It was always going to be about the third week and that pair of stages in the Alps. With the race heading over the border into France and Steven Kruiswickj sitting pretty in pink, an open, aggressive – if somewhat unexceptional race – was coming to the boil nicely. Kruiswickj would be the first Dutch winner of the Giro unless Chaves could pull off a surprise attack. Nibali and Valverde would contest the lowest step of the podium. Everyone would be happy.
But the Shark has pearly teeth, dear. Il Squalo – with the expectations of a nation on shoulders much slimmer than Kruiswickj’s – wasn’t giving up without a fight. He started stage 19 off the podium and over 4’ behind the leader. He ended it with a stage win and a more than decent shot at the Pink jersey. It was the Miracle in Risoul.
It could all have been so different. The final week started with a short, sharp, shock of a medium mountain stage – the kind that invites attacking racing. Marco Pinotti told me “For me the best stage was Andalo. Race from the gun, all the GC battaling each other, Chaves without a strong team, but still able to gain time back on his rivals. The whole stage was pure racing.” The stage went to Valverde, but the real winner was Kruiswickj who held the Spaniard’s wheel almost to the line and ended the day with the Pink Jersey seemingly in the bag. “He’s very intelligent and does not waste energy,” says Pinotti. In the words of Michele Acquarone “He’s been good and he’s riding an excellent Giro. He’s making one nation dream of a Dutch win. The Giro is a tough race and the winner will be a true champion. I always said that. 3 years ago. 3 weeks ago. I don’t change my mind. That’s the Giro magic.”
But then came the snowbound Colle di Agnello, the showpiece climb of stage 19. As the race made its way across the border and into France, things fell apart for the Maglia Rosa. Kruiswickj ploughed into a snowbank on the descent, turning a full, graceful cartwheel against the snow. A mechanical problem followed and suddenly the strongest rider in the race was chasing a flying Nibali who was making the very most of the opportunity to storm to a stage victory – just as he had in the 2015 Tour de France – all his pride and grinta pumping through his thighs and into those cranks, propelling him clear of a struggling Chaves on the final ascent to Risoul. All of a sudden it was game on. Kruiswickj battled to the finish with a broken rib, his pale face masked with pain and disappointment. Now it was Chaves who was all smiles, pulling on the Pink with 2 stages left to race.
“Now we still have a super tough stage tomorrow and 4 riders in a couple of minutes gap. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I told you 2 weeks ago. We’re gonna have a lot of fun with stages 19 and 20” Michele Acquarone emailed me the night before the penultimate stage of the 2016 Giro. Could the jersey possibly change hands again, just as it had at the 2011 Tour de France when Thomas Voeckler, Andy Schleck and finally Cadel Evans wore Yellow over the last 4 stages of the race. Surely Chaves would have the talent and the desire to hang on? But his are young and relatively inexperienced legs – this is only his second Grand Tour and he’s led them both – and his Orica team unused to defending a Grand Tour lead. “Both Chaves and Kruiswickj had a weak team for the mountain compared to Nibali’s team,” Pinotti says. And experience showed – over stages 19 and 20 Astana rode a near perfect team race, placing riders in the break to form a bridge for their team leader’s attacks with Fuglsang and Scarponi proving particularly effective in their domestique roles.
And so it was that Nibali – a rider who has won all his Grand Tours by capitalising on the weaknesses and withdrawals of others – rode himself to the top step of the podium against a twenty six year old whose day will surely come. Would he have won if Kruiswickj had stayed upright? Unlikely – the Dutchman had covered every one of Nibali’s attacks with ease and then simply ridden away from the older Italian. With his comfortable cushion on GC, he could have allowed Nibali his stage win and still won the race with ease. But snowblindness, or hubris – he had announced earlier in the week that he had ‘no weaknesses’ – or inattention turned the Giro on its head in one moment of madness.
Marco Pinotti shared my indulgence in cycling’s favourite past time ‘what iffery’ “I am curious what would have happened hadn’t Kruiswijk crashed. You called it dramatic but it was favored by different condition. In my opinion the Dutchman was the strongest riders in the race. After Andalo he was in a very solid position.” But I’m reminded of what the Belgians say about what ifs – ‘if my aunty had a dick she’d be my uncle.’
