Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) shook his fist in a mix of celebration, satisfaction and determination after pulling on the pink jersey at the end of the marathon stage of the Giro d'Italia to Gardeccia.
Yet again he gained time on all his rivals but admitted it had been the hardest day's racing of his career.
"It was a hard day, really hard," Contador said, struggling to stay on his feet after getting off his bike. "I think it was the hardest stage of my career. We've suffered a lot in the last few days."
Contador finished third on the stage, 1:51 behind Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) but gained 14 seconds on Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and a more significant 1:37 on Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale).
The Italian attacked on the descent of the Passo Giau but Contador again rode a cynical and calculating race, letting Nibali tire himself out with his brave but ultimately futile attack.
"The Liquigas team rode a fast pace on the first climb and that created a big selection," Contador said. "Then the big break went away and so that made the race hard and fast all day. My team worked well, with their heads, but when we got to Giau, the real attacks started from my rivals. I didn’t let Nibali get away with Rodriguez and Arroyo because I knew they would be dangerous together. But when Nibali went I used my head didn't chase him. I knew there was a long way to go and that it wasn't dangerous.
"I climbed the Fedaia very fast but that was more to control things and so stop other people attacking. Then on the Gardeccia I rode it like a time trial, thinking of the GC. I wanted to make as much time as possible.
"People keep saying I've got the Giro sown up but I don’t agree. I would have been happy if I'd been told I'd have these time gaps after two weeks of hard racing but the race is far from over, there is still a long way to go to Milan and there are too many hard stages coming up to say that I’ve won it yet. On this Giro you can't relax for a minute."
Hard, perhaps too hard
Six riders failed to finish the 229km stage and only 166 of the 207 starters are left in the race.
Contador raced for almost seven and a half hours, while the Matt Wilson (Garmin-Cervelo), the last rider to finish and the current lantern rouge of the Giro, rode for 8:12:09.
Contador was asked if three consecutive mountain stages and so much climbing was too much for riders to handle. He suggested that the amount of climbing in a grand tour should perhaps be limited.
"I don’t know if there has to be a limit of the kilometres we race but perhaps there should be a limit of the amount of climbing," he said. "For me this stage was perfect, I gained the most and I'm in good shape after preparing well for the Giro. But ask the other riders who arrived an hour behind me. It was especially tough for them. I'm very happy we've got the rest day. I need to recover from what we did today."
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