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Will Vincenzo Nibali complete his comeback on the final big stage in the Alps?





27.05.2016 @ 20:03 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Vincenzo Nibali made one of the greatest comebacks in recent grand tour history and now suddenly reemerges as maybe the biggest favourite to win the Giro d’Italia. He has one final chance to complete the turnaround in the brutal penultimate stage where Astana will go nuts on what is very likely to be another epic day of racing.


The course

In recent years, the organizers have always included a big mountain stage on the penultimate day of the race and they have always made sure that one of the most spectacular climbs feature on the course. In 2012 the riders tackled Mortirolo and Stelvio on the penultimate day, in 2013 Tre Cime di Lavaredo featured one day before the finish, in 2014 Monte Zoncolan was the decisive climb and last year it was the gravel roads of the Colle delle Finestre that provided a huge spectacle on stage 20.


With the 2016 edition finishing in Turin, the race will again end close to the big mountains and so it has again been possible for the organizers to have a big mountain stage right at the end. This year it is the famous Col de la Bonette – the highest paved road in Europe – that will make sure that the final day of real racing will be spectacular and crown a well-deserved winner of the race.


In recent years, it has become very popular for the grand tour organizers to design very short and intense mountain stages. RCS have followed that trend as stage 20 will be only 134km long and bring the riders from the French city of Guillestre to a summit finish at Sant’Anna di Vinadio just across the border. This short queen stage across the Alps features a remarkable 4,100m of climbing over the short distance, with a sequence of 4 climbs, 3 descents and not even a single flat stretch in between.


The stage consists of a southeasterly run for most of the day and it’s a tough start as it’s right up the category 1 Col de Vars from the beginning. It averages 6.0% over 18.2km and has a maximum gradient of 13%. The first 7km are the hardest as they average 8.3% and then a short, flat section leads to the final 7km which are easier. The first intermediate sprint comes at the 14.3km mark.


After the descent, they will tackle the famous category 1 climb of Col de la Bonette which averages 6.7% over 22.2km and has a maximum gradient of 10%. The lower and upper slopes are slightly easier but otherwise it is a very regular climb. Then a very long descent leads to the city of Isola where the final intermediate sprint comes at the 103.1km mark and then it is time for the category 1 Colle della Lombarda, the most important climb of the day. It averages 7.5% over 19.8km and has a maximum gradient of 12%. It has a tough start with an average gradient of 8.7% for the first 7km and then gets a bit easier at 6.3% for the next 8.45km. The final 4.4km average 7.6% and includes 8-10% sections near the top which comes just 10.3km from the finish.


The road is wide and well-surfaced along all of the climbs (mostly above 2,000 m), with many hairpins. The roadway only narrows along the technical descent from Col de la Lombarde, all the way up to the last 2.3km that lead to the finish at the Sant’Anna Sanctuary. They constitute a category 3 climb with an average gradient of 8.1% and have a maximum of 11%. However, the gradient is about 9% for most of the time. The last few hundred metres of the route run among the Sanctuary’s buildings, with short uphill stretches and several tight bends. The home straight (50m) is on 6m wide asphalt road.


Sant’Anna di Vinadio has never hosted a stage finish before.











The weather

Bad weather had always been forecasted for Sunday and it has been touch and go whether it will stay dry for Saturday’s big stage. An alternative route that includes the final climb and passes through Sestriere has been made but luckily it seems that the organizers will be able to stick to the original route. At the moment, the forecast predicts great sunshine and a 26-degree temperature in Isola at the bottom of the Lombarda.


It will be windier than it has been in the past few days as there will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction. This means that the riders will have a headwind almost all day until they turn into a crosswind for the Lombarda climb. There will be a cross-tailwind near the top and on the descent and then it will be a mix of head- and tailwind in the many hairpin bends on the final uphill drag.


The favourites

What a comeback! Of course it’s a well-known fact that Vincenzo Nibali is a master in turning things around and fighting through adversity but few had imagined this scenario. However, the Italian has done it again. Just like he made Chris Froome crack spectacularly at the 2013 Tirreno-Adritiatico, fended off internal criticism from Vinokourov to win the 2014 Tour de France and bounce back from the expulsion from the Vuelta by winning last year’s Il Lombardia, Nibali has again turned things around completely. 24 hours ago he had a very slim hope that he could maybe finish on the podium and now he has emerged as maybe the biggest favourite to win the race.


