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Stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, from Lienz to Monte Zoncolan.
As we pick up the action with a little under 146km to race, there is a three-man break up the road. Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) have a minute in hand over the peloton on the approach to the day's first climb, the Passo di Monte Croce Comelico.
There was a rapid start to proceedings, with a number of riders trying their luck, including Danilo Di Luca (Katusha), but the trio got away 29km into the stage, and the pace appears to have settled slightly behind.
The real attacking is taking place off the road this morning, however. This 14th stage of the Giro was arguably the most eagerly anticipated of the race, not just because of the fearsome finish atop the mighty Zoncolan, but also because of the technical climb and descent of the Crostis that was set to precede it.
Yesterday evening, however, the UCI commissaires on the race announced that the Crostis would be cut from the route. Instead the stage will tackle the rather less intimidating Tualis, with the stage distance cut by 20km.
The initial reservations about the inclusion of the Crostis were related to the safety of the descent, but teams of volunteers had worked to put up netting and padding on the exposed corners to alleviate those fears.
In a bid to offer further guarantees of safety, the race organisers had also announced that team cars would not be allowed to follow the riders on the Crostis, and instead motorbikes would carry spare wheels.
This did not go down well with team managers, a delegation of whom expressed their concerns to the commissaires, and it was decided to remove the Crostis from the route "because of the impossibility to ensure an optimal sport management at the end of the stage (as the team cars cannot operate normally by following the race course for 37,2 km)."
As expected, the polemica has exploded in Italy this morning, with Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan furious at the decision to cut the Crostis from the course. He blamed the decision on the power struggle between team managers and the UCI, and was very vocal in his criticism of both parties in this audio interview with Gazzetta dello Sport.
In particular, he pointed the finger at “some directeur sportifs, who are generally used to driving in air-conditioned cars with the television switched on.”
Meanwhile, out on the road, the peloton are happy to let the trio out front to build up a lead. Approaching the summit of the first climb, they have ten minutes on the Saxo-led bunch, and Brambilla leads Rabottini and Tankink over the top of the 3rd category Monte Croce Comelico.
Alberto Contador is up near the front of the peloton, looking very comfortable. He's taking a look at the race profile, and in spite of his dominance to date, he'll certainly be glad that he doesn't have to take on the descent of the Crostis.
Returning to the Crostis polemica, Zomegnan also pointed out that the team managers had used none of the three opportunities they had to voice their concerns about the dangerous descent before the start of the Giro - at the Giro presentation on October 23, the first team meeting in Milan on March 17, and the pre-race briefing in Turin on May 5.
A strongly-worded piece in this morning's Gazzetta dello Sport says names Bjarne Riis, Johan Bruyneel, Roberto Amadio and Luc Eisenga as the chief representatives of the managers, while Patrick Lefevere also weighed in by telephone from Belgium.
"This is an affront to the people of the Crostis," Gazzetta says, before sounding a defiant note: "the Giro is wounded, but it goes on with pride."
Saxo Bank lead the peloton over the top of the climb, fully ten minutes down on the leading trio. On the second of three consecutive tough days in the mountains, there are a lot of tired legs in the bunch that will be glad that things have settled down after the quick start to proceedings this morning.
Rabottini has been very aggressive in this Giro, on the instructions of Farnese Vini manager Luca Scinto, who has encouraged him to infiltrate early breaks since the start in Turin.
Unfortunately for Farnese Vini-Neri, Andrea Noe was an early abandon on today's stage. The 42-year-old was off the front on yesterday's stage to Grossglockner, but he pulled out in the opening kilometres this morning.
Noe's plan was to retire at the end of this Giro, but unfortunately his career has ended a week earlier than he would have liked.
We caught up with Noe in Orvieto during the first week of the Giro, as he looked back over his lengthy and successful relationship with the corsa rosa.
The three members of the breakaway are still working well together on the slopes of the day's second climb, the 3rd category Passo di Sant'Antonio.
Brambilla appears to be the most enthusiastic when the road climbs, but Tankink is looking comfortable.
Brambilla gets out of the saddle and puts in a little acceleration to make sure he leads the trio over the top of the Sant'Antonio.
Tankink and Rabottini are careful to shut him down straight away once they're over the top, however.
Yesterday Contador benefited from some help from Euskaltel-Euskadi in keeping tabs on the early break. Today Saxo Bank are taking the responsibility for the chase themselves, although the gap is still rising slightly. 10:20 the lead now for Brambilla and co.
Rabottini drives the break down the descent of the Sant'Antonio and almost comes a cropper on a tight bend, but thankfully he gets around safely.
