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Giro d’Italia stage 14: All pain, few gain as Antón triumphs on the ascent to Hell

Stage 14: Lienz to Monte Zoncolan, 186km

Despite the omission of the penultimate climb and descent of Monte Crostis, the mighty Zoncolan blew open the Giro d’Italia peloton, meting out punishment to all and welcoming tardy finishers with first rain and then hail at its summit. Igor Antón, who had led last year’s Vuelta a España before crashing out, produced a stunning solo ride to claim a momentous victory, but it was Alberto Contador who tightened his grip on the maglia rosa and put all but three of his rivals into arrears of greater than five minutes. With one-third of the race still to go, it is increasingly looking as if everyone else is battling for second place.

After yesterday’s news was dominated by testimony made by Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie against seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, it was something of a relief to be able to focus on racing again. Shortened to 186km with the exclusion of Monte Crostis in response to ‘sporting concerns’ from UCI commissaires, the route would later be shortened by a further 20km when fans protesting at the late change prevented access to the planned alternative climb, forcing the peloton to move straight on to the Zoncolan.

The day’s breakaway comprised Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Inox), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli), who at one stage held a lead of over ten minutes before a combination of Contador’s Saxo Bank Sungard and Vincenzo Nibali‘s Liquigas-Cannondale teams worked to haul them back in.

The peloton heads out of Austria and on to a date with the Zoncolan (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

The peloton arrived at the foot of the Zoncolan still trailing the break by four minutes, but the gap would tumble rapidly as the road became increasingly vertical and the big guns started to test each other at the front. By the 7km mark, at the start of the steepest section of the climb, the deficit was down to three minutes. Within another kilometre that had halved, and the catch would be completed not long after the 5km flag.

Even the earlier, less severe slopes were enough to start thinning out the chase group as Liquigas tapped out a fierce tempo on the front in pursuit of Brambilla and Tankink, who had by now dropped Rabottini. As the road kicked up at around 7km to go, the chasers numbered no more than 25, while up ahead Tankink had lost touch with Bramnilla, who was slowed to virtually walking pace as he stamped furiously on the pedals to maintain forward momentum.

The first serious attack came from Joaquim Rodríguez, a huge dig which, because of the severity of the slope, looked little more than a mild acceleration. After a brief hesitation, Antón set off after him, forcing Contador to respond and pursue the pair of them. The race leader provided the perfect display of just how strenuous the slope was at this point, as his bike bucked from side to side like a recalcitrant colt under his familiar dancing pedal-strokes. But he bridged the gap to Antón with ominous ease and was then content to sit on his wheel as Michele Scarponi huffed and puffed his way up to make the junction. Behind him, Nibali followed but lacked the power to jump across the gap, while proven form men such as the previous day’s winner José Rujano simply blew up and were forced to find their own pace.

Inch by inch, Antón led Contador up to Rodríguez, with Scarponi joining them soon after to form a foursome. A brief truce was called, presumably as they all caught their breath, before Antón kicked again with 5.6km to go. Scarponi dug deep in an attempt to follow, with a seemingly calm Contador happy to let his compatriot go and use the Italian as a pacemaker. The two provided a marked contrast in styles – Contador rapidly jumping on his pedals in a lower gear while Scarponi hunched over his machine grinding a big gear. The pair’s pace was too much for Rodríguez, who quickly dropped back to the still pursuing Nibali, but soon lost his wheel too as he fell rapidly backwards.

Igor Antón rode to an impressive solo victory on top of the Zoncolan

Antón swept past Tankink and Brambilla – the latter weaving backwards and forwards across the road, barely able to keep his bike pointing in the right direction – into the lead. Scarponi and Contador were still within sight, but behind them Nibali, his face locked in an expression of pain and his eyes sunken and hollowed, was slowly but surely reeling them back in. He finally caught them with just over 4km to go and immediately went over the top of them, conscious of the need to try to put time into the maglia rosa. To no avail, though. Contador simply leapt off the back of the exhausted Scarponi and latched, limpet-like, onto the Liquigas man’s wheel, covering his every move.

