Alberto Contador was wet, cold but happy after finishing second behind Philippe Gilbert but ahead of main rival Fabio Aru on the uphill finish in Vicenza. Contador picked up six bonus seconds for his efforts and also gained eight seconds on Aru in the surge to the finish, after the young Sardinian was unable to hold the wheels. He now leads Aru by 17 seconds, with his Astana teammates Mikel Landa and Dario Cataldo third and fourth at 55 seconds and 1:30 respectively.
The Tinkoff-Saxo team leader has suffered in the first half of the Giro d'Italia as Astana went on the attack and his shoulder injury seemed to be a significant handicap. However, with the vitally important 59.4km time trial just 48 hours away, Contador seems to have the upper hand. He has three Astana behind in the general classification but his sharp jabs in Aru’s ribs seem to have revealed a weakness, even if Aru claimed he had simply had a bad day and failed to eat properly in the rain.
UCI president Brian Cookson awarded Contador his clean and dry pink jersey on the podium and he celebrated his good day by opening the bottle of prosecco for the first time on the podium, seemingly without any pain in his shoulder.
"I think that my legs are still improving. I've had one or two days when I've only spoken about my shoulder but my legs were very bad after the crash too. Now my bruises are getting better and I hope to keep improving all the way to the end. The difference in Grand Tours is your ability to recover each day," he said in the post-race press conference, talking himself up and pouring the pressure onto Aru.
"Every second is important because on a bad day in the Giro d'Italia, you can lose minutes. So all the advantage you have is very important to play with, especially tactically.
"I've observed him [Aru] closely in this race. His legs looked good early on in the Giro but in the final 50 or 60km before the finish I noticed that he was looking a little weak. I didn't know if he was on or off my wheel. I saw he wasn't on a great day and that made the difference. But if you look at the road book in the final week, anything can happen in this Giro. It's been hard fought since first stage and so everyone is tired. With the rain we had today, and the first hours at 50 km/h, it takes its toll. The end of the Giro d'Italia is still very far away. This Giro d'Italia is very hard and on any day a 1,000 things can happen. Things keep happening every day."
Pouring scorn on Astana tactics, thinking about the time trial
Contador also poured scorn on Astana’s tactics. The Kazakhstani team tried to protect Aru in the final of the stage but he struggled to hold onto the wheels when Contador had a dig near the summit of the Crosara climb with 28km to go. Astana sent Tanel Kangert on the attack to take away the bonus seconds but the race came back together and Contador struck while Aru suffered.
"It's hard to know what tactics they are using. Honestly," Contador said with a laugh. "I think that, on the basis of how the stage was going, they were improvising. If the leader hasn't got good legs, it’s hard to play out a tactic. Perhaps they sent riders up the road to take away the bonuses but it's hard to interpret their tactics."
Friday’s 147km stage is the last chance for the sprinters to strut their stuff before the mountains and Milan. Contador is already thinking about Saturday’s time trial and revealed he will test his modified time trial position in his hotel in Vicenza. He is ready to sacrifice a few watts to ride the 59.4km in a more comfortable position that takes the strain off his damaged left shoulder.
"I still have to look at the time trial course in detail. It's a big day and I think Richie has big ambitions, as does Uran. So do others and so do Astana," he said
"In my case, tonight Faustino my mechanic will bring my [time trial] bike up to my room so we can check the the position to see if it's comfortable. If it isn't the best, I could start with a position that isn't the most aero position for me. It could mean I lose 10 or 15 watts but it is what it is and I still hope to do a good time trial. We'll see how well on Saturday."
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