Giro d’Italia: Alberto Contador conquers Etna with all guns blazing
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Giro d’Italia: Alberto Contador conquers Etna with all guns blazing

by Ben Atkins at 11:29 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Giro d'Italia, Race Reports and Results
 
Stage and race lead for Tour champion as the race takes on the volcano

Alberto ContadorAlberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) staked his claim as the strongest rider at this year’s Giro d’Italia with a dominant stage victory in the ninth stage between Messina and Mount Etna. Although everybody was seemingly expecting it, nobody was able to do anything to stop the Tour de France winner from jumping away from the group of favourites with a little under 7km to go; he caught up with earlier attacker Jose Rujano (Androni-Giocattoli-CIPI), then dropped him in the final kilometre and a half to finish alone.

Rujano managed to hold on to take second, with Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) outsprinting a very select group to take third.

After the mixture of sprint and rolling stages of the first week, and the leg stretcher to Montevergine di Mercogliano on Friday, the race finally hit the big mountains with two ascents of Mount Etna, Sicily’s iconic volcano. Despite fears of disruption to the course after a small eruption on Wednesday night, the race went ahead as planned.

Vincenzo “Shark of Messina” Nibali was racing in his own backyard, having grown up with views of Etna from his window, but many other riders had been targeting this prestigious stage.

A fast start but eventually somebody escapes

Inside the first 30km of the stage, as the peloton made its way along the Sicilian east coast, there were several attempts to get away, including one from 2007 race winner Danilo Di Luca (Katusha). None was successful though, with the teams of the race favourites very attentive to every move; such was the pace of the peloton that it completed 49.1km in the first hour of racing.

Finally, after 50km, Filippo Savini (Colnago-CSF Inox) and Jan Bakelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) got clear; they were joined by Mickael Cherel (AG2R La Mondiale), Mathias Frank (BMC Racing), Joan Horrach (Katusha), Alessandro Vanotti (Liquigas-Cannondale), Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) and Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack).

The group of nine riders was deemed to be acceptable to the peloton, surprisingly including Lastras, who was in seventh place overall, just 22 seconds behind race leader Pieter Weening (Rabobank); Bakelandts too was well placed, just 3’30” behind. With the strong Dutch rouleur not expecting to hang on the his pink jersey by the end of the stage though, the orange and blue team decided not to try and defend it. With many of the strongest teams in the race represented, they were allowed to start to build a lead.

With 65km done, as they began the first climb to the Rifuga Citelli on Etna’s northern side, the nine-man group had opened up a lead of 5’05”. Lastras was well and truly in the provisional maglia rosa, but there were many kilometres between the Spaniard and actually taking it after the stage.

The Eagle has the stage in his sights

Behind the break, the peloton was led by the Lampre-ISD team of Michele Scarponi. The “Eagle of Filottrano” had specifically targeted this stage, having spent several days on the climb in reconnaissance over the winter, and he even had super sprinter Alessandro “Ale-Jet” Petacchi working for him on the climb.

With the peloton having a little more than 90km to cover, Maxim Belkov (Vacansoleil-DCM) launched himself off the front of the peloton; the Lampre-ISD team just watched the Russian go as he rode off in an attempt to catch the nine leaders.

Belkov made steady progress over the next two kilometres, closing the almost five minute gap to 3’30”. Lampre-ISD refused to change the pace of the peloton though, although the sprinters at the back were finally beginning to detach in small groups.

Most of the riders had their jerseys unzipped and open wide in the Sicilian heat.

With the nine-man break within 5km of the summit of the climb, Belkov was closing to within two minutes; the peloton was still going steady though, 4’50” behind; Petacchi himself was now leading the Lampre-ISD train. The lone Russian rider continued to close and, with just a kilometre to the top, he was trailing by just 1’30”.

One Etna ascent done, just one to go

Vanotti found himself unable to hold on to the pace set by the other eight riders in the final uphill kilometre; he crossed just a few seconds behind, but could expect to rejoin on the descent. Having lost a little ground in the final, steeper kilometres, Belkov crossed the summit 1’47” behind; Liquigas-Cannondale seized control over the final few hundred metres and led the peloton over 4’23” back.

