Giro d'Italia - Gatto holds off Contador
The 26-year-old Italian, riding for Farnese – Vini, used the 700 metre uphill section inside the final two kilometres as a springboard for his bid for glory, and as he powered clear of the labouring peloton, only race favourite Contador (Saxo Bank) reacted.
Though the Spaniard began to close, he ultimately ran out of road as Gatto buried himself over the final flat kilometre to take the biggest win of his career so far.
After four consecutive days of hills, this 217 kilometre flat stage was always likely to be viewed by the sprinters' and puncheurs’ teams as one not to be missed, and so it proved, as the Quickstep and HTC squads controlled affairs with ease for most of the stage.
Leonardo Giordani (Farnese-Vini) and Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil) were allowed to ride away in the opening kilometres, and built up a lead that grew to over ten minutes, before the peloton slowly increased their tempo and stabilised the gap.
Perhaps mindful of the risk of counter-attacks, as well as Sunday’s tortuous stage to Mount Etna, the sprinters’ teams left the duo out front for as long as possible, before considerably increasing their efforts 40 kilometres from home, and finally reeling them in with just seven kilometres remaining.
Doubts had been raised over whether the pure sprinters would be foiled by the 7.5 per cent climb in the closing stages, and when Gatto jumped clear with 1500 metres remaining, the Lampre and HTC teams of Petacchi and Britain’s Mark Cavendish had no answer.
Perhaps sensing the opportunity of claiming some valuable bonus seconds ahead of Sunday’s ascent of Etna, Contador set off in pursuit, and though he was unable to catch Gatto, he benefits from the 12 bonus seconds his second place gives him over his rivals.
Sunday’s ninth stage sees the riders finish atop Mount Etna, in what is likely to be the first of several genuine showdowns between the contenders for overall victory.