Were it not for his crashes in the Chianti time trial at the end of the opening week, there could well have been another dark horse in the reckoning for final overall victory at this Giro d'Italia. As it stands, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) remains a distinct threat for a place on the final podium in Turin after he placed third on Tuesday's breathless stage 16 to Andalo.
Zakarin was among the chief aggressors as the leading group fragmented on the day's first climb, the Passo della Mendola, with maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) seeing fit to shut down his moves in person.
When Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacked 500 metres from the summit, Zakarin didn't need an invitation to follow, bridging across with Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), though they were still 65 kilometres and two climbs from the finish line.
That elite group shed Nibali as the gradient stiffened on Fai della Paganella, and they gained time on their chasers on the shallow final haul to Andalo, where Valverde was an emphatic winner in the three-up sprint.
A tired Zakarin almost ground to a halt in the finishing straight, placing third on the stage, 8 seconds down on Valverde, but his day's work was enough to lift him to 5th overall, 4:50 behind Kruijswijk, but a mere 7 seconds behind Nibali.
"For me, Ilnur was the strongest today. He only blew up in the end because he'd pulled on the front all day," directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev said from the driver's seat of the Katusha team car afterwards.
"I expected more from Valverde in the finale. He should definitely have worked more, but he preferred to win a stage rather than gain more time. But normally they always ride like that, Movistar are always clever like that.
"Even if they'd all worked exactly the same amount, the stage was guaranteed for Valverde. He should have understood that he was three or four times faster than the other two, and he should have worked. They could have gained another 20 seconds."
No matter, when time bonuses were factored in, Zakarin's efforts saw him claw back 38 seconds on Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), 46 seconds on Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and 1:42 on a jaded Nibali.
"I knew I could gain some time today and I did my best on both climbs, especially in the final. I did all I could. I was able to get time and to move up in GC," Zakarin said. "There are still a few hard stages ahead and I will continue step by step."
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Podium potential hampered by crash
Zakarin, who served a two-year doping ban as a teenager, emerged at WorldTour level last year by winning the Tour de Romandie and claiming a stage win in Imola at the Giro. After a consistent start to 2016, he began this year's Giro with the stated objective of finishing in the top five overall, but after his display on Tuesday's brisk 132-kilometre leg, a place on the final podium is a possibility, although Konyshev preached caution. He is 1:27 behind Valverde with two mammoth stages in the Alps to come later in the week.
"Ilnur's arrived where he was already supposed to arrive. Anything he gets from here is a plus," Konyshev said. "It's a shame to say it, but if he hadn't had that crash in the time trial, he'd definitely be in the top three now. I don't think it was possible to fight with Kruijswijk for the overall win, but he could definitely have fought with those two [Chaves and Valverde] for the podium."
Zakarin performed strongly deep into the third week during his Giro debut a year ago, though he was well out of the general classification juncture by that point. The 26-year-old will have less room for manoeuvre here, though the terrain in the Alps is such that the strongest riders will surely come to the fore.
"Last year was different because he was tranquillo for the first two weeks and rode without thinking about GC and the third week. It's easy to get in breaks when you're out of the GC," Konyshev said. "We'll have to see how he is in the days to come. He likes these climbs here but we'll have to see how he goes on those long climbs in France later in the week."
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