As recently as Friday evening, the 2019 Giro d'Italia seemed as though it had come down to a two-way tussle between Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), with everyone else left in the Corsa Rosa just bit-players and B-listers as the two fought for victory.
On the snow-covered Colle del Nivolet, they appeared so sure of their pre-eminence, they stalled and marked each other, apparently unconcerned by the rider they were allowing to steal up the road. At the summit, Nibali issued a withering putdown of what he deemed to be Roglic's negative racing philosophy, without realising that he was implicating himself in the same crime.
"I said to him: 'If you also want to come and do a photo at my house, I'll show you my collection of trophies whenever you want...'" Nibali said sarcastically about the Slovenian following his every move, writing Saturday morning's headlines in the process.
However the Giro d'Italia would subsequently unfold, Nibali and Roglic seemed convinced it was a battle between them alone. How wrong they were. The following day, the focus was squarely on the interaction, or lack thereof, between the two favourites at the start of stage 14. On the Colle San Carlo and again on the final haul to Courmayeur, they only had eyes for one another. Again, they seemed unconcerned by the rider they had permitted to slip off the leash, even when he had moved into the maglia rosa of race leader.
And now after the wild racing on the road to Como, where Roglic's comedy of errors cost him a further 40 seconds? The Giro d'Italia script has been ripped up again. As the Giro breaks for its second rest day in Bergamo on Monday, Richard Carapaz (Movistar) sits atop the overall standings, with Roglic and Nibali suddenly the cycling bridesmaids as Ecuador celebrates a historic first maglia rosa.
As the Giro d'Italia hits its toughest mountains, a climber who placed fourth overall a year ago has 47 seconds in hand on Roglic and a buffer of 1:47 over Nibali. He also has a redoubtable foil in teammate Mikel Landa, fifth overall at 3:15. The Giro d'Italia danger man was hiding in plain sight and is now in control. As the Giro enters its final week, Carapaz can also rely on a Movistar squad that has, to now at least, shown itself to be stronger than either Bahrain-Merida or Jumbo-Visma.
"Carapaz is clearly one of the strongest riders in the race," Movistar directeur sportif Chente Garcia Acosta said in Como on Sunday, after the maglia rosa was the only rider to match Nibali's acceleration on the Civiglio. "It's no accident he's in pink."
Roglic's calculations leave him without insurance policy
Richard Carapaz certainly isn't an accidental Giro race leader; he has been a beneficiary of Roglic and Jumbo-Visma's heavily and perhaps excessively calculated tactical approach.
On Friday morning, Carapaz was some 3:16 down on Roglic, who was racing as the de facto leader of the Giro while the maglia rosa sat on the shoulders of his fellow countryman Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates).
Without any teammates on the final climb to Ceresole Reale, Roglic realised he couldn't follow every move and so decided to mark Nibali, and Nibali alone, which left Carapaz free to pilfer almost 90 seconds that afternoon. Mindful of the weakness of his Jumbo-Visma team, Roglic then ensured Carapaz gained just enough to move into the pink jersey by seven seconds when he attacked at Courmayeur.
Ahead of Sunday's stage to Como, Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli praised Roglic's race management.
"He's playing his cards in the best way possible in this moment. He can win the Giro in the time trial on the final day," Martinelli told Cyclingnews.
The problem with Roglic's defensive strategy, however, is that it has left him with precious little margin for error, far less a farcical mistake of the kind produced by his Jumbo-Visma management on Sunday afternoon.
When Roglic suffered a mechanical problem with 20km to race on stage 15, he was unable to get a replacement bike from his team car because his directeur sportif had stopped for a natural break. He instead had to borrow teammate Antwan Tolhoek's bike, and he was still riding that unfamiliar machine when he was distanced by Nibali and Carapaz on the Civiglio – and when he crashed on the descent that followed.
Although Roglic recovered well to limit his losses on Carapaz and Nibali to 40 seconds, he is now 47 seconds behind the Ecuadorian on the general classification and just a minute ahead of the Italian.
His road to victory has become a little narrower, even with the 17km final day time trial in Verona.
"It's difficult to predict how much time you can make up in a time trial, but it's going close be to the limit," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels said.
In 2017, an untimely toilet break on the Stelvio didn't cost Tom Dumoulin the Giro precisely because he had built up such a commanding lead over the two previous weeks. Two years on, Roglic will rue frittering away so much of his early advantage through tactical machinations. A bird in the hand, and all that. Jumbo-Visma's untimely toilet break might yet prove a costly one.
Nibali must attack, and he's not alone
Twice a winner of the Tour of Lombardy, Nibali was always likely to go on the offensive in the hills overlooking Lake Como, and so it proved again on Sunday. Nibali wasn't able to shake off Carapaz on the Civiglio or catch the break, but he did finally discommode Roglic, which was an important morale boost ahead of the arduous final week.
Nibali had appeared isolated at Ceresole Reale on Friday, but his teammate Damiano Caruso delivered two fine cameos this weekend, while Domenico Pozzovivo also looked like a man warming to his task on the Civiglio.
With the Verona time trial still to come, Nibali knows he must claw back at least two minutes on a suddenly more vulnerable Roglic, while he also needs to get an awful lot closer to Carapaz. He has no option but to attack.
"There are still a lot of climbs in the week ahead, and there'll be more attacks – not just from me," Nibali said on Sunday. "We'll have to be ready."
He is not the only one. After a trying week, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has also shown notable signs of life these past two days on the Giro, gamely attacking at Courmayeur and Como to move up to eighth overall, 5:24 off Carapaz.
Mindful of how his frank pre-race declarations were received, Yates downplayed his current renaissance.
"I won't start making claims that I'm back or anything again now, because everyone was a bit pissed off at me then," he confessed, although it's clear that his rivals still don't underestimate him.
"He has shown his condition is coming," warned Nibali, who will hope Yates can be an ally of circumstance in the tough final week. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) – another rider with nothing left to lose, and with a strong supporting cast to boot – should be in the same boat.
Mikel Landa (Movistar), bristling with ambition but bridled by team duties, will be watching their moves with interest. He knows there are just six days left. It's less than a third of the race, but it's the most important third of the race. And in the mountains, six days can seem like an eternity.
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