1. Astana fail to take advantage after Contador's crash
As Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) picked himself off the tarmac in Castiglione della Pescaia following his crash on stage 6, the Giro d’Italia threatened to take on altogether different guise. Although the Spaniard remained atop of the overall standings, just four seconds clear of Fabio Aru (Astana) his shoulder injury meant that he couldn’t don the maglia rosa on the podium that evening, and even when a subsequent x-ray revealed a subluxation of the shoulder rather than a fracture, it felt like a temporary reprieve.
On the road to Fiuggi the next day, Contador was a typically defiant presence at the front in the finale, but one wondered if this was a bluff worthy of El Cid rather than a true indication of his recovery. Stages 8 and 9 through the rugged Apennines would provide the acid test and received wisdom had it that Astana team of Fabio Aru – already so startlingly aggressive in the opening week – would surely recoup significant ground against a diminished Contador.
Instead, however, Contador coolly repelled the Astana offensive as the Giro reached its most southerly point. At the summit finish at Campitello Matese, after Tanel Kangert, Paolo Tiralongo and Mikel Landa had laid the groundwork, Aru placed stinging attacks with 5km and 1.5km to go, but on each occasion he was unable to discommode Contador, with Landa eventually given the green light to pursue a stage victory, though the honours would fall to Benat Inxtausti (Movistar).
Astana were again aggressive in their build-up play on the heavy day to San Giorgio del Sannio the following day, but once again Aru was unable to put the ball in the net. While Tiralongo went up the road to win the stage, Aru’s acceleration on the Passo Serra failed to trouble Contador. He did manage to pick up a second place on the Spaniard when he opened a gap in the sprint for 10th at the finish, but for all his joy at his mentor Tiralongo’s win, Aru must have realised that he had missed a golden opportunity. As the Giro broke for its first rest day, and despite his injury, the pendulum was already swinging decidedly in Contador’s favour. (BR)
2. Richie Porte's costly wheel change – and Matteo Tosatto's quick thinking
Richie Porte matched Contador and Aru pedal stroke for pedal stroke in the opening skirmishes and with the apparent trump card of the Valdobbiadene time trial still to come, the Australian exuded a quiet assurance about his prospects when he met the press on the rest day in Civitanova Marche. Without 24 hours, however, the outlook changed radically when he was docked two minutes by the commissaires for accepting a wheel from Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Clarke after he punctured in the finale of stage 10 to Forlì: the combination of the penalty and the 47 seconds Porte lost on the road saw him fall from third at 22 seconds to 12th at 3:09.
There was more than a hint of schadenfreude in some quarters of the Italian press the following day when Sky’s decision to sleep Porte in a motorhome for the Giro and fly him north via helicopter ahead of the rest day was juxtaposed with the fundamentals errors that took place in Forlì. In particular, it beggared belief that a general classification contender could enter the finale of such a fast stage without a teammate riding behind him for the express purpose of handing over his bike in the event of a puncture or crash.
Porte, to his credit, took the punishment on the chin, accepting that rules are rules (even if he didn’t particularly agree with this one) and quietly trying to get on with the task in hand. Sky manager Dave Brailsford, however, seemed to dwell on the matter publicly for the remainder of week two, rather than compartmentalise the issue and move on – hardly in line, one imagines, with the recommendations of the Steve Peters handbook.
Porte’s Giro challenge more or less ended three days later at Jesolo, when he crashed just short of the 3km to go banner and conceded a further two minutes. Contador fell in the same incident and his reaction – and, particular, that of his teammate Matteo Tosatto – provided an interesting contrast to the way Sky regrouped. While Porte hesitated for more than a minute before accepting Vasil Kiryienka’s bike, Tosato simply unclipped, ran through the fallers and handed his bike to Contador, pushing him on his way without even checking to see if he was hurt.
Tosatto’s quick thinking effectively saved Contador’s Giro. Though the Spaniard conceded 38 seconds to Aru and (briefly) lost the maglia rosa, he would have lost a whole lot more were it not for Tosatto’s savvy. How Sky could have done with that kind of street knowledge in Forlì. (BR)
3. Contador builds up unassailable lead in Valdobbiadene time trial
In its opening phase, the Giro had largely been a game of inches, with seemingly only time bonuses and time penalties separating the strongest riders in the race. Aru’s moments of weakness in the rain at Imola and again at Monte Berico, however, had suggested that the race was slowly but surely bending to Contador’s will. By the end of the rain-soaked time trial through Prosecco country on stage 14, the Spaniard must have felt that he was home and hosed.
