Since the Giro d'Italia left Apeldoorn two weeks ago, there have been only the slightest swings of the pendulum in the battle between Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and the relative impasse continued on stage 13 through the Julian Alps to Cividale del Friuli.
Just two seconds separated the outstanding favourites for final overall victory in Turin before the stage and so it remained afterwards, though Nibali will have been buoyed by leapfrogging Valverde in the standings thanks to the four-second time bonus he earned by pipping the Spaniard in the sprint for third place on the stage.
"The final sprint went well for me in the end. There was a headwind and Alejandro went from distance but I timed my effort right," Nibali told reporters after wheeling to a halt past the finish line, 1:17 behind stage winner Mikel Nieve (Sky).
On the day's final climb, the short haul to Valle, Valverde and Nibali had exchanged accelerations at the head of the reduced group of favourites. Valverde went first, launching a tentative effort that was immediately snuffed out by Nibali. A more wholehearted attack from Nibali followed nearer the summit, but he desisted after a few hundred metres.
In the popular imagination, at least in Italy, Nibali and Valverde have been cast as diametric opposites – the Italian champion as attacker and the Spaniard as follower. In truth, each man has been relatively cautious to date. At this juncture, their Giro remains a battle of wits. In the final week – and perhaps as soon as Saturday's tappone in the Dolomites – it will become a more straightforward question of legs.
"That's his way of riding, I know that very well," Nibali said of Valverde's measured approach. "We know that he's always raced like that, it's almost more a game of the mind than of the legs. I tried to attack on the last climb, a kilometre from the top, but everybody was very alert today. But it's still only the first mountain stage we've had, there's more to come."
Friday's stage brought the Giro through fresh terrain in Friuli, including the stiff climb of the Porzus, site of one of the most doleful and controversial episodes of the Italian Resistance. Astana's Michele Scarponi and Jakob Fuglsang were to the fore on the category one ascent, steadily whittling down the pink jersey group, while Nibali sat in third wheel, repeatedly checking over his shoulder to keep track of Valverde.
"We tried to make the race by attacking on the penultimate climb. Scarponi laid down a very high rhythm there and again on the final climb, trying to make the race hard, but it wasn't easy," Nibali said.
Pink jersey Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) was shaken lose by the accelerations of the general classification contenders on the final haul up Valle, ultimately losing his jersey, though the man who inherited it, Andrey Amador (Movistar), also showed signs of weakness. The Costa Rican was distanced on the climb but managed to scramble back up to the Nibali-Valverde group on the sinuous descent.
"Amador wasn't as sharp today, he really suffered a lot," said Nibali, who now lies third overall, 41 seconds behind the Costa Rican. "There was an acceleration from Valverde, and then I had a go myself, but it stayed together.
"After that, it was dangerous on the descent and there was even one point where I lost my grip a bit. But we were all watching one other and there was no point in taking big risks because you could crash and lose the entire Giro on a descent like that."
Nibali demurred when asked if the Giro was shaping up to be a two-man contest with Valverde, and he will surely have noted that Jungels was dropped largely thanks to the efforts of the effervescent Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge). "I see Majka is going well, I see Kruijswijk is going well, I see Chaves is going well… So really everybody who came over the top of the last climb together is going well," Nibali said.
Speaking to Cyclingnews earlier in the Giro, Astana coach Paolo Slongo explained that Nibali had begun the race still short of his best, with the intention of growing in condition ahead of the race's tough denouement in the Dolomites this weekend and the high Alps next week.
"The first week, all told, was pretty ‘easy' on this Giro, so Vincenzo maybe arrived in Holland a bit less in condition than normal with the idea of building form during the first 8 or 10 days," Slongo said.
The first major test of that strategy arrives on Saturday, as the Giro tackles the Pordoi, Sella, Giau and Valparola en route to Corvara. With that marathon in mind, Nibali travelled directly to the night's hotel in a team car within twenty minutes of the finish, rather than sit in traffic aboard the team bus. Before taking his leave, Nibali was succinct when asked he felt as the Giro enters the high mountains. "Good, thanks."
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