Although it has long been held that it is a no-no to attack the race leader when he has suffered a crash or another misfortune, Alberto Contador favoured diplomacy over criticism in the aftermath of Tuesday’s 16th stage of the Giro d’Italia.
Perhaps holding back because of his own attack on then-Tour de France race leader Andy Schleck in the 2010 Tour, a surge which at the time Contador explained away by saying he didn’t realise Schleck had dropped his chain, the Spaniard declined to blast the Astana team.
It and Katusha accelerated after Contador suffered a rear wheel puncture on the descent of the Aprica climb during Tuesday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia. The acceleration put Contador and his Tinkoff-Saxo team under real pressure and ensured that he started the Mortirolo ascent almost a minute behind his main rival Fabio Aru (Astana) and under real pressure.
“Cycling isn’t mathematics,” said Contador, showing restraint. “I had a puncture on the descent, Ivan Basso gave me a wheel because he has the same gear as me, but ahead they were going at full speed, and it was impossible to close the gap immediately.
“On Mortirolo I was focused on keeping my speed, it was like a time trial, I couldn’t lose the morale and I had to keep calm and focus on the road ahead”.
His coach and directeur sportif Steven de Jongh was also diplomatic in his reactions to what had happened.
“It was quite tense when Alberto and the guys were 55 seconds behind before Mortirolo,” he stated. “At some point we realized that at front they weren’t waiting for the pink jersey. Then, of course, you try to motivate the team to bring Alberto into a good position ahead of Mortirolo, and in the end Alberto did an unbelievable climb.
“He did the climb 2’40” faster than Aru. In one sentence; Alberto did a hell of a climb.”
The team’s owner Oleg Tinkof was much less guarded in what he said. Speaking after the stage, he reportedly said that he would not sign any Katusha or Astana riders to his team in the future.
The Tinkoff-Saxo team’s tactics were questioned in the opening week of the race when, even before Contador took the lead on stage five, it did much of the work in controlling the bunch.
Many see this as a contributing factor for its weakness now when compared to the Astana team.
However De Jongh won’t accept this.
“The boys did a great ride both before and immediately after the puncture and they can be really proud of themselves,” he said. “Anybody who is criticizing the team here at the Giro should take a look at the entire race and analyse each stage – from the start of each day. I can only say that I’m very proud of them.”
Team-mate Michael Rogers also defended the way the team has been racing.
“It’s not over until it’s over. I think it was a great performance of the team and I see that there has been criticism by people outside that we can’t support Alberto on the climbs,” he said. “But tell me any team that could have done what we did today to get him back within striking position before Mortirolo. Then, certainly, Alberto brought it on and turned a negative situation into a positive one and even extended his lead.”
Rogers added that he burned up a lot of energy in trying to enable Contador to return. Consequently, he wasn’t present on the Mortirolo, with Contador needing to benefit from favours from riders on rival teams to get any help.
However Rogers insisted that it was never the team’s plan that he would be there to help Contador on the climb.
“If it hadn’t been us chasing in the valley, we would have been at the front setting the tempo for Alberto before the climb to put him into a good position,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re still here, still fighting and we still have the pink jersey and we’re going to keep fighting all the way.”
Contador is now four minutes and two seconds ahead of Mikel Landa, Aru’s team-mate, who jumps up to second place after his stage victory Tuesday.
He replaces Aru as Contador’s closest challenger; the Italian drifts back to third, and is four minutes 52 seconds in arrears.
He said he’s content with how things have ended up, although he admits that he hoped that the LottoNL-Jumbo rider who did much of the driving would hit the line first.
“It was hard for me on the final part, but I’m very happy with the time gaps now. I would have liked to help Steven Kruijswijk, but it was not to be,” he said.
Still, he made clear he wasn’t criticising the rider who did win the stage. “To Mikel Landa, I can only say: chapeau. Kruijswijk deserved the win but in cycling everybody has their interests and I respect that.”
Once again he refrained from criticising the Astana tactics. It remains to be seen if Tinkoff-Saxo will however extract its own revenge in the days ahead. Perhaps that would come if Landa or Aru encounter any problems themselves; perhaps, give the Kazakh team’s desire to win the race outright, taking the Maglia Rosa to the finish on Sunday would be the only point it needs to make.