With the Giro d’Italia seemingly already won, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) took the opportunity to settle a score on the slopes of Monte Ologno on stage 18 – even if the maglia rosa would never admit as much himself, least of all when faced with a dozen expectant microphones in the mixed zone afterwards.
"I don’t think in terms of vengeance. You just take the race as it comes," Contador said simply of a day that saw him extend his overall lead to 5:15 by attacking on the day’s final climb after second-placed Mikel Landa (Astana) had crashed on the run-in.
The Astana team were similarly ruthless in attacking Contador two days ago when he stopped to change a wheel ahead of the Mortirolo, and Landa proceeded to irk his fellow countryman still further by soloing clear in the finale to claim stage honours in Aprica despite not collaborating with him in the winning break.
Although he quickly remounted and caught a group that contained his teammate Fabio Aru, Landa lost 1:13 to Contador on the road to Verbania on Thursday, but he showed little rancour when apprehended by a scrum of reporters just past the finish line. "The race is the race, and he took his opportunity," Landa said.
In his post-stage press conference, meanwhile, Contador insisted that his Tinkoff-Saxo team had already planned to ride on the front on the run-in to the base of the category 1 Monte Ologno, having noted that third-placed Fabio Aru was once again betraying signs of fatigue.
"Today was a different situation," Contador said. "We were already working because we knew it would be very important to be in front to bottom of climb because there was space for only two riders. It would have been easier to stay at the back but it was also more dangerous behind so we decided to expend the energy. We looked at Fabio’s face and his expression told us that he didn’t have good legs so we went fast and in the end that was the right decision."
The 10km-long Monte Ologno was making its debut at the Giro, and despite living across Lake Maggiore in nearby Lugano, Contador claimed not to have reconnoitred it before the race. No matter, within a kilometre of the climb, he had zoomed clear of the group of podium contenders, making disarmingly light work of the 13 per cent gradient on its lower slopes.
At one point his lead over Landa began to yawn out towards two minutes, despite a full-blooded chase led by Astana’s Tanel Kangert and Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti. Not even the seemingly daily Contador mechanical incident could stunt his progress; after unshipping his chain on the climb’s upper reaches, he was quickly brought back up to full speed by a push from his mechanic.
Contador’s tempo only truly relented towards the summit, when he opted to await the junction of Ryder Hesjdeal (Cannondale-Garmin), realising that the 2012 Giro winner could be a most useful ally of circumstance on the final 35 kilometres to Verbania. They duly reached the finish 6:05 down on stage winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC), but more than a minute clear on Landa, Aru et al.
"The plan was to go up the climb at my own rhythm," Contador said. "I knew Hesjedal was just behind me and I knew he would be a good ally but I had check that he was clear of the Aru group before waiting for him. When we got to the summit, I could see that he was still close to me so I thought it would be best to ride with him. It was an intelligent decision."
Speaking earlier in the week, Contador suggested that he would be conservative in his approach to the final days of this Giro in a bid to preserve his resources ahead of July’s Tour de France. On Thursday, however, it felt as though instinct had won out over reason. On Monte Ologno at least, July was a lifetime away, but memories of Aprica were still raw.
"The objective is to win the maglia rosa, even if it’s with a one-second advantage," Contador said. "Today I made gains, tomorrow it might be them. I have to stay focused and take the opportunities that come my way. I just analyse each situation with cold blood and I see if the opportunity arises. Today was good for us, but tomorrow things could change. We’ll have to see day by day."
Already stretching beyond five minutes, Contador’s final lead in Milan could well exceed the six minutes he put into Michele Scarponi in 2011, a victory that was later stricken from the record books due to his positive test for clenbuterol the previous year. As ever, though, Contador struck a note of caution before ending his press conference and, as has often been the case on this Giro, his words felt as much like a warning to his rivals as a reminder to himself.
"Time is in my favour but a thousand things could happen still. Tomorrow’s stage is 236 kilometres, with three climbs. Right now, I just want to rest," he said. "I had to make a big effort but it was still less than what will be required tomorrow and Saturday."
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