In a Giro d'Italia billed locally as a battle between Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador, Paolo Tiralongo was a particularly apposite stage winner at San Giorgio del Sannio on Sunday. Contador's most trusted domestique in his final year at Astana, the 37-year-old has gone on to become Aru's closest adviser since he turned professional at the tail end of 2012.
Tiralongo and Aru are bound by a similar background. The two islanders – Tiralongo hails from Sicily, Aru from Sardinia – both had to exile themselves in northern Italy to further their careers, and they now live close to one another near Bergamo.
In the lead-in to this Giro, they barely left one another's side, spending notably long spells at altitude at Teide and Sestriere together over the spring. Tiralongo turned professional in 2000, when Aru was 9-years-old, and that age difference means that their relationship has something of a father-son dynamic, though he said that they had never once argued during their time together.
"Never, never, never," Tiralongo smiled. "We’ve had discussions in the sense that we've had different opinions on tactics and races. We talk at night before going to bed, all of the team, we have a little meeting on what we could improve, but we never argue. This is a very united group. There are no arguments, we’re here to work."
Tiralongo and Contador, meanwhile, were cast together by circumstance, when they rode together at Astana in 2010, though the friendship has endured long after they parted company. The following year, Contador granted Tiralongo his first professional win at Macugnaga in the 2011 Giro, and the debt was repaid twofold.
First, Tiralongo testified on Contador's behalf when the Court of Arbitration for Sport deliberated on his positive test for Clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour. When Contador returned from suspension in 2012, Tiralongo played a generous role in the ambush at Fuente Dé that helped the Spaniard win the Vuelta a España. As such, Tiralongo is ideally placed to advise Aru in his bid to defeat Contador, but he is aware, too, that there are few chinks in the Spaniard’s armour.
"Finding Alberto's weakness is hard, because he's a tough guy, he showed that by riding as he has done even with his shoulder injury," Tiralongo said. "As a team we'll keep riding on the front, but Fabio will have to do the rest by attacking on the climbs."
Asked if Astana had been so aggressive these past two days specifically to discommode Contador as he recovers from the dislocated shoulder he suffered on Thursday, Tiralongo said: "No, we're attacking because the climbs are our terrain."
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Astana's decision to send Mikel Landa up the road on the final climb to Campitello Matese on stage 8 had been met with some bemusement on Sunday morning by a home press that has been all but willing Aru to make up his four-second deficit on Contador and move into the maglia rosa.
On Sunday, Astana were once again aggressive from the off, delegating Tiralongo to track the day's early break, though the intention, initially at least, was to force Tinkoff-Saxo to work on the front rather than to snare a stage victory.
"We talked about the stage yesterday and we didn't think we made mistakes. We pulled on the front and then we thought Landa could win the stage and he got second, which wasn't bad," Tiralongo said. "The tactics were different today. We wanted to get a man into the break, either me or Diego Rosa. In the end, it was me, though the aim wasn't to win the stage but just to be off the front on Lago Laceno and the final climb so that Fabio could stay on the wheels."
In the finale, shortly before Aru again triggered the attacking from the maglia rosa group, Tiralongo was given the freedom to launch an attack of his own at the front of the race, catching and then passing Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Garmin) after the top of the Passo Serra.
He crossed the line alone to win by 21 seconds and claim the third Giro stage of his career and only his fourth victory in total, following his triumph at the Giro del Trentino two weeks before this race. Without a win in his first eleven seasons as a professional, Tiralongo has enjoyed a remarkable Indian summer to his career, and, thus far at least, Astana’s startling strength in depth has been unmatched.
"The team car gave me the go ahead to go for the win," Tiralongo said. "I heard that Landa and Aru were doing ok behind and they gained time on Rigoberto Uran, which was important. But the big mountains are still to come."