Nairo Quintana, pre-Giro favorite who looked to be in a little trouble just a few days ago, pulled out what will surely go down as one of the great rides in the history of this great race to win stage 16 and turn a 2 minutes, 40 seconds deficit to fellow Colombian Rigoberto Uran into a 1 minute, 41 seconds lead in this race in one of the most difficult, yet brilliant, stages of cycling you’re ever likely to see.
The 139 kilometres they raced may not have sounded extremely challenging but when faced with the three climbs they had to go over — the Passo di Gavia, the Stelvio and Val Martello — there was no doubt today was always going to be one of the hardest stages. But only when the weather was factored in did the stage go from tough to brutal and left many debating whether they should just cancel the stage as the snow fell and the temperatures plummeted.
There was talk for a while that the descent of the Stelvio had been neutralized by race officials, though that was later denied, yet confusion reigned and is likely to reign into the night as to how it was supposed to be raced. Naturally therefore the stage was blown wide open on that Stelvio descent with Nairo Quintana, Pierre Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal going on the attack in tricky conditions while their rivals felt the need to exercise caution. It’s not yet known whether those left behind thought racing had ceased — though no doubt many of them will claim they did — while those who took advantage will claim it was game on for an epic encounter.
While the weather may have played a big part in the staggering fact that only 36 men finished within half an hour of Quintana, there is little doubt that it was his pure ability to also go uphill in these conditions that truly swung the balance of this Giro.
When himself, Hesjedal and Rolland hit the bottom of the Stelvio they carried a two minute advantage over the rest … a lead so great on a descent that it has fueled the argument that the race had been neutralized but left me arguing that upon seeing these three contenders head on down the hill why wouldn’t you go with them and debate the neutralization later? If indeed there was any agreement to ‘take it easy’ which given the official results would suggest that officially, there was not.
It mattered not however, because once they all got off the descent and the charge up to Val Martello began, Uran, devoid of team support, followed the Tinkoff-Saxo team as they tried to haul back, without success, the deficit to the three up the road, who were quickly reigning in the loan survivor of an earlier attack, Dario Cataldo, and gunning towards stage glory. Rolland and Hesjedal have been fine opportunists in this Giro, using every chance they can get to take back time and it was no great shock that in the midst of this confusion they would be seeking the advantage. And why not Quintana too, who has hooked up with Rolland on a few occasions now in this Giro, to get in on the act and take back from Uran what he had lost in the individual time-trial last week?
If their lead was two minutes going onto the climb, then it says something to Quintana’s form as this race progresses that he only increased that with pedal stroke, coming home more than four minutes ahead of Uran. That Quintana put two minutes into Uran alone on the climb when he came into the stage 2-40 off his lead, suggests that had he waited on the descent, further conserving his energy, he might well have overturned that 2-40 on the climb to Val Martello alone anyway.
I find it hard to argue that the best man isn’t tonight in the pink jersey. Especially when you go about acquiring it in such fashion.
And make no mistake about it, Quintana didn’t ride the coat tails of his fellow escapees here, the lions share of work was done by the Colombian as Hesjedal and Rolland fought to hang on. On several occasions Hesjedal was dropped when the gradient percentage ramped up into double figure only to claw, in true diesel fashion, his way back on when it leveled off a little. It looked for a while as though Rolland would take the tow to the top and out sprint Quintana for the stage, but surprisingly it was he that fell away first as Hesjedal continue to go mind over body to keep on the flying Quintana’s wheel.
Into the final kilometre and things kicked up again and this time Quintana shedded Hesjedal for good, winning solo, though only 8 seconds up on the Canadian. Rolland rolled in 1-13 behind with Wilco Kelderman the first of the chasing pack to come home 3-32 down. He was followed in by Domenico Pozzovivo at 3-37, Fabio Aru at 3-40, Rafal Majka at 4-08 and Uran on the wheel of Sebastian Henao at 4-11. Struggling more still in the conditions was Cadel Evans who finished at 4-48 but has done just about enough to maintain a podium position in the general classification.
Quintana now leads that classification over Uran by 1-41 with Evans at 3-21. Rolland has jumped into fourth, five seconds behind Evans and should continue to move up, while Majka sits fifth at 3-28 and Aru in sixth at 3-34.
And following his inspired ride to stay as close to the wheel of Quintana as possible, Ryder Hesjedal moved into the top ten overall in 9th place, 4-16 down though I can’t help think what might have been had stage 1 not gone so badly for his Garmin team?
That wet day in Belfast, Garmin lost 2-31 to Movistar when Dan Martin slipped on a manhole and brought down the majority of his team forcing the likes of Hesjedal to wait until the minimum compliment of riders could get themselves together and finish as a team.
But had Garmin remained upright, they were on pace to set one of the better times and Quintana’s Movistar team finished 55 seconds behind the winning time posted by Orica Greenedge, as such, Garmin might well have put 30 seconds into Movistar. A lot of if’s and but’s here that mean nothing because crashes are a part of cycling and the times all count, but without that stage 1 nightmare that also took Dan Martin out of the Giro, Hesjedal might have been going to bed tonight a single minute off the race lead with five days to go.
And one minute that includes the 41 seconds lost to Quintana in the individual time-trial, though that was a straight up battle in which the time swings went fair and square.
Of course, what is still to come in this Giro favours Quintana so a one minute deficit to the young Colombian may not have changed the direction in which this race is headed anyway, but it’s nice for Canadian cycling fans to speculate what might have been. That said, the potential podium is still a very realistic possibility, stage 1 crash or not, because Hesejdal today sits only 55 seconds behind a tiring Cadel Evans in 3rd.
Six men abandoned the stage (including Thomas Dekker, Alessandro Petacchi and Michele Scarponi), which given the conditions and the 167 that started (Edvald Boasson Hagen did not take to the start) it’s surprising that it wasn’t more. I’m not exactly sure what the cut off time was, but I have to figure discretion will be shown by the race referees, especially given this whole ‘neutralized’ debate, not to mention the fact that if the cut off was 30 minutes, only 37 men would be taking to the start tomorrow.
It was one of the great rides today by Nairo Quintana … attacking on the descent in freezing conditions and blitzing the final climb as a chasing pack of high quality riders only continued to lose time to him. It was the stuff of Merckx and it was the stuff that very well could win him the 2014 Giro d’Italia.
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 4-42-35
2. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin Sharp) in 8 sec
3. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) + 1-13
4. Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) + 3-32
5. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) + 3-37
6. Fabio Aru (Astana) + 3-40
7. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) + 4-08
8. Sebastian Henao (Sky) + 4-11
9. Rigoberto Uran (OPQS) + s.t.
10. Cadel Evans (BMC) + 4-48
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 68-11-44
2. Rigoberto Uran (OPQS) + 1-41
3. Cadel Evans (BMC) + 3-21
4. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) + 3-26
5. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) + 3-28
6. Fabio Aru (Astana) + 3-34
9. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin Sharp) + 4-16