Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) raced through a snow storm to an imperious victory on the brutal slopes of Tre Cime di Lavaredo to move to within touching distance of overall victory in the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Nibali, 28, whose off-season move to Astana placed him at the head of the Kazakh squad, looks almost certain to claim his second Grand Tour victory tomorrow after winning the Vuelta a Espana in 2010.
With today’s re-routed 210km parcours representing the final mountain stage of the 96th corsa rosa, The Shark seemed determined to put on a show for the tifosi, scores of whom swarmed around him as fought his way through the final kilometre and a half of the penultimate stage.
Nibali celebrated victory by punching the air three times with his right hand, before kissing the ring finger of his left repeatedly, having delivered a champion’s ride to put beyond doubt his status as the strongest man in the race.
Seventeen seconds behind him, the exhausted and snow-caked Columbian trio of Fabio Duarte (Team Columbia), Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky), and Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), grovelled home.
Uran, Team Sky’s leader following the departure of Bradley Wiggins, moved from third to second overall, but he had neither the inclination nor the energy to celebrate.
His promotion came at the expense of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who spent almost all of the closing three kilometres out of the saddle, but going backwards. The Australian may never recover the form that brought him the two biggest prizes in the sport, but he retains a champion’s heart.
Despite the culling of the San Pellegrino and the Gavia from the original route, such was the severity of the conditions, today’s twentieth stage from Silandro will doubtless gain the status of classic, with the riders forced to battle heavy snow as well as crippling gradients.
An early break saw the quartet of Yaroslav Popovych, (RadioShack Leopard), Giairo Ermeti (Androni Giocattoli), Pavel Brutt (Katusha), and stage seven winner, Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol), gain a lead of over seven minutes.
With 30km remaining, however, the stage came to life, courtesy of a bunch driven by a winless Cannondale Pro Cycling squad, perhaps hoping to set up something for Damiano Caruso. If so, their efforts were in vain.
Betancur hit mechanical problems shortly afterwards and was forced to make an extended effort to chase back to the maglia rosa group, despite the help of three team-mates.
Mark Cavendish made a brief appearance at the head of the bunch to claim the final points paying position at the foot of Tre Cocci, but following Nibali’s finish, the Englishman’s lead in the points competition came to an end.
The escapees carried their lead on to the lower slopes of Tre Cocci, but their unity had shattered. Popovych led, then cracked, leaving Brutt to a lonely vigil at the head of the race for the next nine kilometres.
At times, the Russian, who last claimed a stage of the Giro in 2008, appeared to be barely moving, and was swept up after a sustained solo effort from Peter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE), whose lone pursuit had been augmented only moments earlier by the sudden appearance of Eros Capecchi (Movistar) and Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
With a six-kilometre climb to the summit finish ahead, and an Astana-led bunch about one minute behind, Capecchi attacked, riding clear of the combined forces of Weening and Brambilla, and behind them the ever-aggressive King of the Mountains leader, Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-Valvole), and Darwin Atapuma (Team Columbia).
When the maglia rosa group exploded three kilometres from the finish, however, there was nothing Capecchi or his erstwhile pursuers could do.
A stunned trio of Majka, Betancur, and Uran chased back on to Nibali’s wheel, but Evans and the Lampre-Merida duo of Scarponi and Niemiec had been shelled
A brief period of jockeying for position behind the maglia rosa ended when Nibali called his rivals’ bluff by attacking on the steepest part of the climb.
Only his team-mate, Tanel Kangert, could respond, but the leader no longer required the service of domestiques.
A stunned trio of white jersey, Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), Betancur, and Uran, chased back on to Nibali’s wheel, but Evans, and the Lampre-Merida duo of Michele Scarponi and Przemyslaw Niemiec, had been shelled.
Nibali’s only remaining challenge would come from the fans, the most disrespectful of whom ran within touching distance, forcing the man they would claim they were encouraging to push them back.
With the final kilometre barriered, and his rivals trounced (the pain on Uran’s face spoke of the effort required to remain within half-a-minute of the race leader), Nibali straightened his maglia rosa, adjusted his gloves, and drove for the line.
Today witnessed the virtual coronation of Nibali as the 2013 Giro d’Italia champion. Tomorrow’s ride into Brescia should complete formalities, but the race as a competitive spectacle ended at the summit of Tre Cime.
Giro d’Italia 2013 – stage 20 – result
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 5.27.41
2) Fabio Duarte (COL) – Team Columbia +17″
3) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Team Sky +19″
4) Carlos Betancur (COL) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +21″
5) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +44″
6) Franco Pellizotti (Androni-Giocattoli) +48″
7) Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +54″
8) Damino Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale Pro Cycling +58″
9) Darwin Atapuma (COL) – Team Columbia +1.00
10) Rafal Majka (POL) – Saxo-Tinkoff +1.04
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 79.23.19
2) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Team Sky +4.43
3) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +5.52
4) Michele Scarponi (ITA) – Lampre-Merida +6.48
5) Carlos Betancur (COL) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +7.28
6) Przemyslaw Niemiec (POL) – Lampre Merida +7.43
7) Rafal Majka (POL) – Saxo-Tinkoff +8.09
8) Benat Intxausti (ESP) – Movistar + 10.26
9) Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) – Vini Fantini +10.32
10) Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +10.59