An average speed of over 38kph for the first two hours of racing. We may be in the mountains, but so far the climbs have been imminently manageable. The real horrors will come on the Zoncolan at the end of the stage.
After some light rain earlier in the stage, the sun is out as the peloton approaches the top of the Sant'Antonio. Saxo Bank continue the pace-setting but the bunch is spread across the road behind. A lot of riders looking to keep their powder dry for the Zoncolan.
Filippo Savini (Colnago CSF) darts out of the pack to take fourth place at the top of the Sant'Antonio, but he sits up over the top. The gap to the lead group is still in excess of ten minutes.
Speaking of the Zoncolan, Contador is well-prepared for the 10.1km climb. With an average gradient of 15% on the six kilometres that make up the toughest central part of the climb, smaller inner rings are the order of the day.
Contador will ride with a 36-tooth chainring, spinning a 36x32 gear on the steepest inclines.
Francesco Moser has just arrived at the summit of the Zoncolan. The Italian has been leading sponsored groups of riders to the summits of the Giro's climbs and these mini pelotons were the bane of Cyclingnews' life on the ascent to the press room at Etna last Sunday. Luckily the CN blimp is unaffected...
At the finish of the stage yesterday, Michele Scarponi promised no less a figure than Eddy Merckx that he and his Lampre-ISD teamwould look to put Contador into difficulty
by being inventive. The absence of the Crostis, and more specifically its treacherous descent mean that they'll have their work cut out to try and ambush the Spaniard this afternoon.
Overall, Scarponi is in 3rd place, 3:16 down on Contador. Vincenzo Nibali is second at 3:09, and the Italian duo will be wondering how on earth they can hope to unsettle Contador.
As Davide Cassani pointed out this morning, Contador was already strongest on a short sharp climb on the road to Tropea, on a long shallow climb to Etna and on the steeo summit finish to the Grossglockner yesterday. His rivals will have to be inventive if they are to trouble him, but when the road goes uphill, Contador appears impregnable.
Of course, even if Contador brings the maglia rosa to Milan, he may not feature in the record books as the winner of the 2011 Giro. The Court of Arbitration for Sport verdict on his clenbuterol case is due in early June. While it's impossible to second guess what that decision might be, there is the possibility that the man on the second step of the podium in Milan could be awarded the Giro title at a later date. This was a recurring theme in the Italian media's line of questioning at the pre-race press conferences in Turin. Nibali, Scarponi et al were adamant then that they were racing for first place, but in light of Contador's domination, they may well be revising that outlook.
The leading trio are now on the lower slopes of the second category Passo della Mauria. After crossing the summit, the race enters the province of Udine.
While the Italian favourites struggled on the slopes of the Grossglockner yesterday, it was a good day for French cycling, or more specifically Ag2r-La Mondiale. Our man Jean-François Quénet spoke to Hubert Dupont after his surprise showing on the climb.
The Crostis polemica has not been the only controversy of the past 24 hours, of course. Away from Italy, there have been further allegations of systematic doping at the US Postal Service team.
A very revealing interview with Tyler Hamilton is to be broadcast on 60 Minutes in the United States on Sunday evening, and there have since been reports that George Hincapie told the FDA that he witness Lance Armstrong use performance enhancing drugs. Hincapie was not available for comment but said via Twitter that he had not spoken with 60 Minutes.
10:38 the lead for the three leaders in sight of the summit of the Mauria. Tankink is the best-placed overall, by the way, 28 minutes down on Contador.
Reports reaching us that David Arroyo (Movistar) was a faller on the climb of the Mauria, but he was straight back on his bike and is safely ensconced in the peloton. A brief moment of distraction for the man who battled his way onto the podium twelve months ago.
The Spaniard is having a fine Giro again this time around. While Contador appears to be on another planet, Arroyo is in the mix with Scarponi, Nibali and Roman Kreuziger. He lies in 4th overall, 3:25 down on his fellow countryman.
Paolo Zani, the CEO of Liquigas, has just told RAI that Roberto Amadio attended a meeting of the team managers at this Giro about the descent of the Crostis. According to Zani, Liquigas was one of five teams who were in favour of racing the Crostis, but that 15 other teams were opposed to the idea.
We understand that Lampre-ISD and Acqua&Sapone also wanted the Crostis to remain part of the race.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) reckons that it's impossible to put Alberto Contador into difficulty on this Giro. "We have to hope that he has a crisis," Rodriguez said before signing on this morning, with more than a hint of resignation. 14th at 5:26, Rodriguez will doubtless be less than pleased with how his Giro has gone to date.
Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) goes on the attack from the main peloton on the approach to the top of the Mauria. He crosses the line 9:46 down on the break.
Meanwhile, Francesco Chicchi (Quick Step) has abandoned the Giro. Most of his sprinting brethren had already left the race at Ravenna. With a grand total of zero stages favourable to a bunch finish in the final 10 days of the race, it's no surprise that there are almost no sprinters left at this point.
The break go through the feed zone at Forni.
Filippo Savini is also trying to get across to the break, and he is clear of the peloton on the descent of the Mauria.
The bunch is now coming through the feed zone, with the gap to the break down to a shade under 10 minutes. A puncture for Tiago Machado, but he has a quick wheel change and will be back in place quickly.
Contador changed his bike ahead of the final climb yesterday, but it was controlled by UCI commissaires after he crossed the line. No word on whether the famous "scanners" were on hand.
The Crostis has been replaced by the climb of the Tualis. The 4km ascent was designated as a second category climb, but the race organisers have announced that no mountains points will be awarded at the summit.
The gap is now beginning to come down steadily to the trio in front. In spite of Tankink's best efforts, their lead is now down to 9:21.
There's a lengthy stretch of descent and false flat ahead of the peloton, so we can expect the gap to start to tumble more rapidly now over the coming 25-30km. Saxo Bank-SunGard have done all of the work at the head of the bunch today, but even if Contador is left isolated on the Zoncolan, is anybody really strong enough to put him under pressure?
Contador has dropped back to the rear of the peloton to change his bike, and Bjarne Riis pushes him off to rejoin the other favourites.
For the climb of the Zoncolan, Contador will use a 36-tooth inner ring, and it seems that he's decided to take a bit of time to get used to the feel of his new steed before the final haul to the line.
Brambilla, Tankink and Rabottini are all still pulling their weight out front and have stretched their lead back out to 9:35. At this rate, they should be able to stay clear until the foot of the Zoncolan, but it's hard to imagine that they will be able to hold off the favourites behind on the vertiginous slopes of the climb itself.
A lot of banners out on the roadside today criticising the decision of the teams and the UCI to remove the Crostis from the race. "Rabbits" is one of the politer terms being used...
RAI reports that Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli was also in favour of the Crostis remaining in the race. It seems as though the Italian teams supported the RCS line, while the foreign teams requested that the UCI remove the climb from today's route.
Rafael Valls Ferri (Geox-TMC) is another man to pull out of the Giro on the road to the Zoncolan. It's been a disappointing Giro for Geox thus far, although Denis Menchov showed some signs of life yesterday and moved up to 11th overall.
While Contador will of course be the favourite to take the honours atop the Zoncolan, his closest challenger in the mountains has been something of a surprise. Jose Rujano appears to have rediscovered his climbing legs since returning to Gianni Savio's Androni outfit. No climb in this Giro should suit a man of his stature as much as the Zoncolan.
Brambilla has been the most active of the break on the climbs, but Tankink has arguably been the smoothest. The Dutchman certainly looks more comfortable than he did during the E3 Prijs in Harelbeke at the end of March. On that occasion he was the only man who tried to follow Fabian Cancellara's fearsome attack and pulled up 50 metres later with a cramp.
Some Liquigas riders coming to the front of the bunch now to lend a hand to Saxo Bank's efforts in keeping the break under control.
The familiar bobbing figure of Alberto Contador is a few rows back, betraying no signs of weakness.
Onto the climb of the Tualis for the three men up front. Tankink is tapping out a decent rhythm, and while Brambilla is well able to match it, Rabottini is losing contact every time they go around a bend.
A further alteration has been made to the route while the stage is ongoing... The race will not go to the top of the Tualis, but will instead travel directly to the foot of the Zoncolan.
This means that another 15km will be shaved from today's parcours. While no official reason has yet been announced, it appears that there may have been fears of protests from fans upset at the removal of the Crostis from the route.
All of this means that there are - we think - only around 25km left to race today. However, we are awaiting for formal confirmation of the distance from the race organisers.
The break has 6:53 over the chasing peloton.
Rabottini briefly lost contact with Tankink and Brambilla but has fought back up to their wheel.
The trio are now tackling a short steep 15-18% climb that was on neither the original 210km route nor the shortened 190km course announced last night.
This shortening of the course will doubtless be music to the ears of the three escapees, but even if they hold a 6-minute lead to the foot of the Zoncolan, they'll have their work cut out to hold off the big names behind.
Liquigas-Cannondale have grouped at the front of the peloton now, and they are looking to whittle down the break's advantage.