On the wide, sweeping descent Belkov found himself losing further seconds, as Bakelandts led the front group down the mountain.

Lastras, Popovych, Visconit, Savini and Bakelandts opened up a small lead over the other four, as they found themselves unable to quite match the pace; the gap to Belkov was slipping to two minutes, while the Liquigas-Cannondale led peloton was maintaining its deficit, clearly having no intention of pulling anyone back until the action started on the second ascent of the volcano.

As the lead group passed through the feedzone of Zafferana Etnea though, with 59.4km to go, the nine of them came back together; Belkov was now at 2’05”, with the peloton at 4’18”.

Having reached the foot of the descent, with 47km to go, the nine riders began to cooperate once more, setting about the task of making it around the base of the mountain to the bottom of the final climb. Lampre-ISD had taken control of the peloton once more, with Petacchi back in his unfamiliar position on the front, and seemed to have more urgency now.

With the peloton now strung out behind him, the Ale-Jet led under the 50km to go banner just 3’50” behind the front nine; Belkov was still stuck in between the two groups, but making no progress on the leaders.

The chaser gives up as the peloton eases up again

Now 2’50” down at the intermediate “Traguardo Volante” sprint, Belkov decided to give up and wait for the peloton. Having failed to catch the break before the summit of the climb, the Russian had given himself a near impossible task of making it up to them on the descent alone; he now had to hope that his lone effort had not cost his legs too much when the race reached the foot of Etna for the second time.

With 40km to go the nine riders’ lead bottomed out at 3’46”, and Lampre-ISD allowed it to creep out again once more.

Having set a steady pace for several kilometres, as the peloton climbed through the village of Mascalucia with just under 30km to go, Petacchi pulled off the front and joined the steady stream of riders dropping off the back of the peloton. The actual climb to Etna was not to start for another ten kilometres, but many of the sprinters were looking at forming the gruppetto already.

With 25km to go, the already reduced peloton, now led by Geox-TMC, was 3’47” behind; getting steadily closer as the mountain approached.

The second climb begins, will there be eruptions on Etna today?

Almost as soon as the climb began, with less than 19km remaining, Bakelandts struck out alone, but he was soon marked by the others.

With the gap to the Geox-TMC led peloton now less than three minutes though, the nine leaders were beginning to get edgy. Some of them were there in the break for the benefit of their team leaders later on, while some were there for a shot at personal glory.

Sure enough, with 17km to go, Visconti put in a little dig; he was marked by Bakelandts and the rest, but some of the nine were beginning to struggle a little at the back of the line.

Visconti went again with 15,5km to go and, after he was immediately closed down, Frank counterattacked. He was joined almost immediately by Bakelandts, and the two of them passed under the 15km to go banner together; Visconti wasn’t giving up though, and quickly made his way across, closely followed by Lastras, and all of a sudden the lead group was down from nine to four.

Bakelandts went again almost immediately, opening a small gap, but the others closed him down again; the flurry of attacks was helping to make sure none of the other five could get back up to them, but the Lampre-ISD led peloton was now just 2’30” behind them.

Nine becomes four, then three, then one...

Having failed to drop one another, the four leaders now resolved to work together, to hold off the peloton as long as possible; Horrach and Savini were just 15 seconds behind them and battling to get back up to the front. With just over 12km to go though, Bakelandts went again, and this time he managed to get away.

Frank set off in pursuit of the Belgian, with Visconti trying to hold onto his wheel; Lastras though, was unable to respond.

Having drifted back after being dropped Vanotti was picked up by the peloton; he immediately set to work for his Liquigas-Cannondale captain Visconti, handing over the bottles that he’d picked up from the team car before the 20km cut off point.

As the peloton caught and passed Popovych, one of the riders to be drifting off the back was stage seven winner Bart De Clercq (Omega Pharma-Lotto), conspicuously clad in the green jersey of the mountains competition. Weening was still, apparently comfortable, in he middle of the ever-shrinking peloton; his team having had to do little work to defend his lead so far.

