A sort of homecoming for Alberto Contador, as the Giro d'Italia visited his adopted town of Lugano for the finish of stage 17. The maglia rosa left his native Pinto to live in the capital of Italian-speaking Switzerland three years ago, and it was on the hills overlooking the lake that he carried out his first, secretive training rides last summer after fracturing his tibia at the Tour de France.
"For me, a stage finish here is much more special than any other place we have been," Contador said. "I've been living here for three years, and I have friends and part of my family here, so of course it's special. We're in the third week of the race now, so I miss my people."
Contador is not the only international cycling figure to exile himself in the Swiss city, of course. His former Tinkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis, also a resident, was spotted near the finish line on Wednesday, though Vincenzo Nibali is currently out of town, preparing for his Tour de France defence atop Mount Teide.
In Nibali's absence, Astana's challenge at this Giro was initially led by his young dauphin, Fabio Aru, but the balance of power in the team has shifted following Mikel Landa's brace of stage wins at Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica. Landa, now second overall at 4:02, proved stronger than his erstwhile leader Aru on the Mortirolo on Tuesday, and dropped Contador on the final haul to Aprica for good measure.
"In the end, these situations generate a thousand different opinions," Contador said when asked for his take on Astana's leadership contest. “Landa is obviously strong, I have to respect him, like the rest. I imagine they'll try to attack again, and I'll be ready."
As is his wont, Contador issued a polite warning to the Astana pair when he speculated that they would look particularly to Saturday’s penultimate stage over the dirt road of the Colle delle Finestre as an opportunity to wage an offensive against him. “I think they'll attack on Saturday," he said. "They have two options, but one of them might finish off the podium if they are very aggressive. And depending on how the stage is, I could attack too."
A show of force before Milan?
Contador was forced into a frantic, lone pursuit of Aru and Landa on the slopes of the Mortirolo on stage 16 after Astana had pushed the pace following his puncture on the preceding descent. Despite Landa's victory, it was Contador's impresa that garnered the majority of the headlines on Wednesday morning. “It was a day of emotion, a day I'll always remember," he said.
Even so, Contador has no stage victory to show for his pre-eminence at this Giro, though he downplayed the idea that he felt in some way compelled to garland his race with a win before the finish on Sunday. With his preparations for the Tour de France already in mind, the Spaniard seems loath to waste a pedal stroke between now and Milan.
"You have to see the context. At times, stages seem to come easily, even if, to coin a phrase, winning is never easy," Contador said. "But if you analyse the stages still to come, they are stages where the final climbs are not really hard, and if you want to attack to win the stage, you have to go from a long way out.
"Obviously, I'm thinking of arriving in pink in Milan, which is what I planned, and stage wins are secondary, mainly because in five weeks' time I have another race that is equally or even more demanding than this one, and every effort I make here has its price."
When the race route was unveiled in October, with its mountain stages shoehorned into the final week of racing, it seemed perfectly tailored for a man intent on targeting the Giro-Tour. Indeed, as recently as last month, Contador stated that the Giro would only truly begin with the stage 14 time trial. Instead, the Spaniard has been compelled to race earlier and more often than he might have liked in Italy.
"I think if you ask all the riders who are here, they'll tell you it's been a very tiring Giro," he said. "People have asked me if it is the hardest Giro I've ever ridden. I don't think so, the hardest was in 2011. But at this Giro, every stage, even on supposed transitional stages like today, has been undoubtedly more demanding than I'd have liked, but that's the way it is."
There ought to be precious little respite on Thursday’s stage around Lago Maggiore, which features the first category climb of Monte Ologno in the finale before the rapid drop to the finish at Verbania. "I don't know the climb because it's on the other side of Lago Maggiore and so it's too far away for me to be able to go and train there," Contador said. "But they tell me it's very hard, with tough gradients. I'll have to be on my guard."
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