Sensational Nibali seizes the pink jersey as Taaramae takes stage 20
Italy's Vincenzo Nibali completed a stunning comeback by wresting the pink jersey off the shoulders of Esteban Chaves on the Giro d’Italia’s final day in the mountains as Estonia's Rein Taaramae soloed to glory in a thrilling stage 20 in the Alps.
Two days ago Nibali’s chances of repeating his 2013 Giro triumph were all but dead and buried. After a string of disappointing rides in the Dolomites, the Astana team leader had dropped off the podium, trailed Steven Kruijswijk by almost five minutes and was on the verge of quitting his national tour as pressure mounted.
Medical tests proved that Nibali was not suffering an illness – and then, on Friday’s decisive stage to Risoul, Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) crashed on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello and reignited a flame inside Nibali, setting the wheels in motion for the Shark of Messina's quite remarkable transformation in the high Alps.
Victory in Risoul on Friday put Nibali within 44 seconds of new leader Chaves on GC with one key stage remaining. And when Nibali attacked on the penultimate climb of the 99th edition of La Corsa Rosa on Saturday, Orica-GreenEdge’s Chaves simply had no answer.
The Colombian dug deep alongside compatriot Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), but Chaves was no match for reinvigorated Nibali, who had benefited from some outstanding support from his team-mates Jakob Fuglsang, Michele Scarponi and Tanel Kangert when it mattered most.
Nibali didn’t win the stage at Sant'Anna di Vinadio – that accolade went to Katusha’s Rein Taaramae, the first Estonian stage winner in the history of the Giro – but when Nibali crossed the line, the stopwatch started and the whole of Italy held its collective breath.
Almost two minutes passed before an exhausted Chaves crossed the line slumped over his handlebars alongside a smiling Scarponi, who punched the air in celebration for his part in winning team-mate Nibali the Giro. It was a symbolic end to the final competitive stage in this year's race - for beyond Nibali's outstanding comeback, it was that man Scarponi who really made the difference.
Leading the Italian national champion by 44 seconds at the start of the 134km stage from Guillestre in France, Chaves dropped to second place on GC, 52 seconds down on Nibali. Spanish veteran Valverde rose to third place after Kruijswijk – nursing a fractured rib – struggled to replicate his early climbing form following his heartbreaking crash on Friday.
“I thought everything was lost but I also knew that it was not over and that anything could still happen,” Nibali told Eurosport after becoming the eighth (and probably last) rider to don the famous maglia rosa in this year’s race. “I attacked and attacked and turned things round. I’m so stubborn and so headstrong – I just never give up.”
It’s a shame that everyone will remember Saturday 28th May 2016 as the day Vincenzo Nibali won his second Giro d’Italia for it also marked a highly commendable ride from Rein Taaramae, who soloed clear of a break of five riders on the the Colle della Lombarda – the final of three successive first-category climbs all in excess of 2,000 metres high.
A day after Katusha’s race was turned upside down following the forced withdrawal of Ilnur Zakarin after a horrendous crash on the same descent that sunk Kruijswijk's chances of victory, Taaramae saved the Russian team’s race after fighting back on roads he knows well from training.
Dropped by a leading trio of Darwin Atapuma (BMC), Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) at the start of the climb, Taaramae rode back into contention alongside fellow Estonian Kangert before making his decisive move in the ski resort of Isola 2000 a few kilometres from the summit.
“It’s a special place for me because I did three or four training camps in Isola 2000 and I know every corner of the climb and that no one could beat me here,” Taaramae, 29, admitted after the second Grand Tour stage win of his career. “We had a really sad day yesterday with Ilnur’s crash. We lost everything but today we won the queen stage of the race,” he added.
Taaramae negotiated the technical descent of the Colle della Lombarda before holding off Atapuma on the final 2.5km climb to the finish to win the stage by 52 seconds over the spirited Colombian. American Dombrowski, riding into some excellent form in the Alps, finished third at 1:17 ahead of Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) and Russian Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom-RusVelo) – the only two remaining riders from an initial 12-man break who finished ahead of the rampant Nibali.
