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He’s known for his aggressive racing and desire to dominate events, but Alberto Contador has given a clear indication that he is playing this safe in this Giro d’Italia, holding back in order to be as fresh as possible for the Tour de France.
Sunday’s Madonna Di Campiglio stage of the race saw Contador ride in third on the stage, crossing the finish line five seconds behind Mikel Landa (Astana) and three off Yury Trofimov (Team Katusha).
It was unclear whether he was lacking his usual edge due to his efforts in the previous day’s time trial, or if he was more concerned with his closest challenger Fabio Aru (Astana) rather than the other two riders.
Speaking on the Monday rest day, it appeared that the latter might have been the case. Contador said that measuring out his energy is his big priority, with the Spaniard knowing that he needs to be in top form for the Tour de France.
“Right now, a stage victory is secondary,” he said. “I cannot jeopardize the GC, which is my goal. If it comes, fine, but on the other hand, winning one of the remaining stages would require an effort of more than an hour and I can pay a price for that, not only in view of my program, but also in relations to the last week here at the Giro.”
Contador took the Giro d’Italia in 2011 [a victory he later lost due to his Clenbuterol case from the 2010 Tour de France] and was not at his usual level in the subsequent Tour. That showed him how difficult it is to recover from the Giro in time for the Tour, and so riding slightly conservatively is the best option in terms of his goal of taking the Giro/Tour double.
Despite that stated intention to hold back, Contador finds himself in a very good position heading into the final third of the race. He is two minutes 35 seconds ahead of Aru and four minutes 19 up on third-place rider Andrey Amador (Movistar).
“I didn’t imagine being in this situation with these time differences here before the final week,” he admitted. “I thought I could have the jersey, but also that these stages in last week could be my chance to get the jersey.
“I am happy with this situation and I’m better than I expected, but an important part of the race remains.”
Asked if the gap between them was simply due to a higher physiological level on his part or if his experience also came into it, he said that the two elements were important.
“In the time trial it was the legs, no doubt, but both count,” he answered. “I have already ridden many big Tours and he has less under his belt than me. However, Aru is a great rider, the press will be talking a lot about him and he will do great things in the future.
“He is a hard rider and there is still a week of racing left.”
The race resumes Tuesday with the 174 kilometre stage from Pinzolo to Aprica. The latter is situated atop a summit finish, but a tougher climb comes just before it; the famous Passo del Mortirolo.
Contador has previous experience of it, having defended the Maglia Rosa there seven years ago.
“The first memory I have of the Mortirolo climb is from 2008, when I came to the Giro by chance and at that stage I had to keep the pink jersey with a lead of only four seconds,” he said.
“[Riccardo] Ricco tested me, but I could withstand and I ultimately kept the jersey. In 2011 we didn’t climb it, but last year I did a Granfondo and climbed it again. It is a pass that I like. It’s very hard and you can create the differences. We’ll have to see what happens.”
He said that he would consider the climb a tough one, but that the Zoncolan is likely a more difficult ascent as it doesn’t let up.
Contador’s drive to defend pink will depend on several things; his own condition on Tuesday, luck and tactics, and also the level of his competitors.
He has seemed to be ahead of them thus far, but he won’t take anything for granted.
He has had a chance to see them up close over the past two weeks and has an idea of who are the most dangerous riders in the race.
“There are a number of riders, such as Amador, Trofimov and König, who are fine, besides Astana’s riders, especially Aru and Landa,” he said, detailing those he feels can fight for the podium.
“We have to see what tactics they use to fight for the GC, but it is difficult to make a forecast. Normally, if Landa has some freedom, he will be there, and also Aru, because he’s sitting in second with more than two minutes back to third place.”
One who is missing is Richie Porte, who withdrew from the Giro d’Italia on Monday. He had experienced considerable bad luck in recent days and saw his challenge evaporate as a result of his time losses and injury after a crash.
Some have said his withdrawal means that he is not capable of winning a Grand Tour, but Contador doesn’t see it that way.
“When he is in shape, he is a strong rider on the climbs and in the time trials,” he said. “Maybe [he can take a Grand Tour] in the future, as he’s a good rider in the different disciplines, when he is in shape.
“Why not? Yes, of course he could do that in the future”