Fabio Aru cracks as Astana team-mate Mikel Landa doubles up
An irrepressible Alberto Contador cemented his grip on the maglia rosa in Aprica on a day fellow Spaniard Mikel Landa won his second stage of the race to leapfrog floundering Astana team-mate Fabio Aru in the overall standings.
Landa, 25, became the first rider to win two stages in this compelling 98th edition of the Giro after attacking from a leading trio of Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the second of two ascents to the Alpine town of Aprica.
But the real drama of the 177km stage 16 from Pinzolo came in between those two Cat.3 climbs with the fearsome ascent of the Passo del Mortirolo on which isolated race leader Contador quite wonderfully fought back from an untimely mechanical to drop Italian youngster Aru, his nearest opponent in the general classification.
His face a constant picture of pain, Aru trailed the leaders by two minutes going over the Mortirolo before suffering a puncture of his own on the descent. Runner-up in last year's Giro, Aru eventually finished in eighth place almost three minutes behind Landa, who also wrested control of his second place in the standings.
Contador, pipped by the impressive Kruijswijk – the new blue jersey – for second place in the stage, now leads the race by 4:02 on Landa, with Aru dropping a further 50 seconds off the pace.
"It was the perfect day for me – a really beautiful day, maybe even more so than the day before yesterday,” said Landa, winner of stage 15 at Madonna di Campiglio on Sunday before the race's second rest day.
"We saw that Contador had a problem. Katusha were riding the main group full gas and so we decided to ride with them,” he added, referring to the key moment when Contador suffered what appeared to be a puncture on the descent ahead of the Mortirolo, some 60km from the finish.
"On the Mortirolo Fabio didn’t feel so good and told me to go ahead. I didn’t think I was going to be so strong on the final climb but I just had to try for the win.”
ELEVEN-MAN BREAK: After a series of failed attempts on the first of five ascents, the Cat.2 Campo Carlo Magno, 10 riders managed to ease ahead of the pack in the valley ahead of the Cat.2 Passo del Tonale.
Hejesdal, the 2012 Giro winner from Canada, was the biggest name in the break, which was bolstered soon after the summit by the arrival of Australian Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge).
But with the gap back to the Tinkoff-Saxo-led peloton dropping fast from its two-minute zenith, Hesjedal decided to take things into his own hands on the first of two ascents to Aprica with 80km still left to ride.
The bearded Cannondale-Garmin rider held an advantage of one minute going over the summit, with the peloton passing through a further minute in arrears. But the action was only just about to begin.
CONTADOR CRISIS: A highly technical descent – slippery from the rain and riddled with potholes – saw Hesjedal almost come a cropper on numerous occasions. One rider, Italian Diego Rosa of Astana, did come off his bike in the main pack – just as Katusha upped the tempo for their GC man Yuri Trofimov, fifth in the overnight standings.
Contador was then distanced on the downhill after a suspected puncture, sparking a frenzy amid his rivals.
A Katusha trio – including Trofimov and previous stage winner, Ilnur Zakarin – rode off the front in pursuit of the break, while Aru, the white jersey as best young rider, rode in a main chasing group alongside four Astana team-mates.
With only Roman Kreuziger in support, Contador rode in the sixth group on the road about 40 seconds behind his rival as the race split up on the zippy run into the foot of the day’s main event – the Passo del Mortirolo.
Manuele Boaro dropped back to help team-mate Contador but the Spaniard had dropped both the Italian the Czech Republic’s Kreuziger by the time he kicked onto the Mortirolo with a 50-second deficit on Aru.
Alberto Contador stayed in pink after stage 16AFP
CONTADOR CLASS: The narrow, forested Mortirolo is one of the hardest climbs in Italy with regular 12% slopes peaking out to a fiendish 18% - but try telling that to Contador, who picked off riders one by one as he rode back into contention in what was one of the finest performances by a maglia rosa in recent years.
With lone leader Hesjedal already caught, Aru and team-mate Landa had ridden clear with Dutchman Kruijswijk while Contador latched onto the wheels of numerous riders before leaving them for dead.
Having waltzed passed the likes of Amador, Hesjedal and Trofimov, it took the Spaniard just 5km of the 13km climb to catch the Astana duo in what must have been a demoralising blow to Aru.
Easing up for a couple of minutes to gather his breath, Contador then lurched out of the saddle with 40km remaining, taking Landa with him but dropping Aru and the revived Trofimov.
Kruijswijk was soon caught – and the Dutchman exchanged pace-setting duties with Contador all the way to the summit while Landa sandbagged behind. Kruijswijk’s efforts were rewarded as he crossed the summit in pole position to take enough points over the ‘Montagna Pantani’ to take control in the blue mountains jersey competition.
With a dusting of snow falling on the summit, Aru was passed by Hesjedal, Trofimov and Amador before he went over the top 1:55 down on the leaders.
LANDA LOCOMOTIVE: The leading trio took no chances on the descent and the gaps came down accordingly. But it was a cruel blow for Aru who, having caught both Amador and Hesjedal, picked up a rear wheel flat and was forced to change bikes.
As he struggled back on, his Astana team-mate took the initiative on the front of the race. It was Kruijswijk who had looked to exploit the Spanish stalemate with an attack inside the final 5km of the ascent to Aprica.
But Landa – relatively fresh from having taken a back seat since Aru was distanced – used the Dutchman’s attack to launch his own decisive dig. Contador and Kruijswijk had no answer and were forced to fight for scraps: the Spaniard’s search for that elusive Giro stage win continues.
Having won a stage dedicated to the late Marco Pantani on Sunday, Landa doubled up by winning the stage that featured the ‘Montagna Pantani’ in the Mortirolo. He crossed the line arms aloft 38 seconds clear of second-placed Kruijswijk and Contador.
Trofimov outkicked Amador to take fourth place at 2:03, seven seconds ahead of sixth place Hesjedal: a mighty impressive ride from the Canadian veteran following his prominent role in the break.
Aru rallied for seventh place but looked in all sorts of crippling pain as he came home 2:51 down on his team-mate, around 25 seconds ahead of a small chasing group that included Damiano Caruso (BMC), Leopold Konig (Team Sky) and Carlos Betancur (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
CONTADOR CONTROL: With a buffer of more than four minutes to play with, Contador will now seek to add a Giro stage win to his likely overall victories of 2008 and 2015.
Astana will also have a leadership question to answer following Landa leapfrogging the tiring Aru into second place.
Costa Rica’s Amador dropped to fourth place on GC, at 5:48, while Trofimov stayed in fifth at 8:27. Konig – Team Sky’s de facto leader following the rest day withdrawal of struggling Richie Porte – is sixth but almost 10 minutes down.
Wednesday’s 134km stage 17 starts in Tirano and includes just one categorised climb before a finish in the Swiss town of Lugano that could well suit a breakaway.