Nibali was clearly a bit in doubt when Chaves started the war on the Colle dell’Agnello. He didn’t follow the first attack, probably remembering how he had cracked spectacularly several times earlier in the race. However, he gained confidence and when Valverde again started to suffer from the altitude – he was looking strong in the first attacks but then again paid for his inability to adapt to the lower oxygens levels – he moved to the front to even accelerate near the top. From there, it was clear that he was on fire and it was a clear sign of self-belief that he decided to sacrifice what looked like a guaranteed stage win for Michele Scarponi who again showed that he is one of the best riders in the race.


The big loser was of course Steven Kruijswijk and it seems very likely that Nibali’s success was mainly a result of the Dutchman’s misfortune. He never seemed to be in trouble on the Agnello but the crash cost him everything. He both had to deal with injuries and physical pain but he also had to use a lot of energy in the cross-headwind on the descent and in the valley. While Nibali and Chaves had a free ride all the way to the bottom, Kruijswijk (and Valverde and Majka too) were already empty when they arrived for the final climb and so the outcome was never in doubt.


It will now be a big mental test for Kruijswijk in tomorrow’s stage. At the time of writing, he is on his way to the hospital so it is still unclear whether he will be able to start at all and how he will be feeling. However, he is still in winning contention and has a podium spot to defend but it won’t be easy to get ready for tomorrow’s tough stage. However, he seems to be mentally very strong and has been completely unfazed by the pressure in the last few days. It is still too early to write the Dutchman off.


Yesterday we had expected tomorrow’s stage to be a good one for a breakaway. The final mountain stage is always a very prestigious one and often decided by the favourites. However, only Astana and Movistar have the teams to control such a brutal day and with the Kazakhs focusing on stage wins and the teams classification and the latter only eyeing the podium, we doubted that they would do anything to bring the break back.


Now the situation has changed completely. Astana want to win the race overall and for that to happen they both need to make the race hard and put the bonus seconds into play. Hence, they won’t allow a breakaway to have any chance at all and so the stage is destined to be decided by the favourites.


That doesn’t mean that it won’t be aggressive. The start is simply brutal and this means that the best climbers will attack right from the gun. While many riders will be going for a stage win, it will be a big tactical battle as Astana and Movistar want to have riders in the break. Orica-GreenEDGE don’t have the best teams for the climbs and it won’t be easy for them to control things. Of course Ruben Plaza was strong in today’s stage and Amets Txurruka and Damien Howson really stepped up at a crucial point to create huge selection for Chaves on the Agnello but those three riders are the only ones that can support Chaves. They can’t prevent a big group of strong climbers from getting clear and it will definitely include riders from both Astana and Movistar.


When the group has gone clear, things will calm down and Orica-GreenEDGE will be setting the pace. However, we expect Astana to go nuts already on the Col de la Bonette Restefond. They need to make the race as hard as possible and they want to isolate Chaves as soon as possible. Nibali may not attack on the climb himself – especially as it is usually a very windy climb and there will be a headwind – but if he sends Michele Scarponi to the front, he can do a lot of damage. Chaves will ride defensively and Kruijswijk has to see how he is feeling so unless Nibali tests his rivals already here, we expect Astana to ride tempo to make the race hard and then it will all come down to a battle on the Colle della Lombarda.


Colle della Lombarda has a pretty easy middle section but it’s a very long ascent at altitude and with some steep gradients both on the lower and upper slopes. Such a long climb can do a lot of damage and we can expect to see time gaps like the ones we had today. Unlike today, there won’t be a headwind on the climb and it will even be a cross-tailwind for the final 3km. This will make it easier to make a difference.


Based on today’s performance, it seems to come down to another battle between Chaves and Nibali. Today Nibali was the strongest and Chaves almost cracked completely in the finale when he was even dropped by Nieve. It is important to remember that there was a strong headwind and as Chaves sat on for most of the time, Nibali was actually much stronger than his Colombian rival.


It is unlikely that things will change for tomorrow. Nibali has proved that he is great at recovering in third week of a grand tour and he has always tried to time things so that he hits peak condition for the final part. Chaves has been on fire right from the start of the race and has a less impressive grand tour history when it comes to the third week. He has gone for GC twice in the past: at the 2014 and 2015 Vueltas. In the former race, he cracked completely in the second half and dropped completely out of GC contention. Last year he was probably the strongest rider in the first week but even though he was still strong in the final part of the race, he was not nearly at the same level.


In this race, he again seems to have lost a bit in the final part of the race and as he had to dig extremely deep in the finale of today’s stage, he is likely to be on the back foot compared to Nibali who has won this kind of final mountain stage at both the 2013 Giro and 2014 Tour. The Italian smells blood and will be fully on fire and we simply doubt that Chaves will be able to match him. Scarponi will set Nibali up for a final attack and we expect the shark to make it two in a row and take the maglia rosa in the process.


