By Gregor Brown in Varese
With three stages remaining in the 91st Giro d'Italia, it feels as though Italy is behind Spaniard Alberto Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour de France. The 25 year-old of Team Astana leads the three-week race over Italians Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) – 41 seconds – and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) – 1'22".
Along the race route, you can hear cries of support for Contador from the Italian fans, something that Contador appreciates and needs on the eve of two serious mountain stages. The peloton faces the Passo del Vivione and Monte Pora Friday and the Gavia and Mortirolo on Saturday.
"The fans are taking me on as their own," Contador remarked following the 147-kilometre stage to Varese on Thursday. "I can hear them yelling my name and I am very surprised. I am very content to be here because I never thought I would be racing this race. I am happy to see these people cheering me on for the maglia rosa."
Contador's Team Astana was given its invitation to the Giro d'Italia with just over one week before the race started in Palermo, May 10. The team is now in a position to win the overall with three stages remaining, the final being a time trial in Milano on Sunday.
"Tomorrow [Friday - ed.], there are no climbs that give me fear, it is my terrain," Contador stated of the stage that includes the Passo del Vivione and Passo Della Presolana, before finishing on the Monte Pora. "There will be others who will try to make the difference, but I will try to stay there. ... I would like to attack; I like to race this way for the fans. However, it is not needed, and given the condition I had before the Giro I don't know... I know they will be two hard days."
He will mark the erratic Riccò. "Riccò is very fast, and then the time bonuses at the end [of the stage for winning]. If I can make a difference on him it would work in my favour. ... It is possible that Simoni attacks, but I will have to watch the situation on the Vivione. I will have to see how my team-mates are going and how we will control the situation."
Contador's confidence was evident when he led the charge of the main gruppo home in stage 18. He fought hard for the sprint, which was eventually won by Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux). "It was because I had faith and I wanted to make sure I did not lose any seconds," confirmed Contador. "My legs are going well."