Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) continued in the race lead at the Giro d'Italia for a fourth day despite his injured left shoulder, but after coming through one crucial mountain stage unscathed the Spaniard recognised he faces some more tough tests, starting on Sunday.
Although the first 90 minutes of racing were flat out until the break went clear, with the bunch splitting at one point, events went relatively smoothly for the bulk of the stage for Contador. Most importantly he responded well to each attack on the Campitello Matese from Fabio Aru (Astana) and Richie Porte (Sky), even if he was notably not as aggressive as at Abetone four days earlier.
The Spaniard had warned, though, that he would be playing a defensive game, and even if he did not manage to forge the key contenders' break like at Abetone, he was nonetheless on a strong enough day to ensure the maglia rosa did not come under threat.
Given the Tinkoff-Saxo leader is injured, Contador's ability to close down the attacks from Aru - starting at five kilometres from the summit - can hardly have been encouraging for his rivals, although it has to be said that Campitello Matese in itself is not as challenging as many of the climbs to come. And there is always the big question of the stage 14 time trial, too.
"I've been going through some difficult moments, but I wasn't worried whether they would or would not attack. I knew they would attack," Contador told reporters, "both Fabio and Richie. The real question for me was whether I could control those attacks, and I could."
"I knew that I would have to be cautious, but given what has happened, this was a good result for me, as I'm not pedalling as well as I would like."
"It's not been easy to sleep, either, and I've got to remember, too, not to raise my arm above my head - which would risk it dislocating again."
Asked to put a figure on exactly how much his injury affected him, Contador said: "It's difficult to talk about percentages, rather it affects me both on the bike and off it. And we have to remember that the Giro is only just starting."
Contador even snatched two seconds earlier in the stage from a bonus hot spot sprint, doubling his lead over Aru to four seconds.
On the downside for Tinkoff-Saxo, Contador's teammate Roman Kreuziger lost time in the final part of the ascent, and he was isolated at the end. "I have strong riders in my team, maybe they haven't got the same kind of 'explosive' ability compared to Astana, but I'm sure they'll be with me right to the end," Contador said.
Contador was asked if the worst of the crisis was over. "Today was a very important test and I got through it without any problems." Although Sunday is arguably a more difficult stage, despite not having a summit finish, Contador said, "it's true that the last climb today wasn't the toughest, but the first hour and a half was exceptionally fast, and I think a lot of riders paid for that at the end."
However, whilst his steady ride at Campitello Matese represents a return back towards his top condition, it does not mean el pistolero is firing on all cylinders, either. Contador recognised, too, that the stage 14 time trial and how he will be able to tackle that is now beginning to loom large in his thoughts.
"I hope I'm much better for the time trial because otherwise it could be hard indeed. I like to ride time trials with my arms close together and we will have to do a test. Maybe I will have to change my position on the bike. Yesterday [Friday] I was already beginning to count exactly how many days away we were from the time trial, and I hope can recover in time."
Does pain make cycling great? Contador was asked. And he replied that halfway through yesterday's [Friday’s] interminably long stage, he had been wondering about a similar kind of question. "I'd done four hours on the bike, and there were around four hours left to ride. And I suddenly thought to myself, 'this is what cycling is all about.'"
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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