Spaniard Alberto Contador tightened his grip on the Giro d’Italia pink jersey with an impressive victory in the 16th-stage mountain time trial, held over 12.7km between Belluno and Nevegal on Tuesday.
The reigning Tour de France champion thus claimed his second stage win of the race, extending his lead in the overall standings to almost 5 minutes over Italian Michele Scarponi in the process.
Liquigas leader Vincenzo Nibali finished second on the stage, 34 seconds down on Saxo Bank leader Contador, with Scarponi finishing third just 4 seconds further back to retain second place.
Having dominated his main rivals in the mountain stages so far, Contador was in no mood to give anyone hope of upsetting his plans for a second Giro triumph, after his maiden victory in 2008.
But the 28-year-old Spaniard said it had not been an easy day in the saddle.
“I really wanted to win this stage, but the first kilometers were hard. I had difficulty finding my rhythm,” Contador said. “Winning [the stage] while wearing the pink jersey was extraordinary, like on the Tour de France with the yellow jersey. And the public were really supportive.”
Nibali, who struggled in Sunday’s mammoth seven-and-a-half-hour 15th stage, in which he dropped from second to third overall, looked determined to make amends when he set off.
The Sicilian set the fastest time at the only intermediate time-check, just over 5km into the stage, where Contador was timed in provisional 13th place, 13 seconds behind.
However, that section was on the flat and when the gradient increased significantly Contador went into overdrive.
Italian Marco Pinotti of HTC-Highroad had been the early leader until he was overhauled by veteran former champion Stefano Garzelli.
Colombian Jose Rujano, one of the few riders able to follow Contador in the mountains, then took provisional top spot, finishing 7 seconds quicker than Garzelli.
Nibali then knocked 6 seconds off Rujano’s effort, and when Scarponi couldn’t match his time the chances of any kind of upset evaporated.
“I felt really good today. During my warm-up I realized I had recovered from the fatigue of the previous stages,” Nibali said.
“I thought I did a fairly respectable time trial. It’s just a pity there’s a martian on the race,” he added, referring to Contador.
Scarponi was also quick to pay tribute to the Spaniard.
“Contador showed once again that he’s the strongest,” the Italian said. “I put in a solid effort, but came up a bit short in the final two kilometers when you really had to crank the speed up a notch. But so far, I’m happy with my Giro.”
Yesterday’s 17th stage was to be a 230km slog across the Alps from Feltre to Tirano, but with two medium-sized climbs near the end and a relatively flat finish it was likely to favor a breakaway or a small bunch sprint.
Contador would have to suffer a spectacular collapse in the subsequent two stages in which climbs feature — on stages 19 and 20 — to give his rivals any chance of an upset.
However, the Spaniard is not celebrating yet.
“I’ve got a healthy lead on Scarponi and Nibali, but I’m sure that deep down they still believe in their chances,” he said.