So what about Nibali’s win – an incredible resurrection or something darker? There was talk that Nibali was close to being pulled out of the race by his team, that he had been sent for blood tests for a virus, that he had dysentery – how much of this was PR puffery or a cover story will probably never be known. Cycling is a sport where your poker face and ability to bluff is often as important as what your legs are capable of. Here’s Marco Pinotti’s take: “Nibali even after the last rest day lost time on Kruiswickj and in my opinion after that mentally he wanted to race to have a big stage win like he did in the Tour. Circumstances turned everything around and with the help of strongest team, he could take advantage on his rivals. This changed everything and with his character everything else was to be expected. If you are implying something suspicious in his “comeback”, I don’t think that’s the case. He’s the most complete GT rider present at the Giro.” From the start of his career, the Shark was always an aggressive rider – he won the 2009 Giro dell’Appennini comme les grands after a 50 km solo exploit.
There’s no denying that Nibali’s win went down like an ice cold Prosecco in Turin, even if it went down like a cup of cold sick in some quarters as he was embraced by the sulphurous Alexandre Vinokourov. What had been an enjoyable – if fairly unexceptional – race was upended as surely as Kruiswickj on the Agnello. Rarely has the outcome of a race hinged so obviously on one fleeting moment. Those two stages in the Alps elevated the 2016 Giro to something extraordinary and dramatic – even if it seemed a lousy way to lose your best shot at winning a Grand Tour. Kruiswickj was sanguine, saying it was a race incident, that bike handling is part of the skillset you need to be a winner. Marco Pinotti is more generous in his assessment: “I rate one of the best, with a well-balanced and human course, that allowed riders to alternate good performances to more “off days” but there was always racing at high level.”
Michele Acquarone tells me “This Giro somehow reminds me the Giro 2010. That crazy stage in L’Aquila. The great Basso comeback at the end.” There are other parallels with that race – the start in the Netherlands, the collapse of the Team Sky challenge, the late charge from a resurgent campianissimo. Marco Pinotti has a really interesting take on the parcours: “It’s a sign you don’t need crazy steep mountain to have a good show. Altitude and long but normal climbs are much better.” No crazy inhuman climbs, no outrageous watts being kicked out by the riders – everyone’s power was within the realms of what we all consider ‘human’. Yet despite the lack of the big showpieces there was still spectacle to spare. As Marco Pinotti says “The Giro is like that. Big passion and big drama.”
THE VIEW FROM MICHELE
Perhaps inevitably there have been whispers about Nibali’s resurgence to overhaul a 4 minute deficit and win this year’s Giro. What’s your take on that?
First of all, I’d like to speak about doping. Doping exists and is everywhere. In the world there are millions of people who cheat. There are those who cheat on his wife, those who evade taxes and those who steal. In sports we saw many athletes who were ready to do anything bad to win a medal or a cup. And to earn much money. This is the sad reality. I know well that the world is full of bad people and now I’m still paying for the greed of someone who was working in RCS Sport.
But when I watch sports, the child, who still lives inside of me, takes over. I get excited and I dream all the time for a great shot or an amazing goal. Champions make my heart beat hard. I get excited for Froome and Nibali, Federer and Nadal, Messi and Pogba.
I trust them. 100%.
I do not live in suspicion. I always trust them and I cry with my champions for a victory or a defeat.
It seems that the Giro has discovered some great new stage racing talent in Kruiswickj and Chaves. What did you make of their performance in this race?
About the Giro. I believe it was a great race. Exciting and open until the last mile. The Giro gave us two new grand tour GC riders like Kruiswickj and Chaves. Last year they were Aru and Landa. The Giro is like that. A place where champions are built.
Both Kruiswickj and Chaves were very close to winning the Giro. If Kruiswickj didn’t break his bike on stage 19 we could have a Dutch Giro winner. But he rode very good, he’s still young and he’ll win something important soon. He looks ready to ride GTs at top level.
It turns out that Germany was the most successful nation with 7 stage wins – what implications will that have for the continued resurgence of cycling there?
Germany. Germany was one of my first targets. It’s a big country with a huge audience. Cycling must have Germany back with big events and big champions. 7 wins are very important but I’m looking forward to seeing the next GT German winner.
How would you sum up the 2016 Giro – and how would you continue to build its success into its 100th edition?
The Giro 2016 was a great journey. Big action and big drama. Nibali went to hell and them he lived again to win the Giro. Stages 19 and 20 were unbelievable. I don’t remember such an incredible comeback at the Giro.
I can tell you what I always said to my team: think global, think brand, think customer, think video, think community, think pink. I still believe it’s the right formula to make the Giro bigger.
Last but not least. I dream that one day we’ll see all the best riders in the world competing to win the Giro. That day the Giro we’ll become a true classic.