Days that set the heart racing but call for coolness of mind are always a firm test of a Giro d’Italia contender's credentials. Winning Grand Tours is, so the truism goes, about the head and the legs. On the evidence of the harsh Mortirolo on Tuesday afternoon, Richard Carapaz (Movistar) appears to have both qualities in abundance.
The Ecuadorian’s second day in the maglia rosa proved as auspicious as his first. Once again, he resisted an offensive from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), this time on the Mortirolo, and finished alongside the Italian in Ponte di Legno, 1:41 down on stage winner Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo). For the fourth consecutive stage, meanwhile, he made hefty gains on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), the man favoured in Sunday’s concluding time trial, coming in 1:22 ahead of the Slovenian.
The road to Verona is still an arduous one, but Carapaz further improved his chances of standing atop the podium in the Arena with a display of unimpeachable calm on one of the most frenzied days of this Giro to date.
Carapaz’s overall lead is 1:47 over Nibali, while Roglic now drops to third, 2:09 behind. His teammate Mikal Landa, who came home alongside the maglia rosa and Nibali in 7th on the stage, moves up to 4th place overall, 3:15 down.
"Thinking ahead to the time trial in Verona, we gained some important time against Roglic," Carapaz said after taking a seat in the sports hall that hosted the press room in Ponte di Legno.
"It was hard for everyone on the Mortirolo. Roglic had a difficult moment, but we saw that Nibali is strong in the legs. We worked together well on the valley afterwards to gain more time on Roglic and the others, but there are still a lot of kilometres and mountains to go."
The pivotal moment of Carapaz’s stage came with a little over 8 kilometres of the Mortirolo still to climb, when Nibali jumped clear of the dwindling pink jersey group. Roglic was already betraying signs of struggle, and the temptation must have been to try to follow Nibali immediately lest he disappear from sight on the tree-lined, mist-shrouded ascent. Carapaz instead opted to rely on the steady pace-making of teammates Antonio Pedrero and Mikel Landa to close the small gap to Nibali, eventually making contact with the Sicilian near the summit.
It would be tempting to assume that the management at Movistar (formerly Banesto) preach caution on the Mortirolo as a matter of course given how Miguel Indurain paid such a price for his rasping pursuit of Marco Pantani on the climb 25 years ago. Carapaz, however, explained that he and Landa had themselves decided upon this careful approach.
"We didn’t follow Nibali immediately," Carapaz said. "We were the team with the biggest number of riders, with three of us, so we raced prudently, and we were able to disarm the attack. Landa and I made the call, and we were prudent in face of the attack of Nibali. We played it well with the team, we had riders up the road to help and we also had our teammates on the climb. We wanted to use our team to control the stage."
Carapaz and Landa joined up with teammate Andrey Amador, who was part of the early break, shortly after catching Nibali, and the Costa Rican proved an able pilot on the long, twisting drop off the Mortirolo. On the shallow climb towards the finish in Ponte di Legno, the pink jersey group picked up Nibali’s teammate Damiano Caruso, another survivor from the break, and they worked together to maintain their gains over Roglic.
"It was very a very complicated stage and the race route, with the adverse weather conditions made it even harder. But we all faced the same conditions. We all collaborated in the finale and it worked out well," said Carapaz.
He will be mindful, of course, that the alliance of circumstance with Nibali was only a temporary one. Hostilities will recommence on the road to Anterselva on Wednesday. Though the stage features no category 1 or 2 climbs, the residual fatigue from the Mortirolo could yet make itself felt. Leaving Ponte di Legno on Tuesday, Nibali pledged to be inventive in the coming days.
"We have a much clearer vision of the riders who are in the GC. Everybody suffered on the Mortirolo," Carapaz said. "But right now, Nibali is the most dangerous rival."