From a measured, months-long project, Alberto Contador's bid to win the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France double has suddenly become an anxious, day-to-day enterprise. The months of meticulous planning, the wind-tunnel testing and the training camps at altitude all risked counting for nought when he dislocated his shoulder after crashing in the finishing straight in Castiglione della Pescaia on stage 6.
An x-ray on Thursday evening showed no fractures, however, and at his hotel in Punta Ala on Friday morning, Contador confirmed that he would continue in the Giro. Cruelly for the maglia rosa, the shortest night of his race was followed by its longest day, a 264-kilometre trek south from Grosseto.
For Contador's Praetorian Guard at Tinkoff-Saxo, the brief was a simple one: bring Contador from point A to point B and await further instructions on arrival in Fiuggi, the sleepy spa town southeast of Rome.
"We're all with him," Ivan Basso said hopefully as he emerged from the Tinkoff-Saxo bus before the start, patiently fielding inquiries from reporters from Italy and Spain as to the quality of Contador's night’s sleep. "He got through the night well," he said. "Sì, todo bien."
Contador holds a lead of just two seconds over Fabio Aru at the head of the general classification, though there was precious little chance of an ambush from either his Astana team or the Sky squad of Richie Porte. After three tough days of racing in Liguria and Tuscany earlier in the week, the general classification contenders were glad of a day of relative détente ahead of Saturday’s summit finish at Campitello Matese, while the block headwind and the sheer distance made for a relatively tranquil day.
The Tinkoff-Saxo squad spent much of the day placed towards the head of the peloton, keeping tabs on the early break. After briefly handing over the reins to the finisseurs’ teams to peg back the leaders, they returned to the front in force in the final 10 kilometres.
Contador sat in third wheel behind Michael Rogers and Basso until the final three kilometres, with Roman Kreuziger also on hand to assist, and he went on to come home safely in the main peloton to retain his overall lead.
"We tried to protect him as best we could so that he could get through the day as safely as he could," Basso told Cyclingnews after wheeling to a halt just past the finish line. "Alberto didn't get through the stage 'well' because he still had some pain, but we survived today and we're all happy."
For the second successive day, Contador was excused press conference duties, but after descending from the podium he admitted that he had begun to suffer after the fourth hour of racing. Manuele Boaro was by his side for the bulk of the day, and told Cyclingnews that Contador had experienced no specific scares or moments of difficulty on the long road south.
"He managed to sleep well last night and that was already good for his morale," Boaro said. "Alberto was complaining [of pain] a bit during the race but we were close to him as a team and we're here to fight.
"He didn't have any particularly difficult moment today, though. We were at the front of the race doing our job and he was close to us. We’re here to work for him and I hope he's got faith in us."
Contador could be seen riding out of the saddle at a various junctures during the stage, and he explained later that it was to test his shoulder injury ahead of the inevitable attacks on his pink jersey in the mountains on Saturday.
Tinkoff-Saxo's show of force in the closing kilometres, meanwhile, was in part to save Contador from having to climb out of the saddle to make undue and unexpected accelerations on the fraught run-in to Fiuggi. “We were obviously trying to avoid the crashes but we were also just trying to keep an even pace that would suit Alberto,” Basso said.
The million-dollar question – indeed, the question on which Oleg Tinkov's Grand Tour challenge hinges – is whether Contador can recover sufficiently to remain in this Giro and defend his pink jersey. A brace of rugged stages this weekend ahead of Monday's rest day should provide some important indications.
"I don't know how it will be, but one day is passed and that's already good. Let's hope it goes well. We're crossing our fingers," Basso said hopefully, while Boaro sounded a more optimistic note: "Alberto is Alberto, so we're sure that he'll still provide spettacolo."
As ever in such cases, the road will provide the final verdict.
Tinkov further discussed Contador's crash in our latest video interview. To subscribe to the Cyclingnews video channel please click here.