Spanish climber Nieve had taken maximum points over the first climb of the day, the Col de Vars, before soloing clear on the Col de Bonette to repeat that feat and move ahead Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini) at the top of the blue jersey mountains classification.
By the time Nieve had crested the snow-clad summit of the Bonette, the main pack of favourites trailed by more than 10 minutes with Astana yet to set in motion the master plan that would end up with Nibali in pink.
If placing Astana team-mate Kangert in the break was crucial for Nibali then so too was having a mountain lieutenant as willing and able as Scarponi. Having put aside his own personal ambition on Friday shortly after taking the Cima Coppi atop the Colle dell’Agnello, Scarponi was in super-domestique mode once again on a second successive stage primarily played out on French soil.
With the pack of main favourites slowly whittling down on the Colle della Lombarda, Astana finally sent their men to the front for Nibali with 22 kilometres remaining. Fuglsang set a fierce tempo for four kilometres before peeling off – paving the way for a Scarponi acceleration which set the scene for the explosive finale.
Scarponi buried himself for his leader before Nibali danced on the pedals with 13 kilometres remaining. Kruijswijk, Uran and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) cracked first, but Valverde and Chaves soon followed suit.
But the best was yet to come: Kangert, who had dropped back from the break, was there to pick up the baton from Scarponi and pace Nibali for a crucial moment in the climb – just as the Colombian cavalry came to Chaves’ support in the form of his good friend Uran.
Vincenzo Nibali on the attack in stage 20AFP
When Kangert popped with 8km remaining, Nibali dug deep to continue his ride into the record books. The clock said he was the virtual maglia rosa on the road – but he still had that narrow, twisting descent to survive, plus the stinging 10% ramp up to the finish.
To make things even more symbolic, Nibali’s attack had coincided with the race returning onto Italian soil – and the home fans were out in their droves to drive on the champion elect to cap a quite extraordinary turnaround for the 31-year-old winner of all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
BIG WINNER OF THE DAY
Taaramae’s victory was sweet while Nieve’s ride into the maglia azzura gave Team Sky something to celebrate following Mikel Landa’s withdrawal in the second week. But there really was only one story on Saturday: Nibali all but winning his second Giro d’Italia.
“I understood that I could have a go today and play for everything. I was feeling the best of all my rivals so I waited and waited, then attacked when we just got to altitude.
“The team was absolutely fantastic and did such an amazing job. Kangert was in the break – it was very important to have him in the front – plus we had Fuglsang and Scarponi to work for me in the finale. Then the last five kilometres it was up to me.
“It’s a crazy end to the Giro. It’s been exhausting. I started as the favourite and I felt all the pressure. It feels even more amazing to have been able put on a good show at the end.”
Once Chaves crossed the line 1:36 behind Nibali, the Italian knew he had done enough to take the maglia rosa – but still had the class to approach his rival’s mother and offer her his commiserations. Grande, Vincenzo.
BIG LOSER OF THE DAY
Besides Chaves, who lost the race on the penultimate climb, there was much sympathy for the outsider who seemed destined to become the first Dutchman to win the Giro. Kruijswijk headed into the final two stages in the Alps with a healthy gap at the top of the standings but in the end was pushed off the podium by Valverde and made to settle for fourth place, having finished stage 20 just ahead of Chaves but 1:16 down on the Spaniard.
There were certainly echoes of his compatriot Tom Dumoulin, who led last year’s Vuelta right up until cracking on the penultimate day and dropping from first to sixth after Nibali’s Astana team-mate Fabio Aru rode to glory. Without Kruijswijk’s crash on Friday, we’d probably not be eulogising Nibali in the same manner – for that was the turning point in this Giro, and seemed to spark the Shark from his slumber.
The final stage of the race is a 163km ride from Cuneo to Torino which concludes with eight laps of the industrial city in the shadow of the Alps. With Nibali’s maglia rosa assured, it will offer the sprinters a final chance to end the race on a high.
Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze