Contador one step closer to pink dream

Sella launches on Passo del Mortirolo to win third stage

Spain's Alberto Contador moved one step closer to winning the 91st Giro d'Italia's overall classification by defending his slim lead on the race's penultimate day – 232 kilometres of racing over the Passo di Gavia and Passo del Mortirolo to finish in Tirano. The 25-year-old of Astana controlled attacks by Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) on the Mortirolo, while 2007 race winner Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes) fell out of third place overall.

Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) stomped away at the base of the day's final climb, Aprica. The 27 year-old Italian held off the chase of Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) to top the climb, and rode solo to the finish in Tirano 16 kilometres later. Spaniard Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) escaped from the group of race leader Contador to collect third and the remaining time bonus on offer.

"I am without words," Sella stated in Tirano's Piazza Marinoni. "Again my team showed well. The emotions are so high for me. I think that today I did something grande."

Simoni made a last ditch effort in what could very well be his last Giro d'Italia. The winner of the 2001 and 2003 editions had a terrible day on Friday, losing over twelve minutes and plummeting down the overall standings, and was keen to make up for it with a stage win. But he was caught out when Sella attacked on the Aprica, and though Simoni launched a courageous chase, he was no match to the younger Sella, who held 1'10" over the top and another 30 seconds to Contador's group.

"I tried, I made a mistake," Simoni explained. "I thought, 'Sella is untouchable.' I was already tired on Mortirolo and it was a hope of mine that I could re-join [with Sella]. He kept going stronger and stronger." Simoni closed to within a minute of Sella on the descent to Tirano, but had to settle for second ahead of the battle of the GC favourites.

Behind the two leaders, the war between Contador and Riccò was in full swing. Unable to distance Contador on the climbs, Riccò put in a strong sprint to try and open a gap, but the Spaniard held fast and finished on his wheel, leaving the Saunier Duval rider to remain at four seconds behind in the overall classification. Thanks to Di Luca's bad day, Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) moved into third overall, at two minutes behind Contador.

The stage is now set for a time trial showdown between Riccò and Contador that is a bit reminiscent of last year's penultimate Tour de France stage, where Contador was able to fend off the charge of Cadel Evans and his own team-mate Levi Leipheimer. The 28.5-kilometre time trail in Milan may not be long enough for a specialist like Bruseghin to take out two minutes, but Contador is not leaving anything to chance."I will go and preview the course tomorrow," explained Contador. "I want to win the maglia rosa and it would be nice to also win the stage. However, the first objective is the jersey."

Any weaknesses that Contador showed Friday on the stage to Monte Pora were forgotten about today. In fact, the two riders that were attacking only 24 hours earlier – Di Luca and Riccò – were silenced today, while Contador seemed to be handling the tough gradients of the Mortirolo with agility.

'The Killer' Di Luca was looking more like the prey today as he had lost a whopping 2'08" by the top of the 12.8-kilometre Mortirolo. Though he recovered some time heading to the Aprica when he joined forces with Russia's Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), he slipped four spots back in the classification and is now 4'18" behind Contador.

"Yesterday, I did quite a few kilometres in the escape and I felt it today," Di Luca admitted. "I tried up to the end and this is important. I am not like I was last year for sure. I tired this year and I will definitely try again next year."

Riccò struggled to unleash the same venom on the bike that he dished out with his stinging attack on Monte Pora on Friday, and the Cobra's bite was ineffectual as his small attacks amounted to nothing. He poured his poison into his words after the stage; "If I had a big team like Contador I would have been in the pink," declared Riccò. "The Giro will finish tomorrow, but it is not over yet. He is definitely stronger in the crono than me."

The final blow to Riccò came when he lost his best chance at wearing the race leader's jersey. While the time bonuses for first and second were locked down by Sella and Simoni, Rodríguez slipped away to take the eight bonus seconds for third. Did the Spanish stage a coup in Italy?

Astana played its cards well today by having Antonio Colom in the day's escape. He was the only rider left of an earlier breakaway by the top of the Mortirolo, and was able to drop back and help his captain for the Aprica. And surely at the top of the 15.4-kilometre climb, which last played host to a Basso/Simoni brawl, Contador could see Milano on the horizon.

The only chink in the Astana armour today came with the abandon of Andreas Klöden at the day's midway point. The German rider had a fever last night and is suffering from what is said to be a respiratory tract infection.

The sprint for fourth place in the gruppo maglia rosa appeared as dangerous as a mass-sprint for a moment. Belgium's Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto) hit the rear derailleur of Domenico Pozzovivo (CSF Group Navigare) and came down, roughing up his left leg.

How it unfolded

The last mountain stage started under sunny skies, but with 224 kilometres to race it was another early wake-up call for the remaining 143 riders. Mickaël Chérel (Française des Jeux) and Dionisio Galparsoro Martínez (Euskaltel - Euskadi) were the two non-starters of the day.

The peloton stayed together for the first two hours, ridden at an average speed of 33.6km/h. It took until km 70 to get the first attack of the day, when Gabriele Bosisio of the LPR Brakes team took a flyer. Astana kept things at bay, though, with the maximum lead for the Italian being just 26 seconds. Despite being joined by several others, Bosisio was caught again after his 17-kilometre escape.