Although he did take the odd turn at the front to keep the flagging Scarponi at bay, Contador was largely content to let Antón go and force Nibali to do all the donkey work. This allowed the leader to stretch his advantage out beyond 30 seconds and savour the acclaim of the tifosi at the finish line untroubled. In the final kilometre, Contador finally kicked away from Nibali, and although the Sicilian fought bravely to work his way back up to him, the Spaniard simply kicked once again in demoralising fashion, and this time there was no response. Contador rolled across the line 33 seconds behind the stage winner to a chorus of boos which left him visibly bemused. Nibali was seven ticks further back, meaning he had conceded 11 seconds to the race leader after time bonuses had been taken into account.

The rest of the contenders dribbled across the finish one at a time as rain began to fall. Scarponi was a distant fourth, 1:11 behind, with 2009 overall winner Denis Menchov closing fast ten seconds behind him. Roman Kreuziger, fifth at the start of the day, was 16th, 3:32 down. Fourth-placed David Arroyo was next to finish at 3:39, as the order of the general classification received a major shake-up. In all, 125 riders finished at least ten minutes behind Antón – for their troubles, they were pelted with hailstones at the summit – with Quick Step‘s Kevin Seeldrayers cutting a lonely and dejected as he finished dead last, 27 minutes down and a full 4:31 behind the next slowest man.

Victory moved Antón up from seventh to third overall, and he was delighted to have fulfilled his ambition of a stage win:

This is a mythical climb that I had only seen on TV previously with the wins of some of the greatest riders like Gilberto Simoni and Ivan Basso. It was a risk to attack on that climb. This is absolutely the hardest climb for a bike race. At 5km to go, I suffered a lot and what I was doing at the front was a bit of a gamble. But I wasn’t racing against my rivals, it was a race with myself. I was trying to calculate the distance and the gap, but I managed to stay focused.

He discounted his chances of catching Contador, but said he would aim for a top three placing:

To win the Giro, that’s impossible with Contador so strong. I have a good position in the GC so I will try to defend it now. The podium might be possible, why not?

Contador was pleased with his day’s work:

I’m very, very tired. Igor did well, and me, well I was thinking about the overall standings. Vincenzo (Nibali) had a great ascent. When I kicked before the 1km mark I, above all, sought to gain a few seconds which could be very useful at the finish in Milan. Nibali showed that he’s a very strong rival, to watch in the Giro’s last week.

Nibali said he and his team had done everything they possibly could to win the stage and regain time on the race leader:

I felt great. I know the ascent well and I asked my teammates to work at the foot of the Zoncolan.

During the climb, I asked Contador to take it in turns, to have a bit of a breather, but he didn’t want to and accelerated. I wouldn’t have done as he did but everyone’s free to race their own race. He’s very strong. It’ll be tough to claw back the three minutes he’s up. But the Giro’s not over.

Ultimately, the net result of the stage was that the other contenders all played into the hands of Contador, who wisely chose not to respond immediately to every attack. The maglia rosa used the efforts of others to work his way back up to the front whenever necessary, keeping vital reserves in hand to cover every move and then accelerate away from Nibali in the final kilometre. There was nothing wrong with the others’ tactics, which would have paid dividends if Contador had shown even the slightest hint of weakness, but the fact was he had the measure of everyone and simply rode on the back of every counter-attack to receive a free tow. It will take a major tactical error or a significant reversal of form over the final week to open the door for any of his challengers now.

Tomorrow’s stage – the last before the final rest day – offers the riders no quarter. The gruelling 229km stage 15 to Val di Fassa asks the riders to negotiate five punishing mountains. After the Piancavallo and Forcella Cibiana climbs, the exhausted riders must tackle in quick succession the Passo Giau (at 2,236m this year’s Cima Coppi, the highest point of the race), followed by the Passo Fedaia (13.4km, 7.9%) and finally Val di Fassa. This last climb is only 6.2km long but averages a shattering 10.0% and, sadistically, is at its steepest at the bottom and near the top.

