Valverde victorious as Nibali nosedives in stage 16
Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde denied the pink jersey Steven Kruijswijk a victory in a short but sharp stage 16 in the mountains of north Italy which all but ended Vincenzo Nibali's chances of Giro d'Italia glory.
Riding his maiden Giro at the ripe age of 36, Movistar’s Valverde beat indefatigable Dutchman Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) in a three-way sprint at the conclusion of the thrilling 132-kilometre stage to the ski resort of Andalo.
Valverde’s trademark kick was enough to subject Kruijswijk to his third successive bridesmaid’s finish on a race that he now leads by exactly three minutes over Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
Chaves recovered from a slow start following Monday’s rest day to be the driving force of a select chasing group that caught Nibali on the second of three climbs before dropping the 2013 Giro champion inside the final 10 kilometres on a steep ramp near the summit.
Astana’s Nibali trickled over the line in eleventh place 1:47 down on stage winner Valverde to drop below the Spaniard to fourth place in the general classification almost five minutes adrift from the increasingly composed maglia rosa, Kriujswijk.
FAST AND FURIOUS
Astana and Movistar promised attacks galore and they kept their side of the bargain on a rollercoaster of a stage that was played out in less than three hours in the mountainous South Tyrol and Trentino regions of northern Italy. An average speed of 44.3 km/h was well over the organisers’ anticipated fastest speed of 39 km/h and saw the race blown apart from kilometre zero.
The fast pace in the peloton made it difficult for any break to stick and when a group of 12 riders finally formed they were quickly reeled in at the start of the Passo della Mendola with 80 kilometres remaining. Zakarin was particularly lively on the first half of the 15km second-category climb but his every move was covered by Kruijswijk, who soon found himself isolated and without any LottoNL-Jumbo team-mates.
Six riders – Tanel Kangert (Astana), David Lopez (Team Sky), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep), Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale) and Sergey Firsanov (Gazprom-RusVelo) – held a slender lead of 20 seconds over the summit, as Nibali led the chasing pack over with a spring in his step.
With the likes of Chaves, Majka and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) distanced towards the top of the climb, Nibali edged clear with Kruijswijk, Valverde and Zakarin on the descent to join forces with the leaders. The 10-man leading group held a consistent gap of around 40 seconds on the chasers, who were being driven by Chaves’s Orica-Green Edge team and the Cannondale outfit of Uran.
When Dombrowski reluctantly dropped back to help the chase, the leading group was reduced to nine men as it hit the Cat.2 Fai delle Paganella climb still with that slender 40-second advantage.
Once Valverde lit the torch paper with 16km remaining only Zakarin and Kruijswick could follow. The faltering Nibali joined forces with Firsanov, Jungels and Lopez before being swept up by a chasing trio of Chaves, Majka and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale), who themselves had dropped the troubled Uran.
Chaves drove the tempo in the chase before riding clear of Nibali and Pozzovivo on the steep double-digit ramp near the summit. The gap continued to grow for the 2013 Giro champion, who was left to pick up the pieces of his shattered dream of winning another maglia rosa.
BIG WINNER OF THE DAY
Alejandro Valverde won the stage in trademark Valverde style – sitting in the wheels of his rivals before using his superior kick to leave them for dead in the home straight. It was a landmark win for the Spaniard and moved him back into a place on the podium – but it was the man he beat whose smile will be biggest with five stages remaining.
Steven Kruijswijk in pink during stage 16AFP
Steven Kriujswijk extended his overall lead over all his rivals except Valverde and it’s difficult to see the pink jersey being wrested from his broad shoulders, even if this race ends with gruelling back-to-back days in the high Alps. People go on about the Dutchman’s lack of support from his team – but it hasn’t been so much of an issue for the 28 year-old so far. Bridesmaid again on Tuesday, but expect Kruijswick to be standing at the altar of the duomo in Turin come Sunday.
BIG LOSER OF THE DAY
To think it all started so promisingly for Vincenzo Nibali, who made light work of an early mechanical to dance clear and distance some of his rivals on the opening climb. With Astana team-mate Tanel Kangert further up the road and becoming a huge asset on the approach to the second climb, Nibali looked like he would at least add a stage win to his illustrious palmares.
But in the end the final nail in Nibali’s coffin came when the Sicilian was dropped by the likes of Bob Jungels, David Lopez and Sergey Firsanov on a climb that was steep, but hardly a graveyard of champions. Now 4:43 down on Kruijswijk on GC, it will take a minor miracle for the 2013 winner to return to the top of the podium come Turin.
The 196km transitional stage 17 from Molveno to Cassano D’Adda features a couple of early climbs but should provide the remaining sprinters with a chance to get back into the mix. In short, an ideal opportunity for Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) to ensure that he doesn’t snare a second successive red jersey without winning a stage.
Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze