Just past the finish line of stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia, Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) sat on the roadside, his face white, his chest heaving and his eyes distant. A scrum of reporters and cameras hemmed him in against the barrier, but for two minutes or more, the Dutchman seemed barely able to perceive them, far less hear them.
The road atop Sant’Anna di Vinadio is narrow, steep and leads to nowhere. A pair of exasperated carabinieri tried to clear the reporters to make room for the following cars, and Kruijswijk risked being trampled upon. On the other side of the road, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was about to be helped into a maglia rosa that perhaps should have been his. This is not a sentimental business.
Imperious for much of the final week, Kruijswijk had lost the overall lead after crashing on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello on Friday afternoon. He set off from Guillestre on Saturday morning in third place overall, 1:05 off the lead. Hampered by a broken rib, however, he knew that holding off fourth-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), only 43 seconds behind, would be a tall order.
“I was on my limit today and I couldn’t do any more than I did. This was it,” Kruijswijk said after rising gingerly to his feet in Sant’Anna di Vinadio. After the crash yesterday I knew I just had to fight and see where I finished.”
In the circumstances, staying with the group of favourites until Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) launched his Giro-winning attack on the Colle della Lombarda was a feat in itself, but a place on the podium slipped from Kruijswijk’s grasp on the final approach towards the summit as watched Valverde punch out of view.
Kruijswijk battled gamely to limit his losses on the descent off the Lombarda and again on the short but sharp final haul to Sant’Anna di Vinadio, but there was nothing to be done. He inched across the line in 13th place, 1:16 behind Valverde. He will ride into Turin on Sunday afternoon in 4th overall, 1:50 down on the new leader Nibali.
“Last night I didn’t expect to start or that I’d be able to follow the guys, so in the end I have to be satisfied after what happened yesterday,” Kruijswijk said, looking to put a brave face on a trying 48 hours. “I had a sleepless night, it was three or four o’clock before I fell asleep. I tried to hold on, but it was too hard. I’m still disappointed after Risoul.
“The only thing that was possible was to try to hold my top three spot because I lost the Giro yesterday. It’s a shame that I’m standing here without the pink jersey now.
A place on the final podium was surely the very least Kruijswijk deserved from a Giro where he rode flawlessly for 18 and a half stages, but after his assured tenure in the maglia rosa, it would have been a mere consolation prize. Right up until that fateful descent of the Agnello, he had looked every inch the Giro winner.
“It was a big chance for me to win a Grand Tour, and I think I was one of the best in the race,” Kruijswijk said. “But staying on your bike is also cycling and that’s what I lacked yesterday.”
Kruijswijk didn’t flinch when asked what lessons he had drawn from this most cruel end to his Giro. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” he said, not with rancour but as a simple statement of fact. “You see that it’s a fight to the last day.”