Steven Kruijswijk’s series of good days – really good days – have left him three minutes clear at the top of the GC. His climbing has been superb and he has tackled each of Italy’s obstacles with a calmness and ease. It’s difficult to imagine him cracking and he has refused to be shaken under any attacks. Vincenzo Nibali, by contrast, left his best legs back in Friuli. If he continues to look so physically and mentally empty he could tumble out of the top five, if not the top ten.
It’s worth pointing out that a broken and lacking Nibali is still currently the fourth best rider in the race and back on Stage 14 he put in the Giro’s first big attack, punishing rival Alejandro Valverde by nearly two and a half minutes. He brought with him Esteban Chaves and Kruijswijk, who began to look the more comfortable. They left him behind and set off in pursuit of long-time leader Darwin Atapuma. In what once seemed improbable, Atapuma’s sizeable gap tumbled on the final climb and continued to fall on the descent. The pair reached Atapuma (and Giant’s Georg Preidler) with barely any road left and Chaves offered the most in the mini-sprint to take wonderful win. Nibali rode home 37 seconds back, Valverde at 3 minutes. Kruijswjik took the leaders jersey and has held it ever since.
The previous day we saw the end of Bob Jungels’ time in pink as Andrey Amador became the first Costa Rican to wear the Maglia Rosa. Mikel Nieve took the stage, the favourites arrived together and Bob Jungels bravely lead a group home 50 seconds further back. He had been distanced on the final climb, soldiering on bravely to stay in touch. Amador took pink for just 24 hours, cracking the next day before towing the line for Valverde.
Nibali was the favourite for Stage 15’s time-trial last Sunday but failed to deliver. Gazprom’s Alexander Foliforov ended up with the honours, later suggesting he had been targeting the stage (really?). It was a seriously impressive ascent of the Alpe d’Siusi but his time was matched to hundredths of a second by Kruijswijk. Nibali started slow, didn’t improve, suffered a mechanical and ended up 25th over two minutes back. Valverde took third and announced himself back in contention.
A rest day followed before a hard, unique, 132km Stage 16 ridden at crazy pace. There was aggressive riding from the start, with no chance for a meaningful break to develop, before each of the pre-race favourites put in attacks on the long first climb. Nibali eventually hauled himself away bringing Kruijswjik, Valverde and Zakarin with him. The rider to initially lose out was Esteban Chaves.
That was as good as it got for Nibali, however, who imploded on the second of the stage’s climbs – the brutal Della Paganella. The climb might have been hard but Nibali made it look almost insurmountable at times. His legs deserted him and he was left behind by the lead group, soon caught by a defiant Chaves. More riders would go past before he clung to Domenico Pozzovivo until the finish. Up front Valverde, Kruijswijk and Zakarin had surged away and the Russian, thinking of his position on the GC, dragged his companions into the closing moments. Valverde did the rest and went on to take his first ever Giro win. A frenetic stage but one with a clear effect on the GC – Nibali was down to fourth and Kruijswjik was now three minutes clear.
This Friday’s stage is massive and anybody eyeing Kruijswijk’s jersey can’t afford to sit back. The Colle Dell’Agnello is worthy of the Cima Coppi title and is both long in size and steap in gradients. The top kilometres are brutal and, despite a second summit later, will cause the majority of splits in the peloton. Kruijswijk should be isolated later today and his rivals will attempt to ride him off their wheel. Valverde and Nibali both descend well and will be hard to bring back if they gain an advantage over the top. The two are likely to try an early move and should still have a say in today’s stage. However, Nibali looks as if he is half-expecting an ‘illness’ to be confirmed and might not feature at all.
The Cima Coppi is worth a lot of KoM points and it’s likely we’ll see Cunego in the morning break. Having won the Giro in 2004 it would be great to see him deliver the KoM jersey for Nippo Vini-Fantini over ten years later.
The Dell’Agnello climb and the stage’s summit finish to Risoul create a seriously hard stage and I’m expected some movement in the GC. Should he survive the attacks, Kruijswjik may prove to be the strongest once more – he gained forty seconds on Alberto Contador at the business end of last year’s race – and he might finally get his stage win.
The weekend: Stages 20 & 21
Today’s stage is hard but tomorrow’s looks even harder (better!). We see three big climbs instead of two, and after a short descent there’s one more spike up to the finish line. Anybody who thinks this year’s race has lacked big mountain stages should take a closer look at this monster day out. Its only 134km but there’s almost absolutely no flat roads. The day starts with a climb, which riders hate, before two further category one climbs in less than 100km. It’s almost impossible to predict how the GC riders will go without knowing the outcome of today’s stage but they’ll be plenty of opportunity for one last hurrah.
Damiano Cunego should be in the break again, if he isn’t yet at total exhaustion, and could be joined by David Lopez, Igor Anton, Andre Cardoso, Joe Dombrowski and Matteo Montaguti who all are climbing well. Should he hit multiple summits first Lopez could emerge as an outsider for the KoM competition – watch out Damiano.
Movistar and Astana may send a rider in the break either in pursuit of a stage win or as a tactical ploy. Judging by the way the race has gone recently it seems Ilnur Zakarin is one of the strongest climbers but i’m not sure if he can perform at that level for another two days. The stage really is a fitting Giro finale. It seems unlikely, but it would be a fantastic story if Vincenzo Nibali can now recover to play a part in deciding the race’s outcome. Detractors will raise an eyebrow about a sudden recovery but we’ve seen Nibali turn his form around on plenty of occasions – only time will tell if he has anything left.
Torino and Stage 21 can’t come soon enough for the sprinters. Giacomo Nizzolo looked to have the points competition sewn up but Diego Ulissi and Matteo Trentin’s lively exploits mean he made need a final big sprint performance to get him over the line. A more pressing aim, however, may be landing a first Giro and Grand Tour stage win. He’s emerged from the shadows of the German powerhouses to be the fastest sprinter left in the race but more than one slice of bad luck – and perhaps tactical flaws – have seen his stage ambitions foiled. Sacha Modolo is an obvious rival whilst Katusha’s Alexander Porsev has been consistently sprinting well. This is the Giro, however, and with the sprint teams lacking firepower we could see a repeat of last year’s mess up where Iljo Kessie and Luke Durbridge were never caught. Likely candidates for a similar move include Daniel Oss and Filippo Pozzato.
Any Other Business
The rider of the race so far has to be Bob Jungels with Diego Ulissi and, of course, Steven Kruijswijk not far behind. Jungles has exceeded my lofty expectations and sits 7th in the GC and refused to fall from relevance after losing the Maglia Rosa. He looks a strong and rounded climber, powerful on the flat and quick in the finish. He’ll surely go on to big things.
Despite sitting second in the Team Classificiation, Cannondale have once again flattered to deceive. Joe Dombrowski has rode well, Rigoberto Uran has had his moments and Davide Formolo has showed more fleeting promise, but the team have failed to make a serious impression. For the last two years they’ve had Grand Tour squads packed with talent but have seen very little returns. Moreno Moser was unlucky yesterday to be denied by Matteo Trentin in a superb stage finish and he is one of the Cannondale riders who can emerge with credit. The big names on their team have simply found out they weren’t at the level they wanted to be. Uran must now be approaching the last chance saloon – at least at Cannondale – and his top 10 ambitions seemed to halt Dombrowski’s stage challenge a few days ago. They’ve got two days to save their race – and I still believe they can do it!