Nicknamed De Kleerhanger – 'the clothes hanger' – for his broad-shouldered stance on a bike, Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) continues to give the distinct impression that he will end this Giro d'Italia with the maglia rosa safely stashed away in his wardrobe.
Asked during one press conference this week if he feared anything from the remainder of this Giro, Kruijswijk matter-of-factly replied "I don't have a weak point," and on an individual level, certainly, the Dutchman has seemed a notch above all of his rivals since taking over atop the general classification in Corvara last weekend.
On the Passo della Mendola and Fai della Paganella on Tuesday, and again on the road to Pinerolo on Thursday, Kruijswijk managed affairs with disarming confidence for a man leading a Grand Tour for the first time, shutting down moves in person and then further underlining his superiority by upping the pace at the head of the pink jersey group.
The one glaring chink in Kruijswijk's armour at this juncture, it seems, is the relative weakness of a team where only Enrico Battaglin seems equipped to offer any robust support when the road climbs upwards. With two mammoth days in the Alps lying between Kruijswijk and Sunday's concluding passeggiata in Turin, it remains to be seen if Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) et al can exploit his comparative lack of support.
Friday's stage 19 sees the Giro cross into France by way of the 2,744-metre-high Colle dell'Agnello, the highest point of the race, ahead of a summit finish at Risoul. Saturday's penultimate stage 20, meanwhile, is shorter – 134 kilometres rather than 163 – but arguably tougher, with the Col de Vars, the 2,715-metre Col de la Bonette and the 2,350-metre Colle della Lombarda on the agenda before the short final haul to Sant'Anna di Vinadio.
"With two days like that, anything can happen, and coming from Colombia, Chaves should have an advantage above 2,500 metres, even if Kruijswijk has been very good so far," Eddy Merckx warned during RAI's Processo alla Tappa post-race show on Thursday evening.
"But Saturday is the more dangerous day for Kruijswijk because there are more climbs. If you don't have a team there, it becomes a lot more difficult if they start attacking you one by one."
Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White, however, takes an opposing view, arguing that Kruijswijk should not be unduly penalised by lack of climbing teammates given that his closest rivals on general classification will be equally isolated for much of the coming two stages.
"When you're the strongest guy in the bike race, you don't need a teammate in the way Sky ride the race. At the end of the day, the Giro is different to the Tour," White said.
"When you see the selection on the Giro climbs, it's a lot smaller selection and who has multiple teammates at the top of a climb of 2,700 metres? Last year, we saw Saxo Bank had a couple, Astana had a couple. But this year it's very much an individual race, man on man. And that's what I think it's going to be on Friday and Saturday."
On Pramartino on Thursday, in any case, Kruijswijk was able to rely on a fine cameo from Battaglin, who set a determined tempo all of the way up the climb, postponing the day's – very – tentative attacks until the short cobbled climb before the finish in Pinerolo. Speaking to Cyclingnews earlier in the week, Battaglin was relaxed about the level of support Kruijswijk requires.
"He's shown that he's going very strongly anyway, and in the mountain finales he hasn't need a whole lot of help," Battaglin said. "After almost three weeks of racing, there's a lot of tiredness and riders drop off a bit, so we'll see day by day how to manage things. It will depend on how the rival teams ride too. But after the way Steve performed on Tuesday's stage, our minds are a bit more at ease."
Kruijswijk carries a sizeable buffer into the denouement in the high Alps. He lies three minutes clear of Chaves and 3:23 ahead of Valverde. A seemingly diminished Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is fourth, some 4:43 down, while Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) – potentially the other strongman of this final week – is 4:50 back in fifth.
In other words, were it not for Kruijswijk's inexperience in competing for such a mighty prize – his best Grand Tour finish was seventh at last year's Giro – victory for the 28-year-old would already be viewed as something of a foregone conclusion.
But then again, the final days of the Giro have the habit of throwing up surprises. A year ago, for instance, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) seemed an unassailable leader, before an unexpected crisis on the Colle delle Finestre suddenly cast his race into disarray, though he managed to save himself and salvage overall victory on the final haul to Sestriere.
Kruijswijk has looked utterly unflappable since taking hold of the maglia rosa but Friday and Saturday's high mountain passes will be the ultimate arbiter. The dramatic Colle dell'Agnello will be banked by walls of snow. Saturday's stage will feature some 75 kilometres of climbing. This has already been a demanding Giro to this point, but the sting in the tail could be a vicious one.
"We're going to see even more explosions than we saw on Tuesday, that's for sure," White said. "It's going to be very interesting racing on Friday and Saturday. I think one of the stages has 75 kilometres of climbing. It's madness, it's absolute madness. If you have a good day or a bad day, 25 or 30 seconds is not going to be the difference."
At the finish line in Pinerolo on Thursday afternoon, meanwhile, Valverde's assessment of the Alpine doubleheader was succinct: "Anything could happen."
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