Stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia lacked the Passo Gavia but it included plenty of drama, hard racing in the rain and a further shake-out that exposed Primoz Roglic's weaknesses and confirmed that local hero Vincenzo Nibali has a huge fight on his hands if he wants to break the combined strength of the Movistar and current race leader Richard Carapaz.
The Ecuadorian rider, 25, is leading a Grand Tour for the first time in his career but appears to be rock solid in the maglia rosa. He can also count on the experience of the Movistar team who have been in this situation numerous times during their decades of success and also appear to have the strongest team in the Giro d'Italia.
Carapaz had the support of Mikel Landa and Antonio Pedrero for much of the Mortirolo, with Andrey Amador dropping back from the break of the day to make his own contribution. Only one rider pulls on the final maglia rosa but the strength of a team, its unity and tactics always make a significant difference in Grand Tours.
After the dust settled in Ponte di Legno and riders warmed-up after a cold, hard day in the saddle, the new general classification made everyone at Movistar smile.
Carapaz leads Nibali by 1:47, with Roglic at a more distant 2:09. Behind the top three, there is a fight for the lesser placing and a show of pride. Mikel Landa (Movistar) is fourth at 3:15, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is fifth at 5:00, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) is sixth at 5:40, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) is seventh at 6:17 and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is eighth at 6:46.
"Every day we can take time on Roglic is very good," Movistar directeur sportif said post-race with a broad Spanish smile.
"In terms of looking ahead to having the pink jersey in Verona, this was a very important step. The last day Saturday is very hard, but even these other 'easier' stages can have surprises. We have to keep going step by step, day by day."
Movistar must be confident of taking more time on the Roglic in the final mountain stages but already have enough of an advantage for the final 17km time trial around Verona on Sunday. The 2019 Giro d'Italia is now theirs to lose but with Landa looking so strong, he could even move up and finish on the podium ahead of Nibali or Roglic.
If Carapaz does stumble before the weekend, Landa is there as his replacement, more than happy to finally have a chance. Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue arrived at the Giro d'Italia on Monday, just in time to make sure Landa does not go AWOL and try to take the race lead from Carapaz as part of an attack by Nibali, Yates and others.
Carapaz has shown he is smart enough to follow every time Landa makes an attack. He knows it is always best to keep your rivals close but your friends (and teammates) even closer.
Nibali has a new rival to focus on
Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida squad had seemed obsessed and almost distracted by an often bitter duel with Roglic for most of the Giro d'Italia. On the Mortirolo, the Shark of Messina took a bite out of the Slovenian's legs and finally realised that Movistar and Carapaz are his biggest obstacle for a third Giro d'Italia victory in Verona.
Nibali has been relaxed and confident throughout the Giro d'Italia and was not afraid to attack early on the Mortirolo to find just how good his rivals were feeling after the second rest day. The removal of the Passo Gavia arguably made the Mortirolo harder than ever, with Nibali determined to make a move on the 10 per cent gradients and narrow road up from Mazzo.
Nibali's coach and directeur sportif Paolo Slongo hinted to Cyclingnews on the rest day that Roglic would struggle on the Mortirolo, and he was proven right. On the Mortirolo, Nibali left Roglic behind and gained 1:22, moving ahead of the Slovenian into second in the GC. But it was not a knockout blow, as Rogic is only 22 seconds behind in third with the time trial in his favour.
Nibali, Slongo and Bahrain-Merida know they have to find a way to crack Carapaz.
"Our race strategy wasn't focused on Roglic. If anything, his strategy was focused on us," Slongo pointed out to La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"We can only continue to race at our level and hope that Carapaz - now our biggest rival, blows up. Unfortunately, he took advantage of Nibali and Roglic marking each other to gain precious time. We're not hoping Vincenzo can pull off a ride like Froome did last year because the level is so high that the riders are at the same level. We'll keep jabbing away at Carapaz's ribs, in the hope he starts to suffer. Vincenzo will race to win all the way to Verona."
The Mortirolo reveals Roglic is human
Roglic was considered the unbeatable, unmovable mutant of the Giro d'Italia, but he was proven to be human and beatable on the steep slopes of the Mortirolo. Roglic is still within time trial distance of Nibali, but even his Jumbo-Visma team are now worried that his Giro d'Italia could unravel in the final mountain stages.
"I'm a bit more worried than yesterday," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels admitted after the finish of the stage on Ponte di Legno after seeing how Roglic struggled on the Mortirolo, on the valley road to the finish and in the cold.
It seems Roglic's crash on the descent to Como could have hurt him more than his facial scars show, while the comedy of errors by the team, including the badly timed natural break by the team car, appears to have shaken their Dutch courage.
"We talked about the loss of Como and it's behind us, but it's important to understand that the Mortirolo is a very special climb, and we do not have any more of those climbs," Engels said, refusing to give up the fight for the maglia rosa until the finish line inside the Verona arena.
"There are different climbs in the next days, and maybe he can keep up the fight, maybe for the podium or even pink. Of course, he has to follow those guys: Carapaz, Nibali and Landa - who is now the biggest threat for the podium spot.
"The hope is still there. The Giro isn't over. We will keep on fighting and we will see how it will end."
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