The peloton has split in two, which might explain why Liquigas are putting the hammer down, but so far we have no indication that any contender is caught behind.
Liquigas are leading the chase up that nasty, unexpected climb, and the gap is to the break is down to 5:40. Up ahead Rabottini is driving the three escapees towards the foot of the Zoncolan.
A lot of riders being put into difficulty on this stiff little climb. Marco Pinotti is among those struggling, and it seems that Contador is shedding teammates. Navarro and Hernandez are still with him, however.
Television images from the Tualis confirm that there was indeed a protest of sorts against the removal of the Crostis from today's route, hence the decision to make this new alteration to the percorso on the hoof.
The Liquigas-led bunch passes under the 35km to go banner, but we reckon that there are probably only around 15km left to race. Unfortunately, we've had no confirmation of the precise distance left to race, but as soon as we hit the foot of the Zoncolan, we'll know that there are 10.1km to go...
On the approach to the Zoncolan, the gap between the break and the bunch is down to around the five-minute mark. Liquigas are still leading the pursuit behind.
Tankink leads the break as they approach the opening slopes of the mighty Zoncolan, with its maximum gradient of 22%...
The Saxo Bank team car is the only one behind the maglia rosa group. None of the other team cars or the race jury have been able to pass the second part of the bunch to get up behind the group of favourites...
50 riders or so in the pink jersey group, as they approach the Zoncolan.
Up ahead, Tankink leads the break on the opening slopes.
Rabottini has seemed in trouble on every climb today, and as Brambilla moves to the front, he has been distanced from the break. Tankink is still holding on, but the steepest section is still a few kilometres away.
In keeping with the theme of the day, Gadret and Machado took a wrong turn at the foot of the Zoncolan, but they have made it back up to the pink jersey group.
Meanwhile, the mechanics have left the team cars and climbed aboard the following motorbikes for the climb of the Zoncolabn.
Nibali has his Liquigas team working hard here, he must be planning something on the Zoncolan, and Scarponi has sent his Lampre teammates to the front to lend a hand.
Garzelli and Machado among the riders dropped under the pressure from Liquigas at the front of the bunch.
Carlos Sastre has also been dropped, but his teammate Denis Menchov is still up there with Contador et al.
Tankink and Brambilla enter the beginning of the toughest 6km stretch of the climb, and immediately Brambilla pulls clear.
Liquigas are setting a tempo of 16kph at the head of the bunch, and the pink jersey group is down to 30 riders.
Valerio Agnoli has been immense for Nibali today, but it will be up to the Sicilian to try and take on Contador once the road gets steeper.
Joaquim Rodriguez rips clear of the pink jersey group. Kreuziger and Niemic lead the pursuit behind.
Igor Anton attacks as the road kicks up and he sets off in sole pursuit of Rodriguez.
Contador climbs out of the saddle and effortlessly closes the gap to Anton. Nibali and Scarponi react behind too and try to haul themselves back up to Contador.
Up ahead, Tankink has managed to regain contact with Brambilla.
Contador and Anton have made it back up to Rodriguez, and Scarponi just about manages to latch on to the Spanish trio.
Nibali is maintaining his rhythm behind, but is losing ground to Contador. Rujano is struggling to keep up with Nibali.
Meanwhile, Tankink has caught and passed Brambilla. He has 1:30 over the pink jersey group.
Rodriguez is dropped by the Contador group, and he appears to be in real difficulty. Nibali is really suffering but is at least managing to make it back up to Rodriguez.
Anton jumps clear of Contador and Scarponi as the road pitches upwards. Contador is leaving the pursuit to Scarponi for now.
Anton grinds past Rabottini and now has Brambilla in his sights. Tankink still has 40 seconds over Contador, around 30 over Anton.
Contador is happy to let Scarponi set the pace in pursuit of Anton.
Meanwhile, Nibali looks to have judged his capacities well. He will just about be able to make out Contador and Scarponi in front of him. One big effort and he can get back up to them.
Contador and Scarponi are climbing at 14kph, just behind Anton. Scarponi looks to be suffering, but Contador's face is as impassive as ever.
Nibali is in a world of hurt all of his own behind them, he's agonisingly close to getting back on.
Inside the 5km to go mark, and Anton is about to pick off Tankink and move to the front of the race. A brave, brave effort from the Dutchman.
Contador is sat comfortably (if such a thing is possible on the Zoncolan) on the shoulder of Scarponi. He doesn't appear to be interested in helping to bring back Anton.
This is an incredibly tough climb. Anton is riding at little more than walking pace.
