Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) moved into fourth overall after surviving a hugely aggressive collective ride by Astana, which shredded the main group and left the Kazakh squad with an impressive numerical superiority at the front during stage 4 of the Giro d'Italia.
But although Astana's relentless wearing down of the peloton put several major names in trouble, including Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep), Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Contador was not amongst them.
It is true that Contador had no teammates in the front group once Michael Rogers, the last of the Tinkoff-Saxo support riders, was dropped at the foot of the final climb of the Biassa. It was a stark contrast to Monday’s stage, when the Russian squad had dominated in difficult, constantly undulating terrain almost from start to finish.
But both Contador and Richie Porte (Sky) responded strongly when Fabio Aru (Astana) attempted to rip up the leading group close the summit of the Biassa. And as the Spaniard pointed out later, with Roman Kreuziger ahead in the daylong mass breakaway and able to drop back if needed - as was not the case - Contador was not as isolated as it might have looked, particularly after the two leading groups merged on the last the climb.
Contador finished ninth in the stage and moved up two spots to fourth overall, with his six-second advantage over Aru intact.
"Kreuziger was in the break and that meant I didn’t need to worry, I knew I would be ok," Contador said after crossing the line. “With that support there, I was ok. The most important thing is that I feel good."
Speaking to Spanish newspaper AS, Contador added, "You could see on tv just how fast we were going. We spent the whole day either climbing or on the descents. I never felt isolated, because I knew I had Kreuziger up ahead. But if you wanted more proof of how fast we were going, you could see that because only a few riders made it across to the break.
"My team did a great job, and I felt good throughout the day, which was the most important thing. I hope I can be in the same kind of shape tomorrow."
Talking later to Eurosport, Contador elaborated by saying "I knew it was going to be a very tough day, and that was the case.
"Astana, in any case, didn’t want any surprises and they were amazing on all sorts of terrain - the flat, descents, climbs. The group of favourites shrank a lot."
Contador confirmed that he had asked Kreuziger to work hard after the leading break and group of contenders had merged in the last 10 kilometres to try and create as big a gap as possible on Urán. The Colombian, reportedly suffering from a cold since the start of the Giro d’Italia, lost 41 seconds.
As the Giro d’Italia heads towards its first summit finish on Wednesday, though, Contador is now the best placed of the overall contenders. But he told reporters, "I’m not obsessed with taking the jersey as soon as possible. You have to take it when the time is right."
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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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