Team LottoNL-Jumbo’s Kruijswijk increased his lead today in Italy’s northeast with attacks over the final two climbs on stage 16. He has an advantage of three minutes over Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) in the general classification and 3-23 on Valverde. 2013 victor Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) lost more time today, 1-47 minutes, and slipped to fourth at 4-43 minutes.
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“From today, he is the strongest rider in this Giro,” Valverde said of Kruijswijk. “Sure, there are two more big days in the mountains, but based on how he’s going and his knowledge of the race, I believe Steven Kruijswijk will be the champion.”
Valverde attacked today at 15 kilometres remaining and drew out Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Kruijswijk. He won the stage, took the 12 bonus seconds and Kruijswijk placed second with six bonus seconds. Chaves finished at 42 seconds and Nibali at 1-47.
“Kruijswijk’s looking very strong, it will be hard to knock him out,” Valverde added. “I’m close to second place with Chaves. Nibali is still there, he’s a very attacking rider, he will try to attack me, and put himself on the podium – for me, from today, Steven Kruijswijk is the strongest in this Giro.”
Valverde, 36 years old from Murcia, is racing his 19th grand tour. He won the Vuelta a España in 2009 and placed third in the Tour last year. He counts five other Grand Tour podium places – but has never raced for the pink jersey nor finished top three in the Giro.
“It’s mission accomplished. We started here with two objectives: victory and a place on the podium – one is achieved, the other is something within our grasp. We have two important and dangerous stages to come,” Valverde added.
“I am enjoying this a lot, thanks to the fans. I would have liked to have come before, but we’re here now, and I am really enjoying it.”
Valverde fell out with Italy after investigators took his blood when the Tour de France passed through the country in 2008 and linked him to the Operación Puerto doping investigation by using his DNA. With his ban and legal troubles, he did not race again in Italy until 2013.