Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) almost won the mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi and extended his overall lead on Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) - but he is still keeping his feet on the ground, insisting the Giro d'Italia was far from decided.
The Dutchman was again impressive and arguably the strongest rider of the race for a second consecutive stage as he tackled the 10.8km time trial, spinning his legs at a metronomic pace.
He stopped the clock just a few hundreds of a second slower than Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom-Rusvelo) in 28:39. He gained time on all his overall rivals, but Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) bounced back from his bad day in the Dolomites to lose only 23 seconds to Kruijswijk. Chaves lost 40 seconds and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) lost 47 seconds, while Nibali was the big loser today, dropping 2:10 due to a mechanical problem that required a bike change in addition to his struggles on the constant gradient of the climb.
Kruijswijk now leads Chaves by 2:12, with Nibali slipping to third overall at 2:51. Valverde is fourth at 3:29 and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) is fifth at 4:38. The three-day block of mountainous racing had, as expected, shown who is a real contender in this year's Giro d'Italia and divide the best by minutes rather than just seconds.
"I missed out on the win but I took time out of my rivals and that's the main thing," he said, explaining his performance.
"I knew it was a 30 minute time trial and that I had to start fast to not lose too much time. I was lucky to keep a high pace. I went full gas and focused on keeping a good rhythm. The last two kilometres were the hardest of all."
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In the footsteps of Erik Breukink
Kruijswijk has picked up where fellow Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) left off in this year's race, giving the Dutch cycling fans plenty to cheer about after they also enjoyed the Grande Partenza. A Dutch rider has never won the Giro d'Italia, although Erik Breukink finished second to the USA's Andy Hampsten back in 1988.
"It's a historical day for me because to be honest I never expected to be in lead at the weekend before the last week," Kruijswijk said putting his moment in pink into a context.
"Perhaps it's a surprise for Dutch cycling fans too, but I'm just really happy I'm still in the leader's pink jersey. I didn't expect to gain so much time on my competitors but I'm in the best shape I've ever been."
"My life hasn't suddenly changed just because I'm in the maglia rosa. It's a different situation but I'm enjoying. Starting last in the time trial and in pink is a dream come true, it's a great feeling to have this jersey, it's not a problem. I'm trying to enjoy what I'm doing but I'm staying focused too."
"There's a lot of attention but it's nice attention. There's no extra pressure, there's only pressure from myself. I hope the best is still to come. I‘ve been a leader in a Grand Tour but I never expected this. I'm still getting stronger after the last few years. I hope to keep enjoying it right to the end."
A strong team for the final week?
Kruijswijk flatly denied a suggestion that he has now done enough and gained enough of an advantage to win the Giro d'Italia.
"I don't think so because there's still one week to go; a lot can happen in the Giro," he warned. "You have to be focused in the last week. But I do think I showed this weekend that I'm riding well enough to win the Giro. But the race ends next Sunday, so we'll see what happens."
"I honestly think that Chaves, Nibali and Valverde are still dangerous. Yesterday it was close. I'm not sure what happened to Nibali today but I know I've still got to watch the top five guys, try to follow them and control them."
He also pushed back to a suggestion that his LottoNL-Jumbo team was not very strong and would struggle to help him defend the race lead. The Dutch squad will have to protect and defend the maglia rosa when the facing resumes with a short but intense mountain stage from Bressanone to Andalo to the west of Trento and Bolzano.
"I think my team is really good here to be honest," Kruijswijk argued. "They always put me in the best position for the climbs and I've never spent energy on the flat. We have strong guys to help me defend this jersey. Of course It'll be up to be in the finale but I know they'll be there for me. I'm looking forward to the stages to come."
"I'm not sure what's going to happen in the final week of the Giro. The final mountain stages are really demanding with some high altitude moments. I'll have to see how things go if I'm feeling like this, I don't have to be scared."