The Giro d’Italia had plenty of action including a lively opening week where the main contenders and their teams were already trying to take control of the race. Among the three weeks of action was Stage 16, the Mortirolo stage from Pinzolo to Aprica.
Albert Contador had already taken control of the race and wore the maglia rosa but he used the hardest climb in the race to stick it to Fabio Aru and make a point.
The “Mortirolo Stage” seems the right label because if Aprica might signal mountains to you, the Mortirolo is infamous as one of the hardest climbs in the Alps, 11km at 11% and with a long 18% section. Visit the region and even if you have mountain gearing this climb could still be a long leg-press session, cycling reduced to weight lifting. Many pros opt for 34×29 gearing and the climb proved decisive on the day.
Let’s jump back a moment for context, this was a hard climb coming late into a hard race where the opening week had seen a chorus of cries that this was the hardest start to a grand tour anyone could remember. RCS had made the first week hard on paper with a series of selective stages and the teams exploited this as much as they could. The opening week was a draining fight between the top teams as they turned up the pace early on many stages, shredding the field hours before the finish. Why? Well the terrain played a part, a series of hilly stages and even some minor summit finishes meant time could be won and lost. But some said Astana were on a mission to make life as hard as possible for Alberto Contador in order to sap his chances of the Giro-Tour double, three weeks of mayhem in May would come with a price attached in July.
Into the Alps Alberto Contador had taken over the race lead in the Valdobbiane time trial stage won by Vasil Kiryienka and the next day Contador had engineered a win for compatriot Mikel Landa as he contained Fabio Aru and Yuri Trofimov.
Things livened up on Stage 16 when Contador stopped for a puncture or some other problem with his front wheel. Astana and Katusha were driving the pace. Deliberately? Reports differed but the ex post accounts didn’t matter because in the moment Contador took this personally. He made it back to the bunch just in time for the climb of the Mortirolo and rode through the bunch like a bladed spoke through butter. On the savage slopes of the Mortirolo Contador was in full attack mode and doing his Spanish dancer routine as weaved up the climb. In time he dropped Aru, and Landa was given permission by Astana to follow him, leaving Aru sitting second overall and chasing solo to stay on the podium.
All told this was Alberto Contador at his most aggressive best and attacking his rivals while in the race lead. Perhaps he was provoked by the thoughts of other teams driving the pace while he was stopped by the roadside but it was a gamble to attack such a hard climb so early and then keep going. It’s this kind of display that makes Contador an exciting prospect for the 2016 Tour de France, a lookback at racing in 2015 that promises something for next year.
Hindsight: Contador would later take off on the stage to Verbania, pictured above. While Philippe Gilbert had the result sewn up from a breakaway Contador rode on pride and danced away from the peloton to show Astana he could attack where and when he wanted, something portrayed as revenge for events on the way to Aprica.
Stage 16 was also Mikel Landa’s day, he took the stage after getting permission from the team to follow Contador and leaving his leader Aru to fend for himself. Landa would ride on to finish third overall, three minutes behind on Contador having lost four minutes to him in the Valdobbiane time trial stage. Meanwhile the likes of Steven Kruijswijk, Ryder Hesjedal and Andrey Amador confirmed their form this day on their way to a top-10 finish but were more actors in the race rather than contenders, Amador for example was impressive but never in with a shout of the podium because if he finished fourth there was a five minute gap between him and Landa.
In the space of one climb Contadoe turned the tables on Fabio Aru, chasing him down and then dropping him. Aru never gave up and while left to chase solo he still limited his losses, surrendering two minutes. If he lost the day he gained in popularity as the public like to see a champion suffer and face adversity. In a similar vein Contador’s wobble on the Colle delle Finestre later in the race probably helped the Spaniard conquer hearts and minds in Italy as it showed a fragile side after weeks of crushing domination. Contador’s win the race is worth remembering for the total way in which he ground down his rivals, even turning a crash – which saw him go to hospital and leave with his arm in a sling – into a strong point as his rivals initially secretly prayed he was done for only to see their raised hopes dashed.
The Mortirolo and the wheel change also gave rise to whispers of electric motors in bikes and the idea that if the UCI has been checking bottom brackets then these could be hidden inside the hubs. True or false? If true it would be the scoop of the year. For now it’s one of those bizarre conspiracy theories to which pro cycling has been so conditioned and where the wildest ideas can find fertile ground.