But that got the ball rolling and a flurry of attacks and counters followed. Eventually, after 100km, it was a trio with Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio (CSF Group Navigare), José Rujano Guillen (Caisse d'Epargne) and Evgeny Petrov (Tinkoff Credit Systems), while behind a five-man group was chasing - Alessandro Spezialetti (LPR Brakes), Antonio Colom Mas (Astana), Félix Rafael Cárdenas Ravalo (Barloworld), Fortunato Baliani (CSF Group Navigare) and Charles Wegelius (Liquigas).

At kilometre 105, Astana received some bad news as Andreas Klöden had to abandon. He had been sick for a week already and his team was amazed at how well he did until now, but it meant Contador lost a valuable helper. Cuapio didn't care, as he attacked the break in the hope of reaching the Gavia summit alone.

At km 106 as the rain started to fall, Cuapio had 25 seconds on Rujano, 45 seconds on a group with Petrov, Colom and Baliani and 1'07 on Wegelius, Cárdenas and Seeldraeyers. The peloton was 1'30 behind.

Cuapio extended his lead over Rujano to 35 seconds, while Seeldraeyers dropped back to the peloton, which, three kilometres from the top of the Gavia, had already lost 3'45. Rujano eventually dropped back to the trio behind, with the gap extending to 1'18. Cárdenas and Wegelius were struggling up the mountain some two minutes behind the leader, with the weather bad and the snow piling up on the side of the road.

Cuapio crested the Cima Coppi and stopped at the top to put on his rain jacket for the foggy, cold descent. Baliani and Colom had dropped Rujano and Petrov. They were only 30 seconds behind Cuapio over the top and caught him on the descent, after 128 kilometres had been covered. Petrov followed 48 seconds behind, while Cárdenas and Rujano now rode together, 2'05 off the pace. Wegelius was chasing a further 25 seconds back.

The maglia rosa group went over the top 4'54 later and with 100km left to race the gap was at 5'15.

At km 132, the sprint in the ski resort of Bormio was waiting. At 1222m, it was the highest intermediate sprint of this year's Giro. Cuapio went over the line in first, ahead of Baliani and Colom. Petrov was 2'30 back, Cárdenas and Wegelius 3'12 and Rujano was dangling between the two groups. The Contador group crossed the sprint line in Bormio six minutes later.

There were now three distinct groups, with Cuapio, Baliani and Colom leading Petrov, Cárdenas, Wegelius and Rujano by 3'35 and the group of favourites at 5'20. The Wegelius group eventually realised they weren't getting anywhere and after 153km their escape was nullified. As the riders made their way down, the lead came down to 4'00.

The climb to the Mortirolo started in Mazzo in Valtellina, at km 162 and Cuapio had trouble almost immediately. In the main field, it was LPR Brakes and PVC Diquigiovanni who set the tempo, trying to set up their captains Simoni and Di Luca for the race winning move.

On the lower slopes of the Mortirolo, where weather conditions were much better than on the Gavia, the group of favourites began to dwindle. Paolo Savoldelli lost contact, but all the top 10 contenders were still there.

The gap was still 3'07 to the leading duo, when Simoni used the steepest parts, ranging between 15 and 18 percent in the first four kilometres to launch an attack. But he was immediately brought back by Riccò and Contador. Next to try was Sella and he and Riccò did a little mano-a-mano, extending their war of words from the previous day. The attacking shelled many riders, but the core group of favourites was still together.

Two kilometres from the top, Colom was by himself as Baliani couldn't follow the pace anymore. Cuapio was still dangling ahead of the Contador group, which now had become very small. Some of the riders getting dropped included Bruseghin, Pellizotti, Di Luca and Van den Broeck. Left in the front were Alberto Contador (Astana), Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval - Scott), Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Joaquin Rodriguez (Caisse d'Epargne), Domenico Pozzovivo (CSF Group Navigare) and Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli).

Colom crested the top 15 seconds ahead of Baliani and 2'00 minutes before Cuapio. The group of favourites came by 38 seconds later, with Cuapio gobbled up shortly after. Bruseghin and Van den Broeck were 1'04 back, Pellizotti and Tadej Valjavec 1'21 and Di Luca was riding alone over two minutes behind.

Pellizotti dropped Valjavec with a mad descent and caught the group of favourites, as well as Van den Broeck and Bruseghin. At the bottom of the descent Karpets caught up with Di Luca, and initially they regained some ground on the maglia rosa group. But as the favourites' group gobbled up lone leader Colom, they were now 12 strong and the Russian-Italian duo fell further and further behind.

Up front, Sella was the first to attack with 32km remaining. Simoni went soon after him, but Contador didn't care and the two Italians continued their pursuit up to Aprica. Sella had the upper hand and at the top he was over a minute clear of Simoni and 1'37 in front of the chasers. Di Luca and Karpets followed at 4'15.

The rest was just an easy descent into Tirano, with Sella holding the front and Simoni coming in second. Spanish champ Rodriguez escaped on the descent to snag the final time bonus and Riccò sprinted home ahead of Contador in fourth place. A crash between Van den Broeck and Pozzovivo 60 metres from the line saw both men hit the deck but escape without injury.

Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*

Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets

After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59

Join now for unlimited access

Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1