And then there were three? For two weeks, the defining feature of this Giro d'Italia was its very lack of definition, with the podium contenders separated by a matter of seconds and largely cancelling one another out on the early summit finishes and even in last weekend's Chianti time trial.
Six mountain passes and fourteen days of accumulated fatigue, however, were always likely to add up to some significant shifts in the general classification, and so it proved on the Dolomite tappone to Corvara, on stage 14, which has left only two riders – Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) within three minutes of new maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).
That trio proved the strongest on the day's final climb, the Passo Valparola, but the hierarchy within that group was a surprising one. While it was Nibali's stinging attack that fragmented the pink jersey group, Chaves and Kruijswijk were clearly better than the Italian champion on the day, and pulled away from him three kilometres from the summit.
When Nibali crossed the finish line, he seemed unsure whether his glass was half full or half empty. His pride will have been wounded, certainly, by failing to match Kruijswijk and Chaves' tempo on the upper reaches of the Valparola, but – unlike Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who laid down arms and lost three minutes – Nibali did not crack and chased alone for 25 kilometres to limit his losses to 37 seconds on the stage.
Nestled in the heart of the Dolomites on Saturday evening, Nibali's performance felt like a defeat, but it is far too soon to say, particularly with a mountain time trial to follow on Sunday afternoon. In Turin next week, Nibali might yet look back on stage 14 as the day he saved his Giro.
As it stands, Nibali lies second overall, 41 seconds down on Kruijswijk. While his emerging rivals will be a worry, the Italian champion can draw solace from how his condition has advanced significantly on last week and how he has effectively ended Valverde's challenge for pink. For his back catalogue alone, Nibali remains the logical favourite for final victory, but both Kruijswijk and Chaves made a strong case for their prospects on the road to Corvara.
Kruijswijk is usually at his best in the third week of a Grand Tour, and the final week of this Giro is a long, hard slog where his qualities as a diesel should come to the fore. On the other hand, the Dutchman has never contended for the podium of a Grand Tour before, and the accumulation of pressure, as much as fatigue, could be an issue from here to Turin.
Chaves, meanwhile, looked the sharpest every time the road went uphill. Now third at 1:32, the Colombian is only 51 seconds behind Nibali, and will have seen enough to feel he can peg back that ground on the climbs in the final week. After fading in the latter part of the Vuelta a España last year, Chaves continues to give the impression that he has timed his preparation better for this back-loaded Giro.
Valverde's off day
Speaking to Cyclingnews earlier in the week, Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue suggested that the weekend's troika of mountain stages would "tell us who was really prepared" to win this Giro. The verdict of the road showed that his charges were not, as they each lost three minutes. Valverde slips to fourth at 3:06, while Andrey Amador is now fifth at 3:15.
The road to Turin is still long, of course, and at the Giro two years ago Movistar's Nairo Quintana overturned a three-minute deficit in one dramatic, snowbound day in the final week. But the 36-year-old Valverde is not Quintana, and it's hard to think it's going to get much better for him from here on in.
As per his habit on this Giro, Valverde was parked tightly on Nibali's wheel when he launched his attack on the Valparola, but simply had no response to the acceleration. Amador, who had already had to chase back on after being dropped on the Giau, could offer little help in marshalling a pursuit either. Talk of Movistar's two-pronged assault on the maglia rosa already seems fanciful.
A hierarchy imposed
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) all briefly succeeded in bridging up to the Nibali-Kruijswijk-Chaves group on the Valparola, but were shaken loose again when Kruijswijk accelerated three kilometre from the summit.
That trio proceeded to ship time at a rate of knots equivalent to that of the Valverde group, however, with Zakarin and Majka eventually reaching the finish 2:29 down on Chaves, and Uran coming home 11 seconds later. Majka (sixth at 3:29) and Zakarin (7th at 3:53) remain in contention for a podium place, but overall victory in Turin is surely beyond them by this point, and certainly out of reach for Uran (eighth at 5:01).
Sunday's 10.8-kilometre tough mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi could well provoke sizeable time gaps, particularly as it marks the third successive day of climbing, but it would be something of a surprise if it immediately subverted the hierarchy that appears to have emerged in the Dolomites.
However they fare, Kruijswijk, Nibali and Chaves will surely still occupy the top three positions on Sunday evening, while those riders three minutes – and more – behind will set out from Castelrotto mindful that they can afford no further slip ups.
It's easy to lose minutes in the third week of the Giro, but exceedingly difficult to peg them back.
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