Spain’s Alberto Contador kept his hopes of a rare cycling double alive by securing his seventh Grand Tour title with overall victory in the Giro d’Italia on Sunday.
Former track rider Iljo Keisse, a Belgian who rides for EtixxQuickStep, won the final stage from Torino to Milan after outsprinting fellow breakaway rider Luke Durbridge of Australia.
“It’s the biggest win of my career! It’s amazing,” said a visibly shaken Keisse after finishing a tough 98th edition in the best way possible.
But all eyes were on Tinkoff team leader Contador as he maintained his bid to achieve the rare feat of emulating deceased Italian Marco Pantani, the last cyclist to win the Giro and Tour de France in the same year, in 1998.
After three dramatic weeks of racing which saw the retirement of Australian contender Richie Porte (Team Sky), Contador deflected challenges late in the race from Astana pair Fabio Aru and Mikel Landra to finish with a comfortable winning margin.
“I knew it would be a very demanding Giro, but I didn’t think it would be so complicated,” said Contador, who took the race leader’s jersey on stage five before suffering a crash and a dislocated shoulder.
After holding up three fingers on the podium on Saturday, Contador admitted he considers still to be the 2011 champion – a title he was stripped of, along with his 2010 Tour de France crown, after testing positive for clenbuterol.
“People watching on TV, the riders, the fans… everyone knows it’s my third victory,” said Contador.
The Spaniard may have failed to win a stage throughout, but the former two-time Tour de France winner and three-time Tour of Spain champion finished comfortably ahead of Aru to clinched his second pink jersey after his maiden Giro win in 2008.
Astana team leader Aru, the winner of two key mountain stages, was second overall at 1min 53sec while team-mate Landa, also a two-time stage winner, was third at 3:05.
Astana’s stage successes and podium places will help soothe the pain of the intense doping scrutiny, following a string of positive results last year, that threatened their existance at the top echelons of the sport.
But despite a strong performance in the second half of the race, Astana ultimately failed to deflect Contador from his goal of emulating Pantani, the man he called earlier in the race his “childhood inspiration”.
Alberto Contador in World Tour stage races: – 39 starts – 13 victories – 27 stage wins – 2 abandons
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) May 31, 2015
Contador is hoping this is just the start of a big season in 2015, as indicated by his team owner Oleg Tinkov. The Russian was sporting bright pink hair for the final stage, and told Eurosport prior to the start: “I want to change my colour in July to yellow.”
To win the Tour, Contador will need to recover from the Giro in time to face down a strong field, scheduled to include defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana of Movistar among others.
“It has been a beautiful Giro, and a very special experience for me,” Contador said. “I don’t know how long it will take to recover. I’m tired, and I know it will take time.”
Contador had suggested during the course of this three-week race that it could be his final appearance in Italy’s Grand Tour, though as he experienced the thrill of victory he refused to rule out a return.
“I’ve said it will be my last, but you never know,” he said. “As we say in Spanish, never say never.”
Alberto Contador had his overall lead sliced in half on the penultimate day of the Giro d'Italia although the Spaniard remained on course for the title after the 20th stage.
Fabio Aru won stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia to move second in the overall standings as Alberto Contador retained the leader’s pink jersey.
Team Astana’s Aru pulled away on his own in the final kilometres into Cervinia to win the stage by 28 seconds from Cannondale-Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal.
Aru said: “I knew the final 100km by heart from the Tour of the Val d’Aosta, which was one of my favourite Under-23 races. I feel very tied to this region.
“I didn’t know what to think in the final metres. For 20 days the team has always been close to me, even in the difficult moments, and today my team-mates made the race. The team was fantastic from start to finish, every one of them.”
He still trails Contador by four minutes and 37 seconds in the general classification, with Aru’s teammate Mikel Landa a further 38 seconds back in third.
— Giro d’Italia (@giroditalia) May 29, 2015
Contador, who did not respond to Aru’s attack, said: “Obviously, I’d like to win a stage, but it is hard: the final group is always small and I don’t have team-mates with me because they work hard early in the stage, so the result today is perfect for me.
“Anyway, if you ask anyone which they would prefer, a stage win or the Maglia Rosa, they’ll say the Maglia Rosa, so I’m very, very happy because I’ve got through another very hard day.”
Today’s 20th and penultimate stage is a 199 km slog from Saint Vincent to Sestriere, taking in the brutal climb of the Colle delle Finestre on the way.