Contador placed second on the stage, 14 seconds down on Kiryienka, while just about every other general classification contender floundered. Porte’s faint hopes of recouping ground unravelled within five kilometres. He would lose more than four minutes. Rigoberto Urán’s brief resurgence in week two also stalled. Although he moved up to fourth overall, it was scant consolation now that he trailed Contador by 4:14.
Aru began the day in the maglia rosa with the hope of staying within a minute of Contador. Instead he finished almost three minutes back, while Landa – not yet viewed as a podium contender – lost exactly four minutes to Contador.
At the time, it felt like the most decisive moment of the Giro. A glance at the final overall standings in Milan only reaffirmed that feeling. Aru finished just 1:53 down on Contador, while Aru was just 3:05 back. Were it not for the buffer built up at Valdobbiadene – more to the point, had the time trial not been so long – Contador would have suffered far more than a mere scare on the Finestre on the penultimate day. (BR)
4. Astana's attack before the Mortirolo, Contador chase as Aru suffers
With so much having happened in the first two weeks of the Giro d’Italia, the mountain stages in the final week would have to inspire some spectacular racing to continue the dramatic narrative, and they did, especially on the day to Aprica, which included the double-digit gradient Mortirolo climb. Of course, this being the Giro di drama, the moment of excitement came before the climb, on the twisting descent and valley road from Aprica to the foot of the Mortirolo.
In a split second, the Giro d’Italia seemed to turn yet again when Contador stopped to change a wheel and the Astana team decided to attack him rather than show a hint of fair play. Astana surged up the road to join forces with Katusha, who were already dragging a group up the road with fury and determination.
Contador and his Tinkoff-Saxo team eventually managed to chase back on and then the Spaniard time trialed up the Mortirolo to catch Aru and Landa and save his maglia rosa. Contador’s mountain time trial pursuit reminded many of Marco Pantani famous chase after shipping his chain at the foot of the climb to Oropa in the 1999 Giro d’Italia. Like il Pirata, he even had the legs to then attack, crack and distance Aru with Landa and Steven Kruijswick (LottoNL-Jumbo) in tow. It lifted Landa up to second overall, as Aru fought to save his Giro and a place on the podium.
The reasons, questions and doubts about Contador’s alleged puncture and rapid wheel change with Ivan Basso look set to perpetuate infinitely but there is no doubt about the performance he produced to fight back. Astana thought sheer aggression was the best way to topple Contador but their tactics proved useless and only revealed Aru’s weaknesses and the team’s lack of decision regarding team leadership. (SF)
5. Contador shows his Grand Tour superiority even in times of adversity
Alberto Contador confirmed he is the best Grand Tour rider of his generation with a show of calm and consistency throughout the Giro d’Italia that was combined with superior tactics and a steely determination to overcome every possible obstacle, including when his rivals left him struggling alone on the dirt roads of the Colle delle Finestre.
"A true champion shows himself in the difficult moments of a race," he said with pride as he celebrated his seventh Grand Tour victory in Milan.
Contador did not have the strongest team in the Giro d’Italia and Mikel Landa was arguably the best climber of the race, yet he used his experience and sangfroid to emerge as the winner in Milan in what is widely expected to be his last ever appearance in the Corsa Rosa.
When Oleg Tinkov took a verbal swipe at the Astana team for their attack before the Mortirolo, Contador refused to criticise his rivals, preferring to wait for the stage to Verbania and Landa’s own problems to take revenge. Even then he refused to admit it was a pay back, insisting he had simply ridding his own race.
Contador was able to understand the form, strengths and weaknesses of Aru and Landa better than Astana directeur sportif Beppe Martinelli and Alexandre Shefer, who dithered in deciding who should be team leader. During the final stages, like a cat playing with two mice, Contador let Aru and Landa take turns to escape and then seemed to enjoy going after them and punishing them with ease. He let Landa climb up to second in Aprica and then used Aru’s remarkable comeback on the stages to Cervinia and Sestriere to put his young Spanish rival in his place.
While many of his rivals faded when faced with the adversities of the Giro, Contador never flinched, he never lost control, and never revealed if he was suffering. Even on the Colle delle Finestre, when Landa and the others rode away from him with, Contador never panicked and never cracked. He controlled his effort, knew he had a safety cushion of several minutes and the strength to make it to Sestriere and secure his seventh Grand Tour victory. (SF)