggling to stay with the first group. When they accelerated on the Passo Daone I really couldn’t follow. I couldn’t dig deep, I couldn’t even breathe properly. I tried my best to hang on, but I couldn’t. After today the fight for a high position in the GC is out of my grasp. I will do my best to get a good result for my team.”
Tinkoff’s tactic burned through the team and left Contador isolated among several Astana riders. However, the race leader acquitted himself handsomely on the final climb to Madonna di Campiglio, the scene of Italian Marco Pantani’s infamous exclusion from the race in 1999.
Contador, who is bidding to become the first man since deceased Pantani in 1998 to complete the Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double in the same year, did not have to fret until the final 3km, when an acceleration by Landa sparked the hostilities.
Contador caught his wheel, and Aru and Trofimov fought back up to the two with just over 2km remaining.
Landa tested his fellow Spaniard with another burst of speed but, again, Contador countered the move.
Trofimov then launched a futile attempt for the stage win, racing away at the red kite, but the Russian did not have the legs to open up a telling gap.
With Trofimov tiring and the finish line in sight, Landa seized his chance and accelerated past in the last few hundred meters to claim his maiden grand-tour victory.
“It’s an important win for me and the team, because when you work the way we have today, a win like this belongs to everyone,” said Landa. “There were three of us, we had numerical superiority, and we couldn’t let the stage win get away.
“Our objective is to put Aru in the best possible position in GC. We want first place with him, but we know it is difficult. Second place looks fairly safe, and we’ll try to win this Giro using our superiority in numbers.”
As for Contador, he tipped his hat to the stage winner, and to Astana.
“Astana were very strong today: It was like a team time trial with me on their wheel,” he said. “But my legs were good today and I would have liked to win the stage, thinking of [Marco] Pantani, who was an inspiration for me. But there were lots of attacks and counterattacks and it was impossible to control all of them.
“I didn’t speak to Landa, but there was no need to. He’s a great rider, he’s riding a great race, and I’m very happy for him.”
Tuesday brings what could be the hardest stage of this year’s 98th Giro d’Italia — a 174km, six-climb grind from Pinzolo to the summit finish at Aprica.