But there was drama even before the stage started as a delegation of team managers managed to negotiate the tough Crostis climb and dangerous descent out of the stage, with the UCI commissars – on the premise that the riders would be without team car support for 37 kilometres.
This decision was much to the disgust of organiser Angelo Zomegnan; with the rhetoric in the Gazzetta dripping righteous indignation at the loss of this controversial stretch of percorso.
The break of the day went at 29 kilometres; Bram Tankink (Rabobank & Holland), Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago & Italy) and 2009 Italian U23 road champion Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini) who tapped out a steady – but doomed – rhythm to a ten minute advantage, whilst behind Saxo rode tempo.
Meanwhile, huge crowds waited atop the Zoncolan – 10.1 kilometres, average gradient 11.9% with a maximum of 22% with debate as to whether ‘The Monster’ – as the Gazzetta would have it – or the mighty Angliru in northern Spain is the toughest climb in European pro cycling.
Gilberto Simoni has won twice on the climb and Basso won here last year to forge his eventual GC victory.
It took a long time before the dictionary definition of ‘procession’ ceased to apply; ‘a group of persons moving along in an orderly, formal manner.’
But with around one hour to go Liquigas took it up, perhaps to keep Nibali safe on the narrow roads and nasty little drops?
But it did cause splits as the gap to the leaders melted slowly away – as did the distance – with the Tualis climb getting the scalpel treatment too, as a result of fans on the climb protesting about the demise of the Crostis, dropping the stage distance even further.
And before we knew it, they were on the Zoncolan with 10 K to go and the leaders still having around five minutes in hand – not enough.
Rabottini was first to say ‘ciao’ on the Zoncolan and it was Tankink leading the duo as Liquigas kept the burners at mark 10, behind.
Nibali, Contador, Scarponi, Menchov all to the fore, but Garzelli, Sastre, Visconti, finding reverse at the rear.
Up front, Tankink was gone – just Brambilla left at seven to go, with a three minute advantage.
Agnoli drove the bunch hard for Vincenzo as Brambilla began to stall – and it was Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) showing his hand early, then another mountain man, Igor Anton (Euskaltel & Spain).
But with 6.4 K to go, it was the man in pink who decided that he didn’t want two flyweights up the road and shutdown Anton in a trice.
Scarponi’s (Lampre & Italy) slogging of a huge gear didn’t look like the best MO for the Zoncolan but he clawed his way up to Contador, who had caught Rodriquez; four Capi together – Contador, Rodriguez, Anton and Scarponi.
Inside six to go and Brambilla blew, Tankink got back and was leader on the road as his lead slid towards the 60 seconds mark.
Anton’s tiny gear work was proving effective as he inched clear of Contador and Scarponi – Rodriguez was gone, but Nibali was winching his way up to them.
Five K to go, Anton danced, Scarponi pumped and Alberto clawed – but he certainly didn’t have the ‘ride to the paper shop’ face.
Anton passed Tankink and danced out of the saddle – looking good as one of the race motor bikes expired in a cloud of smoke and steam.
Vincenzo was having a better day then he did on his home volcano and went to the front at four K to go; there was venom in his pedalling and Scarponi was gone.
Ahead, Anton’s rhythm was good; but Nibali was looking more like the man who won the Vuelta and was driving that Cannondale ever upwards.
Past lush fern beds, tree stumps, scree slopes, shepherds’ huts, dry stone walls – three K to.
Side by side, the Tifosi running alongside, Contador and Nibali could see the orange of the Basque’s shorts jersey and shorts against the grey of the tar ramp – he was on the brake hoods, elbows out to spread that rib cage and suck the oxygen, in command, dancing the bends, a winner’s jaw set as he forced his way through the Tifosi like an icebreaker through spring ice on the Baltic.
Scarponi’s chain comes off – disastro!
Red kite; it’s Anton’s day, it has to be – but Alberto goes, Nibali can’t answer, Bert is off the saddle, pumping at those pedals; into the tunnels, but Anton heaves towards the line then sits , zips up that orange top and wins!
It’s too steep to take both hands off the bars – but it’s his, a great win as he clenches that Euskaltel mitt and punches the air.
Nibali battles back to Contador but the Spaniard kicks again for second to loud booing from the crowd, Nibali third – Scarponi next, wasted; then Menchov, Gadret – not bad for a cyclo-cross rider.
We have Basque mountain goat winner, a strong ride by Nibali, a brave ride by Scarponi; and Alberto still in the pink – not a bad way to end a procession.
1 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 5:04:26
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:00:33
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:40
4 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre – ISD 0:01:11
5 Denis Menchov (Rus) Geox-TMC 0:01:21
6 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:38
7 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:01:52
8 Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:55
9 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 0:02:05
10 Josй Rujano Guillen (Ven) Androni Giocattoli 0:02:11
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 54:45:45
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:03:20
3 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:03:21
4 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre – ISD 0:04:06
5 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:05:23
6 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 0:05:37
7 Denis Menchov (Rus) Geox-TMC 0:06:06
8 Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:06:12
9 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Pro Team Astana 0:06:40
10 David Arroyo Duran (Spa) Movistar Team 0:06:43
11 Joaquнm Rodrнguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:07:29
12 Josй Rujano Guillen (Ven) Androni Giocattoli 0:07:47
13 Matteo Carrara (Ita) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team 0:08:09
14 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:08:44
15 Dario Cataldo (Ita) Quickstep Cycling Team 0:08:57