The Giro enjoys a rest day in Brixen, deep in the German-speaking Tyrol area of Italy and once home to Pope Damasus II whose papal reign lasted just 23 days. A study in brevity but Steven Kruijswijk only needs to hang on for a matter of days to win his sacred contest and right now he is looking as sure as his shoulders. The Dutchman was milliseconds behind Alexander Foliforov’s surprise result yesterday but minutes ahead of some of his rivals, notably Vincenzo Nibali who climbed up the Alpe di Siusi only to fall down the overall classification. Interrogated how he felt yesterday Nibali replied in a word that doesn’t need translation: “demoralizzato“.
If the legs haven’t been working then yesterday saw things go from bad to worse. Nibali broke his bike and lashed out at an exuberant fan during yesterday’s stage; he was losing time before the problems but these were symbolic moments. Even is bike and sections of the tifosi are letting him down.
Maurice De Muer, manager of Luis Ocaña and a man who knew a thing or two about cycling, defined a champion as someone who was capable of acting alone to turn around a bad situation to their advantage. Nibali has met the definition in the past but like all risk-takers for every winning move their are forgotten failures too. Right now he doesn’t seem to have the legs and increasingly his mind seems to be accepting this. Stage after stage La Gazzetta Dello Sport retorts that Nibali might not have had a good day but there are chances to seize, that a battle lost does not mean the war is over. But Nibali’s collected too many bad days and has never looked in command. This time last week he was two seconds behind Kruijswijk, now he’s two minutes down.
If he wants to turn around his 2m51s deficit on the overall classification he’ll have to take a big gamble with a long range attack, for example going clear on the Colle d’Agnello, exploiting the descent to take time and then pushing on to the summit finish in Risoul, all while Kruijswijk is left floundering without team mates. This sounds more like a gambit from Pro Cycling Manager than reality. If Mikel Landa was in the lead then the race could look locked down for the week with Team Sky in control but with Kruijswijk things don’t look quite so secure. Two minutes is a comfortable lead after faultless rising so far but easy to lose given the stages ahead.
Kruijswijk can take comfort from the desperation of his rivals. Today’s press is warms up the idea of an alliance between Movistar and Astana. As a rule whenever you hear talk of “alliances” ventured as a tactical solution you should read this as a sign of desperation bordering on condemnation. Cycling is all about collusion – see Chaves and Kruijswijk’s collaboration to Corvara – but scenarios involving two losing teams conspiring to overturn the race leader are rare bordering on fantasy. It can be done on paper but the reality is far more circumspect because Astana and Movistar are rival outfits, both would love topple Kruijswijk but each wants the other to do the heavy lifting.
Nibali’s got the attention so far because of his stature and his ambitions, for him being third overall probably devalues his palmarès rather than ennobles and he’s arguably the only challenger to Kruijswijk who will come out better for trying and failing spectacularly than sitting tight and defending the bottom step of the podium in Turin. Esteban Chaves is bound to try an attack or two but taking back two minutes is a big ask and surely Orica-Greenedge crave a podium finish. Alejandro Valverde is in a hard place too, unless he’s been ill and this has been kept quiet it’s hard to see him profiting from the high altitude to come, his weakness in this race and past Tour de France challenges.
A word on Alexander Foliforov’s shock win which quickly became an exercise in story-telling. He’s a relatively unheralded rider, in fact all Russian riders have a stealthy media profile, an oddity in a sport where publicity and imagery make the wheels. Nationality was behind the chorus of suspicious and condemnatory comments, one of those moments that makes you fear for trial by jury – “the jury voted by majority that the Foliforov was guilty because he was Russian“. He’s shouldn’t be unknown given his consistency in the U23 ranks where he was among the best climbers in the toughest European races but all the same a mountain time trial win was surely unpredicted. It saves Gazprom-Rusvelo’s race, they’ve often missed out on the wildcard breaks which might be doomed but offer visibility.
The Other Jerseys
Come the third week and the ancillary contests often provide a contest once the overall classification has taken shape so a quick look at the standings and the maths behind them.
Giacomo Nizzolo leads the points competition ahead of Diego Ulissi as the pair compete on different fronts to take points. Stages 17 and 21 are flat sprinters days with 50 points on offer each time so the contest is tilted to Nizzolo but a sprint finish isn’t certainty given just how few teams have sprinters left in the race; many squads will hope a breakaway cannot be brought back. Ulissi meanwhile can hope for a third stage success but the hillier days where he thrives offer fewer points.
Damiano Cunego‘s built a big lead in the mountains competition but the big climbs have yet to come. The upcoming first category climbs offer 32, 20, 14, 10, 7, 4, 2, 1 points to the first eight while the Cima Coppi on the Colle dell’Agnello during Stage offers 40, 28, 21, 15, 10, 7, 4, 2, 1 points. Cunego can secure the jersey by getting in a breakaway on Friday or Saturday and treating the mid-stage mountain passes as his finish line.
Bob Jungels has had a great Giro and his career prospects look bright. Sebastian Henao is 11 minutes back, a long way but he’s far better suited to the high mountains.
Will it snow?
Yes is the short answer but there’s time for things to improve again. The two key passes, the Agnello (2744m) and the Bonette (2715m) were cleared of their white winter coats last week but the problem is what is yet to come. Snow is forecast above 2,200m from this evening onwards but things are forecast to improve again, hopefully in time for the race. RCS have alternative routes with talk of the Col de Montgenèvre as the crossing point between France and Italy at “just” 1860m above sea level and a finish in Sestriere.
Only Steven Kruijswijk can beat Steven Kruijswijk, it’ll take a mistake or a jours sans for the pink jersey to get plucked off his angular shoulders. In the space of a week he has put minutes into his rivals and has yet to show a weakness. He is a surprise leader but has ridden the perfect race so far while a cast of pretenders from Landa to Hesjedal, Péraud to Urán, have not just lost time but lost their way. Yet just as the weather looks hard to predict, so could the rest of the race. Nibali and Italy will hope so.