MACUGNAGA, Italy (Reuters) - Paolo Tiralongo of Italy took his first career victory after being gifted Stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia by race leader Alberto Contador on Friday.
Tiralongo broke away 5.5 kilometres from the summit finish at Macugnaga but Contador, a former team mate, counter-attacked and reached the Astana rider 500 metres from the line.
Despite clearly being stronger, Contador then stayed behind Tiralongo, who at the age of 33 claimed his first win since turning professional in 2000. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy finished third, three seconds back.
Tiralongo, a team mate of Contador's at Astana in 2010, had to fight back tears at the finish.
"Today I did what I never do and rode for myself and not for my team leaders," he told reporters.
"Claiming my first win was so important for me and my thanks to Alberto.
"Alberto told me when to attack, with six kilometres to go, and I went for it.
"Then when he caught up with me close to the line, I knew I had a great friend just behind me."
Contador said he was happier than he would have been to win the stage himself.
"Paolo did a huge amount of work for me in the Tour de France last year, and I'm very pleased he could finally get his win," he said. "He really deserves it."
With victory in the Giro d'Italia looking almost certain, Contador was congratulated for giving the stage to Tiralongo by all-time cycling great Eddy Merckx.
"It was a great gesture by Alberto, which shows his human side," Merckx told Italian TV.
Heavy rainstorms late in the stage caused several riders to crash, American Craig Lewis breaking his leg when he fell 45 kilometres from the finish.
Lewis's HTC-Highroad team mate and the 2011 Giro's first race leader Marco Pinotti of Italy suffered a suspected broken collarbone in the same crash and also abandoned the race.
"It was super heavy rain and everybody was on the limit," HTC-Highroad sports director Jens Zemke told Reuters.
The Giro finishes on May 29 in Milan.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)