Alberto Contador lived up to his Giro d'Italia pre-race favourite tag when he blew the peloton apart on the climb to the summit of Mount Etna yesterday to claim stage victory and take over the race lead at the end of stage nine.
With six kilometres to go, Contador jumped clear of a large chase group who were slowly reeling in the remnants of the day's earlier nine-man breakaway on the slopes of Europe's tallest and most active volcano.
Home favourite Michele Scarponi (Lampre) tried to follow the Spaniard as he passed the last of the breakaways, Jose Rujano of the Androni Giacottelli team, but the Italian veteran was clearly labouring in a much bigger gear and soon drifted back to the chase group, led by the Astana team of Roman Kreuziger.
"I'm disappointed, but it's normal to be disappointed," admitted Scarponi at the summit. "Contador gave us all a lesson today. I tried to follow him but I went into the red hoping the climb wasn't too steep and that I'd recover, but he went again."
Rujano clung on for dear life as Contador rode away from the rest of the race, but even the little Venezuelan climber had no answer to a series of attacks by Contador in the final kilometres and eventually lost contact with the Tour de France champion to take second on the stage.
Contador soloed across the line three seconds ahead of Rujano but, more importantly, 59 seconds clear of his main rivals for the overall title. Former winner Stefano Garzelli (Aqua et Sapone) outsprinted last year's Tour of Spain winner Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas and Kreuziger for third.
Contador takes over the pink jersey of race leader from Dutchman Pieter Weening, who was dropped on the climb, and he leads the race by 59 seconds from HTC Highroad's Konstantin Sitsov with Christophe Le Mevel of Garmin 20 seconds back in third.
"My legs were good today," said Contador, "so I had to try something. There was a lot of wind on the climb, but I kept going. Scarponi came with me at the start, but he faded and I just carried on. I didn't want to prove anything to anybody. I just wanted to win. I just wanted to give something back to the public along the roadside."
Ireland's Philip Deignan nursed his RadioShack team leader Tiago Machado to the finish, leading the Portuguese rider across the line in 37th place, four minutes and 47 seconds behind Contador. Deignan had been taking it easy for the past couple of days after a crash on the fifth stage and is looking forward to today's first rest day of the Giro.
"Hopefully a few easy days will let my body recover and I'll be able to help Tiago or try and get in a breakaway myself next week in the mountains," said Deignan.