Save for Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) conceding the pink jersey to Andrey Amador (Movistar), there were no major changes to the general classification on stage 13 of the Giro d'Italia, but the first of the weekend's trio of mountain stages marked a discernible shift in tone for the race.
After the bluff and counter bluff of the opening two weeks, the stiff ascents of the Porzus and the Valle seemed a prelude to the Giro's denouement in the high mountains, and the entire stage showcased the differing tactical approaches of the race's two strongest blocks, Movistar and Astana.
Movistar again looked to influence the race by sending riders up the road early on – Giovanni Visconti survived off the front to take second – while Amador and Alejandro Valverde sat in the wheels. Astana, by contrast, took up the reins at the head of the peloton and looked to force a selection on the Porzus, where the forcing of Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi eventually reduced the pink jersey group to just 16 riders.
On the final ascent of the Valle, meanwhile, there was another stalemate between Valverde and Nibali, with each man placing one acceleration before laying down arms on the dangerous descent into Cividale del Friuli.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) did fire a shot across Valverde's bows by claiming the sprint for third place on the stage and nabbing four bonus seconds to leapfrog him on general classification, but in truth it was another score draw between the Giro's two favourites. Two weeks in, just two seconds separate Nibali (3rd at 41 seconds) and Valverde (4th at 43 seconds).
"It's almost more a game of the mind than of the legs," Nibali said of his duel with Valverde to date, as if to infer that the ‘real' race between the pair might begin as soon as Saturday, when the Giro tackles five mountain passes as it winds through the Dolomites en route to Corvara.
All week, debate has raged as to the true hierarchy of the Movistar team, given Amador's presence towards the top of the overall standings. Paradoxically, on the very day that he has taken possession of the maglia rosa, Amador gave the firmest indications to date that he is not capable of carrying it to Turin.
Amador was shaken loose from the group of favourites on the ascent of the Valle shortly after Jungels, though he gamely scrambled down the descent to latch back on and take hold of the overall lead. With more arduous mountain tests to come, and despite his fourth place overall finish last year, the Costa Rican seemed to feel that his tenure in the pink jersey would not be a lasting one.
"I know who I am and where I come from," he said. "I have no problem devoting myself to Alejandro." Even so, Amador's presence at the head of the overall standings – with a buffer of just 26 seconds over Jungels, but more than 40 seconds over everyone else – means that he remains a very useful foil for Valverde, particularly if the race remains a battle of nerves rather than of brute strength in the days ahead.
Chaves and Kruijswijk
While Jungels lost the pink jersey, he rode intelligently to limit his losses and remains in the box seat for the best young rider classification. He was bullish, too, about his prospects in the third week, though Saturday's demanding trek to Corvara will reveal more.
A man who has already shown that he can shine in the third week of the Giro is Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and unlike twelve months ago, he enters the high mountains with precious little ground to make up. In 2015, he was forced to go on the offensive to recoup the ground he lost early on. This time around, the Dutchman has the liberty of holding fire and following the favourites.
Virtually flawless through 13 stages, Kruijswijk is fifth overall, and locked on the same time as Valverde, just 43 seconds behind. It's worth noting, too, that Kruijswijk, Valverde and Nibali have a buffer of almost a minute over the rest of the podium contenders.
Another man to impress in Friuli on Friday was Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), who unfurled a sharp attack on the Valle and lies 2:19 down in 8th as the Giro enters his favoured terrain. The Colombian began last year's Vuelta a España strongly before eventually sliding to fifth overall in Madrid, but he appears to have tailored his Giro preparation with the race's demanding final week expressly in mind.
Rafal Majka (6th at 1:37) has flown decidedly under the radar thus far, but it was telling that the Tinkoff rider was the first to respond to Nibali's acceleration a kilometre from the summit of the Valle. Interestingly, that was also where Ilnur Zakarin (seventh at 2:01) showed his first signs of difficulty in the mountains at this Giro, as the Russian was distanced from the group and had to summon up an enormous effort to bridge back up near the summit.
With the Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, Campolongo, Giau and Valparola all facing the riders on Saturday, any such moments of weakness will be punished mercilessly on stage 14, while there will be precious little time to recover ahead of Sunday's mountain time trial at Alpe di Siusi either. The biggest test this weekend is not any one climb, then, but the succession of three tough mountain stages.
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