Contador weathers storm and sails into clearer waters
Heading into last week’s rest day Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador held a meagre three seconds over Fabio Aru (Astana) in the race for pink, with Richie Porte (Team Sky) and Aru’s teammate, Mikel Landa, both within a minute of the race lead. An injured shoulder, questions over his team’s strength and Aru’s eagerness and ability to attack, all put Contador under siege but he’s answered every question with all the assuredness of a rider who’s Grand Tour win tally stretches onto two hands. It feels like an age has passed since Aru’s fireworks in the first week.
Perhaps Contador’s greatest ally over the last week has been his ability to manage. Of course Porte, Rigoberto Urán and even Aru have all wilted to varying degrees but the Spaniard’s dexterity to dissect his opponents strengths and weaknesses, before turning each of them to his advantage has been immeasurably impressive.
On stage 15 he picked up time at an intermediate time bonus and had Astana floundering as a result. You could almost sense Astana’s heads dropping one by one as they looked forlornly at Contador’s latest play. It was just a couple seconds but it had the desired effect of reminding Aru’s men that only one man would determine this race’s final outcome.
When it came to the final climb Contador then juggled stage winning hopes with the pragmatism of a man who knows how to defend a lead and by the finish line he’d conceded the stage to Landa but had proved to Aru that his own challenge was quickly fading.
All of this came after the individual time trial, arguably Contador’s finest race against the clock since his career began. There’s still a week to go, and another twist of fate could change everything but at this rate Tinkoff-Saxo will be heading to the Tour de France with their first objective complete.
Aru and Astana all at sea despite numerical advantage
They are without question the strongest team in the race but they aren’t without their frailties either – both tactically and physically. Both facets were on display on stage 15 when Giuseppe Martinelli’s blue express train set what Steven Kruijswijk later described as a "murderous pace" on the final ascent. At one point nearly half of the leading group were made up of Astana riders, with Aru carefully tucked in as their last man.
That they saw off all but one of their rivals, took the stage and saw Aru consolidate second were all positive aspects but the climb also demonstrated that Landa was their strongest climber and his accelerations only opened up the wounds in Aru’s bid to win the race. All of that work only cemented Contador’s grip on the proceedings. In his post-race comments, Landa stopped just short of admitting that the team were racing for second place but Martinelli must ponder his next move carefully. On Italian soil and with the only Italian GC rider, a switch in leadership is a tricky course to navigate but on the stage to Aprica well see the Astana’s intentions and tactics play out. Will Landa wait if Aru continues to struggle? That is perhaps the biggest question mark ahead of Tuesday’s stage 16.
Where now for Porte?
‘Now or never’ was Porte’s battle-cry as he embarked on his Giro d’Italia crusade a fortnight ago but after a promising first week the Australian finds himself with his bags packed and a ‘for sale’ sign slumped over the dashboard of that motorhome.
After Sunday’s devastating blow it’s hard to argue with Porte and the Team Sky medical staff who pulled the rider from the race. There’s little to be gained in limping through the final week for no reward and every chance of sustaining long-term health problems. The Tour de France preparation may seem like a cop-out to some who demand totality until the end but Porte is entirely right when he points to his successful season and that six months of the campaign still remain. Why jeopardise that on a cause already lost?
Whether this spells the end of his GC hopes in Grand Tours is premature speculation but it certainly changes the landscape for any potential move from Team Sky at the end of the season. Had he won the Giro his price would have risen to anything around the €2 million mark – all but pricing him out of most team’s clutches. Now out of the race and his price tag relatively stable a number of potential suitors could be added to the mix. Remaining at Team Sky is the obvious choice in many ways but BMC Racing could now be joined by a number of others, including Orica-GreenEdge.
Urán’s stock falls but Lefevere should keep faith
After two disappointing days in the Giro d’Italia Rigoberto Urán and his Etixx-QuickStep team find themselves at an important juncture in their relationship. That the Colombian has fallen out of GC contention is just one dilemma they must overcome with a decision needed over whether last year’s runner-up continues into the final week. That’s not the only predicament, as like Porte, Urán is out of a contract at the end of season.
The management at the team are keen to continue with a GC contender for the major tours but the market is hardly flooded with options for 2016. Porte and Dan Martin are unpolished diamonds in comparison to Urán but it will be down to Lefevere to ultimately make the call. The Belgian team boss is currently juggling a number of transfers as he looks to build a squad for 2016 but Urán, who at 28, still has room for improvement.
Where are Contador’s team?
Logic dictated and most team directors suggested that Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team would struggle to support their leader in the second half of the race after they burnt so many matches in the opening stages. On stage 15 we saw those predictions play out with really only Michael Rogers providing suitable cover on the penultimate climb as Roman Kreuziger, Ivan Basso and the others struggled. In the end, Contador survived but there may come a time in the final week when the Spaniard will need to rely on more than just his climbing legs and luck. Most of that may depend on Astana’s role and whether they aim for chaos or control in the mountains but Contador’s isolation on nearly every final climb of the race is not a pattern Tinkov will want to replicate in the final week, and certainly not at the Tour de France in July. There’s a price for chasing down meaningless breaks with 18 stages to go and Tinkoff-Saxo are paying for it.
Gilbert takes the pressure off
A poor spring by his lofty standards was forgotten on stage 12 to Vicenza with Philippe Gilbert taking his first win since last year’s Tour of Beijing. Nullified by Michael Matthews in Amstel, crashing in Flèche and suffering in Liège, this win was Gilbert being back to somewhere near his best on a parcours that suited him down to the ground. The pressure the rider puts on himself is often brushed over but the 32-year-old is a rider who tends to understandably hide his true feelings from all but a small circle of confidants, and his Vicenza triumph - a first win on Italian soil since a stage of Tirreno in 2011 – will ultimately help kick-start the rider and provide momentum as he builds towards the ultimate goal of regaining the road world title later this year.
Wheel of (un)fortune
Where to start with a discussion that dominated several days at the Giro d’Italia and sparked the beginning of the end of Richie Porte’s bid? Robert Millar summed up the episode perfectly when he said that "If there's any shame it's on the decision to punish friendship," and that “Clarke's behaviour in handing Porte a wheel should be applauded”. Rules are rules, and they’re usually there for a reason, however, one can only hope that they’re enforced with consistency in the future. And that applies to time cuts: Ted King missed the cut by a handful of seconds at the Tour in 2013 and he was booted from the race. They’re the rules but we’ve seen them bent in the past and the same goes with the 3km crash rule that was applied in this year’s Giro but was ignored in a crash at a stage race earlier in the year and at the 2007 Tour when the marker was moved to 10km after a crash held up a number of GC contenders.
In Porte’s case the legality of the law was indeed broken but the morality behind the application of the punishment can be questioned. Should Porte have known the rules? Yes, but that doesn’t mean the decision to punish him with a fine and two-minute time deduction was the right one.
Bardiani bypass MPCC
All seemed well for Bardiani after Nicola Boem won stage 10 of the race but a day later the team were named and shamed when it was made public that they were fielding a rider who had abnormally low cortisol levels. The rider hasn’t been identified and Bardiani have argued that a subsequent test cleared the rider to race. However, the decision not to bench the rider was a slap in the face to the Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), who campaign for a cleaner cycling. The organisation is often mocked for their lack of bite in such matters but they only survive on the goodwill of their members. One could discuss the criteria by which teams are allowed into the organisation and Bardiani will face the organisation in July to argue their position further. It’s just a shame that the team couldn’t respect the rules in the same way has other teams have in the past. Credibility is incredibly hard to build but can be lost in an instant.