One of the following motorbikes gives up the ghost on the climb, smoke billowing from its engine at the side of the road. Contador and Scarponi cast a glance in its direction as they grind past.
Time slows down on a climb like this. Nibali makes it back up to Contador and Scarponi, and then immediately accelerates. Contador follows with ease, but Scarponi is struggling to keep up. He's lost 10 metres...
Anton is still ploughing a lone furrow up front, but Nibali's attack has seen his advantage reduced somewhat. Nibali looks back at Contador and asks for some help, but Contador doesn't seem interested in chasing his fellow countryman. Euskaltel-Euskadi did a lot of work at the front yesterday...
Nibali is making up ground ever so slowly on Anton, while Scarponi is losing sight of the pink jersey duo, inch by painful inch.
Behind him, Menchov is enjoying his best day of the Giro to date.
Nibali and Contador are just 40 metres behind Anton. All three are riding at around 14kph at this point. The finally two kilometres are slightly easier....
This has been a fine show of defiance from Nibali. He doesn't have the legs to drop Contador, but he's certainly restored some pride here on the Zoncolan.
Contador finally comes to the front, but only very briefly.
Scarponi hasn't quite been distanced by Contador and Nibali, but he'll struggle to make it back up to them before the summit.
Under the 3km to go banner for Contador and Nibali. Apparently Contador is spinning a 34x32 gear. Certainly he seems to be pedalling with greater agility than the rather more leaden Nibali.
They are 8 seconds down on Anton. Scarponi is a further 5 seconds back.
Scarponi appears to have cracked now, however, and the gap to Contador and Nibali is stretching out.
Menchov is chasing hard behind, and is almost within striking distance of Scarponi. Rujano is over 50 seconds behind, along with Gadret.
No news on where Kreuziger and Arroyo are located on the climb, the group has blown to pieces on the toughest section of the Zoncolan.
Anton looks to have a winning gap now. Contador has not helped the chase behind and Nibali seems to be losing ground, in spite of his best efforts.
The road flattens out here, and Anton is out of the saddle to take advantage. He has 30 seconds over the Contador-Nibali group and 45 over Scarponi. Surely he won't be denied the stage win now.
Menchov is 1:02 behind, fifth on the road.
Anton knows the victory is close now. Nibali doesn't have the acceleration to trouble Contador and is doing his best simply to put time into Scarponi.
Mechanical problems for Scarponi on the climb. He seems to have slipped his chain, but with the help of the tifosi, he gets going again.
Contador stands up, looks at Nibali and then simply rides away from him. The Spaniard is in another stratosphere to everyone else on this Giro, as he sets off in lone pursuit of Anton...
Contador is slicing Anton's advantage, but surely he's left it too late.
That will have been demoralising for Nibali, but he's still grinding his way up the climb.
Anton is casting anxious glances behind, but barring a dramatic collapse he has the win in the bag here. He's into the barriered area now.
Fantastic show of defiance from Nibali, he's made his way back up to Contador, to the delight of the tifosi.
Anton crosses the summit to take the stage win, the first foreigner to triumph on the Giro's toughest climb.
Contador drops Nibali again in the closing 300 metres to come home 2nd, 36 seconds down. Some jeers for the Spaniard from fans who see Saxo Bank as the instigators of the removal of the Crostis from the route.
Nibali comes in 3rd, just behind Contador. Great effort from the Sicilian today, even if Giro victory seems as distant as ever.
Scarponi finishes exhausted in 4th, 1:12 down, with Menchov breathing down his neck in 5th.
Nieve, Gadret and Rujano are the next riders to come in, around 2 minutes down on Anton.
A tough day for Roman Kreuziger. His podium hopes have taken a serious blow here, as he loses almost 3:30 to Anton.
With the 20 second time bonus for the stage winner, Anton will be close to Nibali's second place overall this evening.
1 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 5:04:26
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:00:33
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:40
4 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre - ISD 0:01:11
5 Denis Menchov (Rus) Geox-TMC 0:01:21
6 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:38
7 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:01:52
8 Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:55
9 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 0:02:05
10 José Rujano Guillen (Ven) Androni Giocattoli 0:02:11
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 3:20
3 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 3:21
4 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre - ISD 4:06
5 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 5:23
6 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 5:37
Thanks for joining us on the rocky and ever-changing road to the Monte Zoncolan. We'll back with live coverage tomorrow of the third instalment of this trio of mountain stages. In the meantime, full results, reports and pictures from today's stage will be online soon, and stay tuned to Cyclingnews for all the latest from the Giro.