As microcosms of this Giro d'Italia go, it was hard to beat. No fewer than five Astana riders led the pink jersey group as it sped towards the base of the climb to Madonna di Campiglio at the end of stage 15, while overall leader Alberto Contador found himself without a single Tinkoff-Saxo teammate for company.
Advantage Fabio Aru? Not exactly. Moments later, as they approached the intermediate sprint at Pinzolo, Contador simply zipped off the front and helped himself to a two-second bonus before easing back into the group. The Astana quintet looked on, at a loss, perhaps, about how to deal with a man whose default setting is defiance.
It was a similar refrain on the climb to the finish, where Contador parried the attacks of Aru and Mikel Landa in the final three kilometres, and even unleashed a testing combination of his own for good measure. He was ultimately content to let Landa slip away for the stage victory, while he outsprinted Aru for third place and another four seconds in bonuses to extend his lead to 2:35 over the Sardinian.
"In the final sprint, you always want to pick up a bonus if you can, especially as it doesn't use up energy that might cost you later in the race," Contador said. "Clearly everyone would like to win a stage of the Giro, especially in a legendary place like Madonna di Campiglio. But it was a complicated climb today, there were a lot of Astana riders in the front group, and the gradients weren't very steep for much of the climb. Landa was incredible, too, so it wasn't easy."
Rather than straining to land a knock-out blow, Contador's careful approach would have Floyd Mayweather nodding in approval. Already a clear leader on the scorecard, the Spaniard seems content to keep landing jabs here and there as he runs out the clock on this Giro, particularly with the most lucrative prize fight of all, the Tour de France, still to come in July.
"I need to analyse every stage, there might be days where I could attack rather than defend, if my legs allow," Contador said of a final week that includes the tappone over the Mortirolo as well as summit finishes at Cervinia and Sestriere.
The television images suggested that Landa's volley accelerations in the finale had been more exacting than Aru's lone attack, and Contador confirmed that impression when he arrived in the press room to speak to reporters after the stage. After Astana had led all the way up the climb, Landa accelerated with three kilometres remaining and only Contador could immediately track him. Aru later bridged across, but his own attack a kilometre later failed to trouble either man.
"Landa was stronger than Aru, I think we saw that today," Contador said, though he was cautious about declaring that his fellow countryman – now fourth at 4:46 – might prove the greater threat from the Astana camp over the final six stages.
"You never know. Maybe he showed today that he had more than Aru alright. Aru was on the limit after his attack, but then you don't know if things will be the same as that in the days ahead."
Contador was diplomatic, too, when asked about the performance of his Tinkoff-Saxo team, who left him completely isolated on the final climb. There was mitigation for Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger, whose pursuit on the tricky descent of the Passo Daone was hindered by Darwin Atampuma's crash, but others were conspicuous by their absence.
"This is a long Giro and everybody has good days and less good days," Contador said. "But I'm not worried, I'm happy, I have good sensations."
No Grand Tour triple
With Aru the only man within four minutes of Contador as the race reaches it second rest day, the Spaniard must feel well on his way to the first leg of his Giro-Tour double. Indeed, Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli – who was behind the wheel when Contador won the 2010 Tour, a victory later revoked due to his positive test for Clenbuterol – reckoned that the Spaniard could even think about landing all three Grand Tours in 2015.
"I think he's very optimistic," Contador smiled. "It's easy to talk but I've been riding Grand Tours for a long time and I know how hard it is to do just one, let alone three. There's not a lot of time to recover between them. I'll give everything to win the Giro and then I'll rest up and prepare for the Tour. The energy you use up in a Grand Tour is mental as well as physical."
Contador had a word, too, for the late Marco Pantani, whose name is so indelibly linked with Madonna di Campiglio. It was here, of course, that Pantani was excluded from the 1999 Giro a day short of overall victory after his haematocrit exceeded the permissible level. The previous afternoon at the ski resort, he had seemed a certain overall winner. Instead, it turned out that Pantani had claimed his last-ever stage win in the race.
"Pantani was an inspiration when I started to get interested in cycling," Contador said. "I'd watch him on television and then I'd get out on my bike and imitate him on the climbs."
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