Nibali suffers as Valverde bounces back. But Kruijswijk is still the man to beat.
Attack, attack, attack
Blink and you’ll miss it. From the very start of the stage there was no respite. The flat/downhill all the way from the start to the foot of the Passo della Mendola climb at around 44km meant the peloton averaged almost 50kmph, with no break able to stick.
As soon as they hit the that climb, those looking to make gains in the general classification began to attack. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) was the most active early on, while Tanel Kangert and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) tried their hand at gaining something over race leader Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).
It meant that there wasn’t a second to catch your breath (for riders or spectators) as intensity continued to ramp up over the climb and on the descent.
But then it was Kruijswijk’s turn to show his strength, as he made a move on the penultimate climb with only Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Zakarin able to follow.
That left a lot of riders floundering as the three refused to relent on their way up the climb, leaving viewers with some job of remembering where each of the GC riders were located having been scattered back down the slopes of the climb.
Nibali looks jaded
And one of those scattered back down the slopes was third placed Vincenzo Nibali, who looks far from the rider who won this race in 2013 and the Tour de France the following year.
As expected, he and his Astana team were defiant in the face of adversity and said they’d fight back over the course of this week, but this will have been a real blow to that fighting spirit.
Now in fourth place, 4-43 down on Kruijswijk, this doesn’t look like the Italian’s year. Something similar seemed to effect him in the Tour de France last year, but showed enough spirit to fightback and at least win the stage to La Toussuire.
Nibali’s intentions were clear with his attacks on the early climbs of the day, but he seemed to pay for that as he was dropped by the trio up front and was forced to work with compatriot Domenico Pozzvivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) to limit his losses.
With two slightly less demanding stages coming up on Wednesday and Thursday, there might be chance for Nibali and his teammates to regroup and fight for a podium spot on the two final mountain stages. But it’s a long way back for the Italian champion to win pink from here.
While Nibali faded, Alejandro Valverde looked to bounce back.
Like the Astana man, he too suffered a bad day on stage 14 through the Dolomites, blaming the altitude as they crested 2000m more than once on the stage.
The day certainly suited him; short and with some difficult parts in the climbs, but with a fast finish, and he certainly picked the right move to go with.
Having had a go (like everyone) on the initial climb of the route, Valverde, unlike the likes of Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Nibali, was able to stick with Kruijswijk and Zakarin.
And while he worked up the final climbs with those two to make as many gains in GC as he could, he also played it perfectly towards the finish, allowing his breakaway companions in front before launching his sprint on the flatter run to the line.
Now back into third place and with a stage win under his belt, there’s certainly more reasons to be cheerful for Valverde going into the final five days.
He wasn’t the only rider to make a comeback on the day either, with third placed Zakarin looking much better than in previous days and Bob Jungels (Etixx-Quick Step) extremely active throughout the day as he pursues a maiden top-10 finish in a Grand Tour.
Watch: Alejandro Valverde’s custom Canyon for 2016
How good are short mountain stages?
Like stage 20 of last year’s Tour de France to Alpe d’Huez, the short distance of the stage with a brutal parcours just made for excellent racing.
While Saturday’s slog over the Dolomites was beautifully captivating in its own gruelling way, this was a stage you couldn’t take your eyes off for a minute.
Particularly after coming out the rest day, everyone looked ready and refreshed to make gains in the race.
At 132km long, and with far from the toughest climbs in the race, you could be forgiven for thinking this was an easing back into it from the organisers for the GC contenders’ fight.
But there was no thought of taking it easy whatsoever, and the nature of the course ensured that attacks would decide the race and not just a war of attrition.
With races like the Vuelta a España tending to lean towards long or brutally hard mountain stages (like last year in Andorra), should race organiser’s be thinking more about placing stages like this in the back-end of a Grand Tour?
Think of the gruppetto
A thought for the big men of the race, who wouldn’t have enjoyed much of today’s race. With only three climbs on the route, it didn’t look too tough on paper, and that downhill section for the first 40 or so kilometres would have been welcome.
But there was just no let up. With an average speed of 44kmph on the stage and climbers constantly digging at each other there gruppetto would have been formed fairly early on and been asking their sports directors for the time cut off.
On such a short stage, there would have been much less time to play with to try and remain in the Giro, with the race well and truly on to make sure they made it inside the time to see the start of Wednesday’s stage, which presents a chance for the sprinters.