Of course his big rival is Chaves. You can never count out the Colombian who has been riding strongly throughout the entire race. Today he spent quite a bit of energy by riding aggressively but tomorrow he has the advantage that he can just follow wheels. He just has to stay glued to Nibali before maybe going for glory in the uphill sprint. The final short ramp suits him down to the ground so if he can keep up with Nibali, he is likely to win the stage.


The big joker is of course Steven Kruijswijk. We still have to see what kind of injuries he has sustained but if it’s not too bad, a great comeback cannot be ruled out. After all, the Dutchman has been in a class of his own throughout the race and he seems to have been riding at 90% until today. His good form hasn’t disappeared so it all comes down to mental strength and his injuries. If it’s not too bad, it’s definitely not impossible for him to win the stage.


Alejandro Valverde again suffered at altitude. He was strong when he followed the first attacks but then paid the price near the top of the Agnello. However, he bounced back with a great ride in the flat section in the valley and even though that cost him a lot of energy he actually did pretty well on the final climb too. Again the altitude will be the big challenge but if he can survive the Bonette Restefond, he should have a better chance on the Colle della Lombarda. He still hopes to get onto the podium and if he sees the slightest sign of weakness from Kruijswijk, he will be ready to hit out. It won’t be easy to match the best and we doubt that he can do so on this kind of long climbs. However, if he can do so, the final ramp is tailor-made for him.


Rafal Majka has been riding consistently but he has not been able to follow the best. Today he delivered his best performance and he almost made it to the top of Agnello with the best. If he had managed to stay there, it would have made a massive difference for him so the result doesn’t really reflect how strong he was. He is clearly a lot more comfortable on these longer climbs and he should do well again tomorrow. However, the race has to become very tactical for him to win the stage.


Rigoberto Uran seems to have recovered from his bronchitis and was riding strongly in today’s stage. He won’t win a battle between the favourites but he is so far back in the overall standings that he can go on the attack already on the first climb. Today he moved into the top 10 but a stage win is more important than an 8th place for a rider who has finished on the podium twice. The tough start means that he can get into the break if he wants to and none of his GC rivals have teams that are strong enough to control things. If he joins the break, he is likely to be the strongest.


Katusha are licking their wounds after Ilnur Zakarin’s withdrawal so their goal now is to win the stage. They only gave one card to play but that’s a pretty good one. Rein Taaramae has been his usual inconsistent self but since the mountain time trial he has been one of the best climbers. The Estonian will definitely go on the attack right from the start and he is one of the few riders that can potentially finish it off.


Mikel Nieve was already in the break in today’s stage and he will definitely try again tomorrow.  The mountains jersey is a very realistic goal for him – especially as Damiano Cunego cracked in today’s stage – and with a climb right from the start, we can’t really imagine that he won’t be in the break. He would have preferred a longer distance but he is clearly one of the best riders in the race. He likes this kind of stage with repeated climbs and it suits him better than today’s stage where he had to use a lot of energy in the flat first part.


The same is true for Joe Dombrowski. The American has been climbing really well throughout the entire race and today he was again one of the last riders to get dropped by the GC riders. He used a lot of energu in the first part of the stage but tomorrow he can get into the break much easier. He is maybe not as strong as he was earlier in the race but he is still one of the best.


Sergey Firsanov lost a lot of time in today’s stage. However, that may not be an indication of poor form. He missed the break and so he is likely to have saved energy for a big attack on stage 20. After a dip in form in the second week, he has been very strong recently. The long climbs and high altitude doesn’t suit him perfectly but he has proved that he is one of the best climbers here.


Finally, we will point to Darwin Atapuma. The Colombian failed to join the break in today’s stage but tomorrow the uphill start will make it much easier for him. He has a 12th place to defend but his goal is to win a stage and move into the top 10. To do so he has to go on the attack and we have little doubt that he will move right from the start. He should find the long climbs and the altitude to his liking.


UPDATE: Kruijswijk has suffered a broken rib and is a possible non-starter


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Vincenzo Nibali

Other winner candidates: Esteban Chaves, Steven Kruijswijk

Outsiders: Alejandro Valverde, Rafal Majka, Rigoberto Uran (breakaway)

Jokers: Rein Taaramae, Mikel Nieve, Joe Dombrowski, Sergey Firsanov, Darwin Atapuma (all from a breakaway)



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