He’s never given up a Grand Tour race leader’s jersey after taking it in a Grand Tour, but then again he’s never taken one so early; just five days into the Giro d’Italia, Alberto Contador seized control and took the pressure of wearing pink onto his shoulders on Wednesday with a strong ride on the first summit finish.
Poised in fourth place overall before the stage thanks to his Tinkoff-Saxo team’s strong ride in the opening race against the clock on Saturday, Contador threw down the gauntlet when he attacked the other GC favourites on the final climb to Abetone.
He made a violent acceleration with more than five kilometres remaining and instantly got a gap. Initially only Fabio Aru (Astana) and Richie Porte (Sky) weres strong enough to respond, gradually clawing their way back up to the Spaniard, but afterwards Aru’s team-mate Mikel Landa also joined.
This proved fortuitous for the small break as Landa rode hard to distance those dropped behind, amongst whom was the 2013 and 2014 runner-up Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep).
The three GC favourites fired off a couple of attacks against each other but these were contained and the trio arrived together at the summit, where Aru made use of the curves of the road to hold off Contador’s bid to take third on the stage and, with it, the final time bonus.
While the Italian took that, Contador had enough in hand to end the day two seconds clear of him and in the Maglia Rosa.
“I didn’t think I’d have the pink jersey so early in the race, as the main objective is to wear it in Milan at the final stage of the Giro,” said Contador. “This is just a taste of what is to come, as the race is just getting started.
“Of course I’m really happy to be in the pink jersey because everybody knows how much I like the Giro d’Italia and how big an experience this jersey is…also for me. We might not try too hard to keep it, for now, but it will be up to the others to take it away from me.”
Although Contador has that track record of defending the lead once he has taken it, he has said more than once since the end of the stage that he is not fixated on keeping it. He knows that the race is a long one, and also that other squads – Astana in particular – are showing signs that they are very strong.
In addition to that, he is trying to take an extremely rare Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double and is conscious that conserving energy – both for himself and his team – is important in boosting the chances of that dual goal.
Of course Contador won’t willingly hand over pink to Aru or Porte, nor indeed to any other potential winners. However if a break goes clear and a rider who is not a serious threat is part of the move, then the team may look to hand over the Maglia Rosa then.
According to Contador, the main aim on Wednesday was not to leap to the top of the overall standings, but rather to take time out of Uran and the other faltering GC contenders.
“I took the decision to attack on the final climb to test my rivals,” he explained. “I didn’t feel super, but the result and outcome was positive and by the end of the climb I felt as if I had good legs.
“We’ve distanced Uran but I also saw that Porte and Aru are in good shape.”
Unlike the Spaniard, who has taken six Grand Tours, neither of the latter two have thus far won a three week race. Porte’s best finish is seventh in the 2010 Giro, a result he achieved partially due to gaining time in a big breakaway.
Since then his results include 19th and 23rd in the 2013 and 2014 Tours de France, although his personal chances in the former were limited by his riding for team-mate Chris Froome, and in the latter by illness.
As for Aru, he was third in last year’s Giro and then fifth in the Vuelta a España.
Contador was asked which of the two he considered the most dangerous. “Astana,” he answered with a laugh, then was a little more specific. “I think both of them. Aru, especially, as a climber, although in the time trial that is approaching, he’ll have to take his chances. Richie, because the time trial plays to his strengths.
“Compared with when he was my team-mate, he’s much more mature, experienced and skinny,” he continued. “And he’s a better time traillist now. But the Giro d’Italia so far has just been an aperitif. The race has only just started. It’s surprising that Urán has lost so much time in so few stages but there is a lot of Giro d’Italia to come and anything can still happen.”