The attack was telegraphed, but that didn’t make it any less dramatic. When Vincenzo Nibali dispatched his Astana Qazaqstan teammates to ride on the front of the maglia rosa group on the way up the Mortirolo on stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia, his intentions were clear. His farewell Giro would see a reprise of a familiar old move.
Sure enough, once the road levelled out over the summit, Nibali flung himself onto the offensive. This year, the Giro climbed the Mortirolo by the gentler approach from Edolo, but that only made the drop over the other side all the more treacherous.
Within a couple of hairpins, Nibali had opened a gap over the other podium contenders. Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) fell onto a grass bank as the podium contenders scrambled in pursuit. Shades of Steven Kruijswijk on the Colle dell’Agnello and for a moment, it was 2016 again.
The moment passed. Nibali’s tight lines around each corner saw him make gains on the tense descent to Mazzo di Valtellina, but the long valley road that followed doomed his effort. Once the highwire was removed, the tightrope walker had to become a pedestrian again. Nibali was soon caught by Richard Caparaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) et al. Although Nibali would move up fifth overall by day’s end, he would concede a further 42 seconds to the men atop the standings.
“We wanted to make it a hard day. If the stage finished at the bottom of the Mortirolo, it’d have been different,” Nibali’s teammate Joe Dombrowski said at the finish in Aprica. “I looked back at the top of the Mortirolo and there weren’t that many guys in the group and people were suffering, so if he put the pressure on, things could have happened.”
Nibali remained in the pink jersey group on the unclassified climb of Teglio, but he began to slip backwards as it was whittled down in number on the final ascent of the Valico di Santa Cristina. The forcing of Mikel Landa’s Bahrain Victorious team ultimately proved too much. Four kilometres from the summit, Nibali was distanced from the pink jersey group. He battled on the steepest slopes, but he would not see the strongmen of the race again before he descended to the line in Aprica.
“I lost contact on the last part of the climb, and I had to manage myself from there,” Nibali told reporters after being helped into a rain jacket past the finish line. “Bahrain were extraordinarily strong today and they laid a very high tempo.”
In the general classification, Nibali gained three places to move up to fifth overall, but his prospects of an improbable overall victory or even a podium place look to be receding. After surprisingly matching Carapaz and Hindley in the finale in Turin on Saturday, Nibali was unable to follow them here. He now lies 3:40 off the pink jersey and 2:56 off a podium place.
“Look, I was getting better coming into this stage, but today I paid a price,” Nibali said. “It’s difficult, but it’s like that. There’s a day where one rider goes strong and then pays for it, and then another day, someone goes strong and pays for it later. It’s like that.”
Nibali’s disappointment at conceding ground to the men ahead of him was palpable in Aprica, and his frustration will be compounded by the race jury’s decision to sanction him for disposing of waste outside of a designated litter zone on the stage. The fine of 500 CHF and the loss of 25 UCI points won’t trouble Nibali, but another such offence would see him penalised a minute in the overall standings.
Although Nibali entered his final Giro seemingly reluctant to commit to challenging for the general classification, he warmed to the task considerably in the two weeks since he confirmed his retirement at season’s end during the race’s visit to his native Messina.
“It’s cool riding for Vincenzo. I’ve compared it to playing with Kobe Bryant, who is really an icon of the sport [NBA]. It’s in his last year and I’d love to see him do something special in this last week. If I can help be a part of that, it’d be fun for me too,” said Dombrowski.
“He’s a calm guy. I don’t see him stressed. The guys like him, who can do the GC in Grand Tours for many years, know how to manage the stress well. He’s level-headed, otherwise you’re burnt out in a couple of years.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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.