Day-by day, climb-by-climb, one-by-one the contenders for this Giro d’Italia have fallen by the wayside as the number with the potential to win dropped from double figures, to half a dozen to five, four and today perhaps just three as the race entered the Dolomites and the general classification was turned upon its head.
It was a 210km epic from Alpago to Corvara, crossing six climbs in total, five of which had an altitude of more than 2,000 metres for a collective 5,000 plus metres of total altitude gain by the riders who spent upward of six hours in the saddle.
And by the time all was said and done we had a Colombian stage winner in Esteban Chaves, another Dutchman in the pink jersey in Steven Kruijswijk, an Italian hanging on for grim death in Vincenzo Nibali, and the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Andrey Amador, Rafal Majka, Ilnur Zakarin and Rigoberto Uran all in real trouble.
It was the kind of stage made for action and drama and while there is always the fear that such a stage might be too hard for the favourites, and without a summit finish, that they simply mark one another out of the game, that certainly wasn’t the case here. A huge break of stage hunters went clear early and build a large lead. At first it was Ruben Plaza who took up the challenge from that group, going clear and summiting the third and fourth climbs of the day before being caught and dropped by John Atampuma and Kanstansin Siutsou.
Behind the pink jersey group was reducing in number by the kilometre and soon the pink jersey of Amador was himself in trouble. Fighting to keep in contact the elastic snapped on the crippling Passo Giau and Amador was left watching his overall ambitions disappear up the road. But not so fast. The Costa Rican with an entire nation behind him as the first ever leader of the Giro from his country, turned to his descending skills for a second straight day and pulled back almost a minute on those in front, joining up before the final categorized climb. It was an incredible effort, but it always felt like it would be in vain once the road turned upwards again on the Passo Valparola, and so it proved to be.
It was also proving to be trouble for a lot of other men in the top ten overall too. At first Nibali stretched his legs before the two quiet men of the top ten thus far, Kruijswijk and Chaves attacked. Content to have spent the first 13 stages hanging tight, keeping out of trouble and monitoring their rivals; ensuring they remained close for when this key stage arrived, it was the Dutchman who made the first move and the Colombian who reacted. Nibali lost the wheel and was in trouble; Valverde and the rest were blown away.
By the top of the Passo Valparola we had stage hunter Atapuma off alone but his time coming down rapidly to the two pink jersey hunters riding hard behind, with Nibali doing his level best to limit his loses. The gap appeared to be hovering around 30sec between each group, but by the top of a short-sharp little climb near the finish that wasn’t categoriesd, Kruijswijk, Chaves and Georg Preidler — another remnant from the days early break — had Atapuma in their sites, and with just a few clicks to ride, he was caught. The Colombian from the BMC team must have felt dismayed though all it served to do was hand the stage glory from one Colombian to another as Chaves out sprinted the other three to take the stage win and the small time bonus as Kruijswijk rolled in second and into the pink jersey.
All eyes were on the stopwatch now and it was Nibali who came in next, 37sec down. Further back was Zakarin and Majka at 2min 29sec; Uran at 2min 50sec; and Valverde in a small group at a staggering 3min. The pink jersey of Andrey Amador finished 3min 52sec down and, if you’re still counting, Bob Jungles rolled home at 6min 21sec.
Coming into this Giro if you’d been told after this queen stage, with 13 days of racing completed, that a Dutchman was in the race lead, you’d have assumed it would be Dumoulin given his Vuelta last year, given the expectations on him, and certainly given how he started the first few days. But Dumoulin is back home now, long since abandoned and Dutch dreams are now very much on the shoulders of Kruijswijk. It’s been a long time since the Dutch had any viable GC contender, never mind one taking over from another in the same Giro. Indeed it has been 36 years since the last Dutchman won a Grand Tour: Joop Zootemelk at the 1980 Tour de France. They’ve never had a winner of the Giro.
But while Kruijswijk contending to this degree is a bit of a surprise, it’s not as if he’s someone without pedigree. He’s had two top ten finished at this race in the past and in reality his odds should probably have been shorter than Dumoulin’s. A top 5 was always a possibility; all the LottoNL-Jumbo rider has done here is take it up a notch; rider smarter than in the past and put himself in the right place at the right time.
Only two men are now within a minute of Kruijswijk: Nibali at 41sec, who despite looking vulnerable today, is still very much in the reckoning ahead of tomorrow’s uphill time-trial and will remain confident in the knowledge that the longest climbs are still to come and those should still play into his favour; and Chaves at 1min 32sec. Valverde is 4th at a distant 3min 6sec.
There’s a long way to go, but now, at last, we truly have our small handful of real contenders to win here. The winner should come from one of three men, baring something spectacular. Everyone else has either abandoned or fallen by the wayside as the intensity, climbing and grind has been ramped up.
It’s only going to get harder.
Giro d’Italian 2016, stage 14 result:
|1. Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge)
2. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)
3. Georg Prediger (Giant-Alpecin)
4. John Atapuma (BMC)
5. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
6. Kanstantsin Siutsou (Dimension Data)
in 6h 06′ 16″
General classification after stage 14:
|1. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
3. Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge)
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
5. Andrey Amador (Movistar)
6. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff)
in 60h 12′ 43″
@ 1′ 32″
@ 3′ 06″
@ 3′ 15″
@ 3′ 29″