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Kruijswijk in command as Giro d'Italia approaches endgame in the Alps

A visit to Pinerolo on the Giro d'Italia inevitably evokes recollections of 1949 and all that. Fausto Coppi's lone victory in that year's Cuneo-Pinerolo leg was feted by Mario Ferretti's radio commentary, which immortalised the image of Coppi as ‘un uomo solo al comando.' Dino Buzzati drew on the Iliad to describe Gino Bartali's defeat that same day, likening him as Hector to Coppi's Achilles.

This year's trio to Pinerolo during stage 18 was a rather more routine affair, with a gentle approach from the Plain of Lombardy rather than a trek through the high Alps. The 240-kilometre stage from Muggiò may have been the longest of this Giro, but it was no epic, at least for maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), who matter-of-factly defended his overall lead, as the pink jersey group rolled in 13 minutes down on winner Matteo Trentin (Etixx-QuickStep).

"It was a really long stage and I think the team did a perfect job," Kruijswijk said. "We had three guys pulling on the front for 200 kilometres and then I had some more guys to bring me to the climb.

The day's difficulties were shoehorned into the final 25 kilometres, as the peloton faced the category climb of Pramartino and then the short, sharp cobbled climb of San Maurizio shortly before the finish. Kruijswijk's teammate Enrico Battaglin led all the way up the Pramartino, while the Dutchman was himself to the fore on the final ascent, underling his apparent superiority by easing past Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) towards the summit.

"Enrico pulled on the whole climb, I had just had to follow my teammates all day," Kruijswijk said. "We knew a break would go away early and stay out there to the finish, and you notice which riders and teams want to be the break. It's predictable at the end of the Giro. We knew we had to control the race, and we did."

Into the Alps

The race will surely prove more unwieldy to control in the next two days, as the Giro faces into its denouement in the high Alps. Friday's stage features the race's highest point, the Colle dell'Agnello, en route to a summit finish at Risoul, while the Col de la Bonette looms the following day.

Kruijswijk carries a lead of precisely three minutes over Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) into the Alps, while Valverde lies a further 23 seconds back in third. The Dutchman has defended his lead with disarming facility since taking control on the Dolomite tappone to Corvara last weekend, and he exuded confidence about his prospects of holding on to his advantage and sealing overall victory in Turin on Sunday.

"I'm looking forward to tomorrow and Saturday," Kruijswijk said. "They're long climbs, and I've trained a lot for long climbs like this. I already showed last week that I'm good on the longer climbs and at altitude, so we'll see what tomorrow brings."

More on this story:
Giro d’Italia stage 18 highlights – Video
Giro d’Italia stage 18 – Finish line quotes

Both the Agnello and Bonette stand more than 2,700 metres above sea level, and Eddy Merckx – visiting the Giro for the publication of Felice Gimondi's autobiography – wondered on Thursday evening whether the high altitude of the coming days would be better-suited to Chaves, who lives at altitude in Colombia.

"When you race at 2,700 metres, it's hard and there's a shortage of oxygen, but last week we did climbs like the Passo Giau, which is at 2,200 metres," Kruiijswijk said. "I was comfortable there and I've trained at altitude too."

So far on this Giro, Kruisjwijk has produced answers for everything he has faced, on and off the bike, but he was coy when asked to discuss his future on Thursday evening. "Which future?" he asked, to laughter from the press room.

The future beyond his existing contract with LottoNL-Jumbo, which expires at the end of this season. Inquiries about his availability, it seems, have not been in short supply. "I'm just keeping my mind on the Giro and the last week," Kruijswijk said. "I'm just focused on this."

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Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.