ALBERTO Contador retained the maglia rosa but stage nine of the Giro d’Italia belonged to the Astana team as Paolo Tiralongo took the stage win and general classification hopeful Fabio Aru stole back another second on Contador.
Tiralongo emerged from an 11-man break to take the victory, pulling clear of Cannondale-Garmin’s Tom Jelte Slagter on the final climb of the day as Astana put their strength in depth to tactical use.
After the remnants of the break, Aru led home an elite group to finish tenth on the day, sprinting over the last few metres to cut his overall deficit to Contador to just three seconds. Team Sky’s Richie Porte remained in close attendance, as did another Astana rider Mikel Landa Meana, who led the quartet up much of the final climb as they worked together to distance Etixx-Quick-Step rider Rigoberto Uran, who lost 46 seconds as he finished in the main pack.
Contador, riding with a dislocated shoulder after a crash on stage six, will go into today’s rest day with a slim lead, while Astana have three riders in the top five of the standings.
Aru sits on the heels of the Spaniard, with Porte third, 22 seconds back. Landa Meana is 46 seconds back and Dario Cataldo 76 seconds down in fourth and fifth respectively, providing Astana with plenty of options going into the second week.
When the squads were named for this year’s Giro, Astana – whose season had been under a cloud until the threat of having their racing licence revoked was lifted last month – appeared to have placed their priorities elsewhere with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang and Lieuwe Westra absent, but there can be no argument regarding their performance so far. They were able to play an intriguing tactical game as the rolling 215km stage from Benevento to San Giorgio del Sannio provided some fascinating racing.
While Tiralongo positioned himself in a high-powered early breakaway that also included 2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal, Astana kept Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo squad on their toes at the front of the peloton with Cataldo attacking at one point. The break led by as many as five minutes but the group began to splinter on the descent of the second major climb of the day, with Slagter racing clear.
The Dutchman opened up a gap of around 90 seconds on the rest of the breakaway, and looked well placed when Tiralongo’s first attempt to catch him, an attack with around 40km to go, was soon ended by his breakaway companions.
But Tiralongo went again as the road ramped up with 15km to go and soon caught Slagter, before racing clear inside the final five kilometres.
Behind, Aru was the first of the main protagonists to make a move, the 24-year-old Italian attacking at a similar point to Tiralongo. Contador, Porte and Landa Meana swiftly followed and they soon opened up a 30-second gap on the group containing Uran, seen as the other major GC contender in the field.
That gap soon tumbled again as the quartet squabbled over who should do the work on the front, but they got the message and a second attack swiftly distanced Uran.
After Tiralongo crossed the line, LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk followed in second, 21 seconds down, just ahead of Slagter and the main group of remaining breakaway riders. Aru was a little under a minute behind his team-mate, but his late sprint took back one of the four seconds he had been in arrears to Contador, while Porte clung to the Spaniard’s wheel to avoid losing time himself.
• Alex Dowsett secured overall victory at Bayern Rundfahrt as the final stage ended in a sprint finish in Nurnberg.
John Degenkolb took the stage five win after a 197.8 kilometre ride from Hassfurt but Movistar’s Dowsett finished in the main pack to maintain the two-second lead he took with victory in Saturday’s time trial.
The Essex rider’s season began with a fractured collarbone but he broke the Hour Record in Manchester at the start of the month before claiming his first road success of the year here.