Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will have to hope that his epic at this Giro d'Italia is yet to be written, as he put his chief rival Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to the sword on the tappone to Corvara in stage 14, only to find two more springing up in his place.
When Nibali surged out of the pink jersey group midway up the Passo Valparola, framed against a backdrop of snow-crowned Dolomites, the Giro seemed to be adhering to its expected script. The Italian champion was painfully awakened from that vision, however, when Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) bridged across soon afterwards, and then forged clear without him three kilometres from the summit.
Nibali was 30 seconds behind Kruijswijk and Chaves by the top, and then faced a forlorn lone pursuit down the other side and over the short, steep Cima del Gatto before the finish. He eventually crossed the line in fifth place, 37 seconds down on the stage winner Chaves and new maglia rosa Kruijswijk.
Even before his soigneur Michele Pallini could help him into a long-sleeved jersey and whisper the time gaps in his ear, Nibali was engulfed by a swarm of cameras and microphones at the finish area, and he was frank in his assessment of the day's racing.
"I wasn't able to follow the changes in tempo and the acceleration that Kruijswijk made," Nibali admitted. "I sat up in the last three kilometres of the climb because they were laying down a very high rhythm, and I already knew that Valverde had been dropped and was losing time. In the finale, I had to do a time trial by myself, managing my energy."
Nibali now lies second overall, 41 seconds behind Kruijswijk and only 51 ahead of the dangerous Chaves, though he has now moved some 2:25 of Valverde on general classification after the Spaniard conceded three minutes on the stage. A week shy of Turin, the Giro is beginning to take the feel of a three-way contest.
While Nibali was alone for the final 25 kilometres of the stage, Chaves and Kruijswijk collaborated smoothly and picked up the remnants of the day's break for good measure. Though he could sense them around every bend on the descent of the Valparola, Nibali could never make inroads into the deficit.
"They made a nice attack and they managed their effort well," Nibali said. "I don't know if they had some help from the guys in the break, but at one point I got very close to them. Riding alone it was very difficult, though, because there was a big headwind.
"It wasn't simple. They were always there in sight, but I could see they were exchanging turns regularly and working well together, so that made it difficult to get back up to them."
Mountain time trial
Nibali had signalled his intentions by setting his Astana team to work from the foot of the penultimate climb, the Passo Giau, where a remarkably spry Michele Scarponi played a pivotal role in whittling the pink jersey group down to fewer than a dozen riders. The Astana forcing ensured that Amador was already distanced on the Giau, and though he battled back on the descent, it was clear that his tenure in pink was coming to a swift end.
Scarponi continued to pile on the pressure on the lower slopes of the Valparola, paving the way for Nibali's attack. But for the third time in this Giro, a determined acceleration from Nibali failed to yield the expected dividend. Although he saw off Valverde, he was unable to discommode Kruijswijk or Chaves.
"I didn't really expect Kruijswijk to go so strongly and maybe we expected more from Valverde," Nibali said. "I'm still quite satisfied with my day. This Giro will be won day by day, it's not going to be easy."
Sunday's mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi should continue to refine the upper reaches of the general classification. It will be the third climbing stage in as many days, and the fatigue accumulated from tackling six mountain passes on stage 14 surely ought to be a factor. The balance sheet from the Giro's long weekend is yet to be tallied. "We'll see in the cronoscalata tomorrow what the gaps are," Nibali said.
Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov, meanwhile, was looking even further ahead, to next weekend's grand finale in the Alps, where two brutal stages, to Risoul and Sant'Anna di Vinadio, await. "Tomorrow is an important stage, but regardless of what happens, there are two very hard stages next week," Vinokourov said. "The Giro finishes in Turin."
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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.