Stage 15 profile

Stage 14 result:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 5:04:26

2. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) +0:33

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:40

4. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +1:11

5. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +1:21

General classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 54:45:45

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:20

3. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:21

4. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +4:06

5. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +5:23

6. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad) +5:37

7. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +6:06

8. Hubert Dupont (AG2R La Mondiale) +6:12

9. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +6:40

10. David Arroyo (Movistar) +6:43

Points classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 117 pts

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) 73

3. Roberto Ferrari (Androni Giocattoli) 70

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 66

5. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 63

Mountains classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 33 pts

2. Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Inox) 27

3. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 24

4. Branislau Samoilau (Movistar) 19

5. Filippo Savini (Colnago-CSF Inox) 18

Links: Giro d’Italia official websiteSteephill.tv

Giro d’Italia recaps

Stage 1: Pinotti swaps red, white and green for pink

Stage 2: Petacchi celebrates, Cavendish remonstrates in ham-fisted Parma finish

Stage 3: Weylandt’s death casts a long shadow

Stage 4: Peloton rides in tribute to Weylandt

Stage 5: Weening takes maglia rosa as Millar bites the dust

Stage 6: Ale-Jet runs out of gas as Ventoso wins uphill drag

Stage 7: De Clercq claims first professional win by a whisker

Stage 8: Gatto gets the cream as Contador shows his claws

Stage 9: Explosive Contador erupts on Etna

Stage 10: No tow required as Cavendish opens Giro account

Stage 11: Gadret times his finish to perfection

Stage 12: Cavendish doubles up and retires from the Giro

Stage 13: Contador’s gift leaves Rujano singing in the rain

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

12 Responses to Giro d’Italia stage 14: All pain, few gain as Antón triumphs on the ascent to Hell

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    So here’s a question: Contador is super strong, let’s say he wins the Giro. Then let’s say he’s cleared to ride the Tour. Do you think that, with the difficulty of the Giro (and assuming that even though he’s 3+mins up on Nibali at the moment, he’s still going to have to ride hard the rest of this week), he would be able to win the Tour as well?

    As the GC contenders for the Tour will be guys who have not ridden the Giro this year – Basso, Schlecks Younger and Elder, Evans, the inevitable dark horse who comes into the mix and surprises everyone – do you think this’ll give the fresher legs/teams an edge or is he really just too strong?

    • Tim says:

      I’d say Contador is the only rider capable of doing the Giro/Tour double, for sure. His rivals’ fresher legs will certainly help level the playing field. I’ve not been overly impressed with Andy’s climbing form at the Tour of California this week, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s on schedule for July or not.

      Ultimately, I think the teams will play a big role. Saxo aren’t as strong as they were before Jens, Fabian etc upped sticks to join Leopard. If Leopard and Liquigas can turn up with strong teams, and if BMC can turn up with any sort of half-decent team at all, then they will be able to take the fight to Contador. My suspicion is that this year’s Giro is so hard – too hard, arguably – that this will persuade Contador to not even try even if he is cleared. But should he ride in France, I would fancy Basso’s chances. You’ve got to figure the CAS hearing would also disrupt Contador’s preparation – surely he won’t be able to ride the Tour de Suisse or the Dauphine in June?

  2. Kitty Fondue says:

    I’d be surprised if he chose to ride either Suisse or Dauphine after the Giro. There’s also our theory that, even if he were cleared, Contador wouldn’t ride the Tour to make sure he doesn’t get on the bad side of the organisers – let the whole thing die down a bit. I’m still inclined to think that, particularly seeing how he’s making such an effort to annihilate the Giro field.

    Fingers crossed that Jens’ broken bones are okay for him to ride the Tour – it wouldn’t be the same without him!

    • Tim says:

      Absolutely. Get well soon, Jens.

      If he is cleared, my money is definitely still on Contador making a big show of respecting the Tour and not competing this year, and then toddling off to the Vuelta to annihilate the field there. I’m still not his biggest fan, but there can be no denying he is a phenomenal rider to watch.

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