Contador proves tough under Di Luca's pressure

Kiryienka rides free from escape on Presolana as GC tightens behind

Alberto Contador of Team Astana is proving to be a worthy holder of the Giro d'Italia's race leader's maglia rosa, holding the favourites in check today on the 238-kilometre stage from Legnano to Monte Pora. The 25 year-old Spaniard managed the gap gained by Italy's Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes) thanks to a lethal attack on the descent of the Passo del Vivione. Over the following 55 kilometres to the finish, the 2007 winner held the virtual race lead, but Contador closed the gap back down to 1'46" to keep the race lead.

Italy's Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) tried his own attack on the finale up Monte Pora, distancing Contador to move closer to the race overall lead, gaining 37 seconds. Contador now holds the lead by four seconds to Riccò and 25 seconds to Di Luca.

"The team worked very well, they deserved a ten," said an exhausted Contador. "Compliments to Riccò and Di Luca, they have made this Giro very interesting. I will continue to say what I said yesterday, I will not be afraid of anyone. I came here to do one week, I have kept the maglia rosa and I am not going to obsess over Di Luca or Riccò."

Belarus's Vasil Kiryienka took his biggest professional win to date. The 26 year-old of Tinkoff Credit Systems attacked from the day's escape seven-man group at the base of the Passo della Presolana to finish solo with 4'36" over Di Luca. Alexander Efimkin (Quick Step) and Steve Cummings (Barloworld), both part of the original escape, finished third and fourth.

"I said before the Giro that I would try three times and today was the third time," Kiryienka explained. "Thanks to my team, my DSs. I am very satisfied."

The classification battle continued after the stage when Riccò fired off at CSF Group. "Vaffancullo," he let out after hearing he did not take the race lead from Contador. 'The Cobra' put down the hammer on the Monte Pora with four kilometres remaining in the stage. He gapped Contador and Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) and threatened the race overall's lead, while Di Luca rode solo ahead. Riccò finished fifth and Sella came home next, leading the Contador group with Pellizotti, Van den Broeck, Bruseghin, Menchov and Pozzovivo.

While Riccò marched solo, Contador found his feet and an ally in the form of Sella, who was riding to distance a weakened Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni).

"I was upset because something did not did not allow me to get in my 53 [gear], I had to do the finale in the 39," Riccò explained of the final kilometres. He then fired off at the tactics behind. "In the end, Contador always finds someone to help... we saw Sella and Pozzovivo [both of CSF Group]. They should have stayed on the wheel and let him pull, but maybe their DS told to them to pull," Riccò blasted.

He then aimed directly at Contador, saying, "Someone said that he is stronger on the climbs, but I don't know. I think that I have dropped him on every summit finish so far." On tomorrow's final day in the mountains, he added, "I hope Panaria [CSF Group] does not pull from behind."

Sella, who moved from eighth to seventh, was not impressed with Riccò's war of words. He responded, "I did not expect this from Riccò. I tried to attack for the classification; I saw that Simoni was gapped and so maybe I had a chance at the podium. I have to ask Riccò if he thinks he win the Giro.

"Riccò causes his problems; I want to ride my race. It was hard for me to win the stage today, and I tried to move up in the classification. I think that Riccò made a mistake to cause these problems, like always."

Di Luca left Monte Pora the most satisfied. The 32 year-old from Pescara worked with his team-mate Paolo Savoldelli on the soaked roads off the top of the Passo del Vivione, while Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) hitched a ride. In the 1000 vertical metres of descending, Di Luca gained about 1'12" on Contador. Savoldelli's muscle work paved the way for 'The Killer' to continue his fight solo on the Passo della Presolana and Monte Pora.

"No one will talk of alliances now," Di Luca noted of LPR Brakes' power in the race's tail end. Savoldelli and Di Luca were aided by team-mate Giairo Ermeti, who dropped back from the escape to lend a hand. "I have to say thanks to 'Falco' Savoldelli. I started it and he joined me; we asked for Giairo to help."

Thanks to the time gains, Di Luca now looks like a contender for the overall victory in Milano. However, 'The Killer' will have to strike his prey tomorrow because Contador is the better time trialer on paper and the race ends with a 28.5-kilometre timed test. "I said the Giro does not finish until Milano," Di Luca continued with confidence. "Tomorrow, is another tappone and Sunday is the time trial. It is important not to doubt Di Luca because Di Luca never gives up."

Di Luca will hope to gain the leader's top on tomorrow's 224-kilometre stage, which includes the Passo di Gavia and the Passo del Mortirolo before finishing in Tirano. "They said at one point I was in the maglia rosa, but it was not a day to take the jersey but to leave a sign. The Giro is still open."

Simoni suffered from the cold, according to Diquigiovanni Team Manager Gianni Savio. The two-time Giro d'Italia champion dropped out of the classification battle from third to tenth.

