By Gregor Brown in Tirano
Having been yanked off the beach during his vacation to race in the Giro d'Italia, Alberto Contador was an unknown quantity coming into the race after just nine days notice. Yet after three weeks of racing, the Spaniard has shown his talents by riding himself into the pink jersey, and his tenacity by holding onto it by a slim four second lead.
To wear the maglia rosa on the final stage with the possibility of taking home his second Grand Tour in a year hadn't crossed the Astana rider's mind. "I never thought it was possible," stated Contador after passing the Giro d'Italia final mountain stage with flying colours. Just one 28.5 kilometre time trial stands in the way of his winning the race overall and becoming the first rider since Miguel Indurain to win the Italian Grand Tour as reigning Tour de France Champion.
"I never could have imagined it – I was at home when the team called me...," Contador recalled of his entry into the race following Saturday's mountainous stage through the Alps. "The team wanted me to come here and I wasn't convinced that it was the right thing to do. ... Playing in the final to win it all – it's something that was unimaginable a month ago"
Thanks to his agility on the Passo del Mortirolo and Aprica, Contador kept his closest rival – Italy's Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) – in check and distanced the defending champion – Italy's Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes). He now leads the race with four seconds on Riccò and two minutes on Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre).
"It was very different than yesterday," explained Contador, who lost time to Di Luca and Riccò on Friday's stage to Monte Pora, and had both riders within seconds of taking his maglia rosa. "There was a delicate moment when I had to really use my the head or I could have lost it all [on Friday] – Di Luca ahead by two minutes – Riccò on my wheel and all my rivals waiting to attack. If they attacked, I would have had to chase them all and I could have blown up."
He found the stage to Tirano slightly easier. "Today, I had to stay with Riccò on the Mortirolo. I had good legs and I played it out well in my head, and it worked out well."
Contador kept his defence up over the Mortirolo while Riccò, Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) and Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) launched their moves. The actions weakened Di Luca and sent last year's winner backwards and out of the race's overall contention.
"How I am racing here is something different than my usual style. We cannot forget that I came to the Giro without any preparations – I didn't climb one mountain before I came here – I had to try to do the best I could with the form I had. ... I am very content to be where I am now.
While Contador is a better time trialist on paper, Riccò has vowed not to give up and 2006 Italian Time Trial Champion Bruseghin could pose an outside threat, but Contador wasn't afraid.
"I don't have any reason to worry about it," said Contador with confidence. "The 21st stage on the last stage is different, so anything can happen. All I have to do is have good sensation, if I do there's no reason to fear anyone."
Riccò blasted after the stage that if he had a team like Contador's he could win the Giro d'Italia. The line, while bashing his own team, did not even touch on the fact that Team Astana came to the race with a little more than a week's notice.
"The differences were big between the teams – my team didn't a have a high level. It's not normal to be invited a week ahead a Grand Tour, so we weren't in the best conditions. If we had more time to prepare for this race like in normal conditions, instead of having one at the front, we could have had three or four," Contador warned.