Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNl-Jumbo) openly declared his love for the Giro d'Italia as he was rewarded with his first-ever maglia rosa on stage 14 in Corvara and a huge boost in his confidence after he and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) showed they were by far the strongest riders of the stage.
Kruijswijk and Chaves managed to gain time on all their overall riders after attacking with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on the final Passo Valparola climb. They then distanced the Italian enough so that Kruijswijk jumped to the top of the general classification and took the maglia rosa. All their rivals lost even more time, with Alejandro Valverde and Andrey Amador (Movistar) the big losers. They slipped to more than three minutes back as the Giro d'Italia underwent a seismic shift.
Kruijswijk now leads Nibali by 41 seconds, with Chaves at 1:32 and Valverde at 3:06. Amador, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Rigoberto Uran (Canondale) are even further back.
"In the end it's a wonderful day for me. I was dreaming of the pink jersey and today it happened. I'm really happy to be in this position," said the level-headed, red head from Nuenen in the post-race press conference.
"This is my sixth Giro d'Italia, my first was when I was a neo pro and ever since then, I loved this race and this style of racing. It's difficult every year but it's a special race."
Kruijswijk lost 8:27 on the rolling road to La Spezia last year but recovered so well in the final week that he finished in eighth place on general classification, 10:53 behind the pink jersey of Alberto Contador, but less than eight minutes off a place on the final podium. He also impressed on the tough stage over the Mortirolo, as he rode with Contador to distance Fabio Aru.
He has shown a new maturity, consistency and form so far this year, which has allowed him to gain time on his rivals. He again prepared methodically for the Giro d'Italia with three weeks at altitude in Tenerife.
"I think I'm at the same level as last year but the difference is that last year I lost a lot of time in the first week and then had to fight back and into the GC. I was expecting to be at same this year but I've perhaps learnt a lot about riding Grand Tours now and so I was more focused from the very beginning and I'm acting more acting like a leader in team.
"Holland is not great for training for mountains so I spend a lot if time in Spain. I quickly discovered I'm a good climber at the start of my career and that's why I love the Giro stages like today. I'm happy that I'm a climber when it's so tough.
"Today I knew Nibali would attack and I felt I could follow him. It wasn't easy but I felt pretty good, so I decided to try something and it succeeded. Then Esteban came with me and so it was a great chance to gain time. I was a good day."
Now for the mountain time trial
Kruijswijk saw how strong Chaves was and knows he is a major rival. Their next battle will be in Sunday's 10.8km mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi.
I think Esteban showed today, together with me, that he was one of the strongest in the race," Kruijswijk argued.
"The time trial is going to be really hard. I think I'm feeling confident, and it's only the third day in the mountains, so I'm confident that I can have a good time trial. We'll see what the classification looks like after the time trial. Nibali is really close and the big favourite but I'll give my best to defend the jersey.
"I hope to gain some time on him instead of losing time. This time trial is a very different time trial to one in Chianti. I'll go full and well see at the end."
Kruijswijk is understandably confident about the time trial after pulling on the maglia rosa but is also blush about the big mountain stage still to come in the final week.
"Last year my third week was really good and that's a good sign for final week and the big stages. Now it's not about seconds but minutes. I'm feeling good and hope to feel like this next week too."
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