How it unfolded

With Julian Dean opting to not start the day, there were 145 riders that gathered under sunny skies in Legnano. The start was early, at 10:46, with the riders facing 238 kilometres and three major mountains.

The pace did not start out easy, despite the fact that the race would be hard and mountainous. Attacks and counterattacks kept the pace at 50km/h for the first hour. Eventually, after the brisk hour long warmup, the break of the day was established and the peloton could breathe a sigh of relief. Alexander Efimkin (Quick Step), Steven Cummings (Barloworld), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Team High Road), Gabriele Missaglia (Serramenti PVC), Nicki Sørensen (Team CSC), Giairo Ermeti (LPR Brakes) and Vasili Kiryienka (Tinkoff Credit Systems) made up the group, but were not given the lead on a silver platter.

In the beginning, the seven men had to work hard for the gap, battling for a couple of dozen seconds ahead of the field. An attempt from 50% of the remaining Gerolsteiner team, in the form of Sven Krauss, to bridge up was not successful. Eventually the elastic snapped and the leaders were able to extend their advantage, and by Trescore at kilometre 81, it was already 14 minutes.

The maximum gap was reached before the feed zone in Costa Volpino. As the leaders headed from the flat roads toward the massive Passo del Vivione, their gap was 21 minutes. The Expo sprint at kilometre 120 was taken by Efimkin ahead of Kiryienka and Sioutsu. As the roads gradually started to tilt upward, the leaders lost their advantage slowly. At the base of the climb, they had 19'45, and already Missaglia struggled a bit, but got back on, as the relentless rain took the riders' energy.

In the main group, an attack by Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio (CSF Group Navigare) was followed by team-mate Emanuele Sella and Astana rider Antonio Colom. But Sella was too dangerous to let go and they were quickly reeled in.

In the front group, Cummings, Missaglia and Siutsou started to have trouble before the GPM was reached. Ermeti, Efimkin, Kiryienka and Nicki Sørensen continued together, but at the bottom of the descent the seven had regrouped. Over the top of the Vivione, the main group was 16 minutes back and was already thinned a lot, with the main chasing group about 40 strong. Bettini had struggled over the climb, but was able to catch back on in the descent.

Then there two attacks: One at the front, where Efimkin tried to make a difference, the other in the group of favourites, where Paolo Savoldelli and Danilo Di Luca of the LPR Brakes went away on the wet descent with Liquigas rider Vincenzo Nibali in tow. Astana was chasing behind and things looked in control for the team leader.

Efimkin in the front got caught by Ermeti, Cummings, Sørensen and Kiryienka. With 35km to go, the lead of the Di Luca group was already a minute and things started to not look so much in control for Astana anymore. Contador still had Colom and Klöden as helpers, but the gap kept extending.

Kiryienka started to have some technical problems with his bike and had to go to the team car several times.

Behind, the gap of the Di Luca group had gone out to 1'25, but then it was slowly brought back and with 25km to go for the trio, it was back down to 53 seconds. The pace in the chase group was so hot that Gilberto Simoni lost contact. However, Di Luca took Savoldelli aside and talked to him intensively. That made il Falco pedal even harder, not even noticing the banners that his mom had put up on her house next to today's course.

The pep talk did its trick and the gap started to increase again. The LPR due then gained the services of Ermeti, who had dropped back from the front group. Simoni managed to re-enter the Contador group. Others also came back and the size swelled to 14 again.

On the climb up the Passo della Presolana, with less than 15km to go, Kiryienka attacked and the others couldn't follow.

Di Luca and his team-mates extended their lead to the pink jersey group to 1'45, at which point both Savoldelli and Ermeti got tired and dropped back. Di Luca now had to do it himself, with Nibali obviously not contributing to the work.

11km before the finish, Di Luca dropped Nibali, with the Contador group now over two minutes back and the Giro in the process of going upside down. Simoni lost contact again, this time for good.

Nibali tried to mount a comeback, but Di Luca was too fast. On the front, Kiryienka looked good and got to the finish by himself, celebrating a well-deserved victory. Behind, the man possessed, Di Luca, passed both Efimkin and Cummings to get second.

Contador had enough of losing time and with six kilometres to go attacked. The group thinned again, but all the main contenders – Riccò, Bruseghin, Pellizotti, Van Den Broeck, Menchov, Sella – were fighting back. As they regrouped, Sella went on the left hand side of the road. When he was caught, Riccò jumped, and opened up a gap on the maglia rosa. With his lead under threat from the Saunier Duval rider, Contador was in danger of losing the Giro as Sella again tried to attack, but could not shake the Astana rider.

The chasing group came to the finish together, with Sella, Pellizotti, Van Den Broeck, Bruseghin, Menchov, Pozzovivo and Contador all finishing 37 seconds behind Riccò and 1'45 behind Di Luca, which was good enough for Contador to hold on to the pink jersey by a slim four seconds over Riccó.

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