With 10km to go, the three men in the lead now led by just 1’57”, as Weening finally gave up in his quest to hold on to the maglia rosa; the lanky Dutch rouleur almost came to a halt in the road as he was unable to hold onto the increasing pace set by Scarponi’s Lampre-ISD team.

Suddenly the pink jersey felt like a curse, as the TV cameras followed his every suffering.

At just over 9km from the top, the irrepressible Bakelandts went once more and the others had no answer his time. Meanwhile, behind, Rujano shot from the peloton; the Venezuelan, who was the revelation of the 2005 race, opened up a huge gap almost immediately, as Lampre-ISD continued its metronomic pace. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) went after Rujano, but could make little progress as they both passed the now-struggling Lastras.

A lone leader but his number's up as el Pistolero shoots after him

He was well clear of Visconti and Frank by now but, with 7km to go, Bakelandts had the ominous sight of the neutral service car pull in front of him, as the gap to the peloton dropped below a minute.

Not far behind, and with the head of the race in sight, Contador, having tested his legs yesterday, launched one of his ferocious accelerations; the Tour de France champion shot clear of the peloton and the only rider who could respond was Scarponi. The Italian clawed his way up to Contador’s wheel and the two of them made short work of overcoming first Rujano, then Visconti.

Scarponi was left behind with the Italian champion, but Rujano managed to hold onto Contador as the two of them flew past Bakelandts, who was now struggling; they were now the leaders on the road.

Scarponi drifted back to what was left of the peloton, which was now led by Nibali; seeing his chance to take pink disappear up the road though, the next move came from second placed Kanstantin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad).

With just over 5km to go, Contador kicked, but Rujano responded; the two of them were now 33 seconds ahead of Sivtsov and 40 seconds ahead of Scarponi, Nibali, Kreuziger and the others. The Venezuelan either wouldn’t or couldn’t come through to work at the front of the race, but Contador was not looking for any help.

With 3km to go, Contador kicked again, but couldn’t shake Rujano; behind them John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) attacked the group of favourites, as Scarponi struggled to pull him back; the gap between the two leaders and the pursuing group was now almost a minute.

David Arroyo (Movistar) tried to accelerate away from the rest, but his move was not committed enough to get clear.

Alberto ContadorFinally Contador manages to go it alone

With just one and half kilometres to go, with only a few hundred metres of climbing to go before the road levelled out, Contador jumped one last time, and Rujano had to watch him go this time. Almost a minute behind them, Nibali jumped and dropped the rest and set off in search of third on the stage.

Contador sped onto the slightly downhill final kilometre, his speed almost making him overcook a sharp corner with just a few hundred metres to go, to take the victory clear of Rujono; his trademark “pistolero” salute fired with his left hand still holding the bars, such was his exhaustion. Behind them a group of five was led over by Garzelli, outsprinting Nibali on the line.

Having seen off the four riders that were in front of him overnight in typical fashion, Contador pulls on the maglia rosa. The rest will now wonder what they can do to dethrone the Spaniard, who won the 2008 race, and has not been beaten in a Grand Tour since he first took the Tour de France in 2007.

Result stage 9
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-SunGard
2. Jose Rujano (Ven) Androni Giocattoli-CIPI @ 3s
3. Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone @ 50s
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
5. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Astana
6. David Arroyo (Spa) Movistar
7. Kanstantin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad
8. Igor Antón (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 59s
9. John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale @ 1’07”
10. Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale

Standings after stage 9
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-SunGard
2. Kanstantin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad @ 59s
3. Christophe Le Mével (Fra) Garmin-Cervélo @ 1’19”
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale @ 1’21”
5. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre-ISD @ 1’23”
6. David Arroyo (Spa) Movistar @ 1'37"
7. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Astana @ 1'41"
8. Jose Serpa (Col) Androni Giocattoli-CIPI @ 1'47"
9. Dario Cataldo (Ita) Quick Step @ 2'21"
10. Matteo Carrara (Ita) Vacansoleil-DCM

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