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Having joined forces with Kruijswijk and Zakarin on the final climb, Valverde easily won the 3-rider sprint on stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia; Kruijswijk extended his advantage while Nibali lost almost two minutes

Photo: Sirotti

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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GIRO D'ITALIA

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ILNUR ZAKARIN

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MOVISTAR TEAM

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STEVEN KRUIJSWIJK

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TEAM JUMBO-VISMA

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24.05.2016 @ 17:42 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

At the age of 36, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) joined the list of riders that have won stages in the every grand tour when he came out on top in the hugely dramatic stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia. Having attacked with most of the favourites already on the first climb, he was the instigator of the decisive move on the final climb when he joined forces with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and he easily won the 3-rider sprint to claim his first victory in the race. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) both had a bad day and lost a significant amount of time to the thre best riders.

 

Alejandro Valverde has won almost everything that he can realistically target but one thing was missing from his palmares. With a grand tour focus on the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, he had never done the Giro d’Italia when he started the 2016 season.

 

With Nairo Quintana emerging as the number one in the Movistar hierarchy for the grand tours, however, the Spaniard was looking for new challenges, especially after he finally managed to finish on the Tour podium last year. Hence, he opted for the Giro as his big grand tour goal for 2016 and it always seemed to be just a matter of time before he would add his name to the list of riders that have won stages in every grand tour.

 

A few days ago, it seemed like time was running out for the versatile Spaniard when he cracked in the queen stage. However, one day later he bounced back with a great mountain time trial and today he finally got that elusive win on the hugely dramatic stage 17 that also allowed him to move onto the provisional podium in the Italian grand tour.

 

While Valverde enjoyed a great day, things were completely different for Vincenzo Nibali. Like Valverde, he was on the offensive right from the start but the Italian ended as the big loser, losing almost two minutes to the stage winner and slipping off the podium. The other loser was Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) who was on the offensive all day but managed to limit his losses to 42 seconds after a great chase effort.

 

Valverde was strong but one rider was even better. Steven Kruijswijk was attacked right from the bottom of the first climb but he was never in trouble and easily stayed with the best before crossing the line in second to extend his overall lead.

 

Valverde showed his intentions right from the lower slopes of the first of two big climbs in the short 132km stage. As soon as the road pointed upwards, he put Rory Sutherland on the front to bring back a 9-rider group that had tried to escape in the hectic first phase. Igor Anton (Dimension Data) tried to break the Spanish team’s stranglehold on the race but he was soon brought back when Jose Joaquin Rojas and then Jose Herrada took over from Sutherland.

 

Herrada set a brutal pace that made the peloton explode to pieces but it was Astana who opened the battle when Jakob Fuglsang attacked. Enrico Battaglin who was the only domestique for Kruijswijk immediately brought him back and he also responded when Anton and Andrey Amador (Movistar) went.

 

Amador tried again but it was Tanel Kangert (Astana) who managed to escape. That’s when Valverde showed himself for the first time but Kruijswijk responded immediately. Ilnur Zakarin countered the move and he joined Kangert in the front

 

Fuglsang, Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep), David Lopez (Sky), Damiano Cunego (Nippo), Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r) and Amador all tried to attack but Kruijswijk was attentive and brought everything back.

 

Lopez managed to get away and make it across to Kangert and Zakarin while the attacking continued. Valverde, Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r) were all active but only Ulissi managed to get clear. He joined the leaders while Martijn Keizer suddenly emerged from the back and started to ride tempo for LottoNL-Jumbo.

 

Zakarin decided to wait for the peloton, leaving Ulissi, Kangert and Lopez to press on. Further back, the attacking started again when Nathan Brown (Cannondale), Dupont, Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Sergey Firsanov (Gazprom) and Cunego went again. However, when Rafal Majka and his Tinkoff teammate Pawel Poljanski also attacked, Kruijswijk shut it down.

 

Disaster struck for Nibali when he again dropped his chain but he showed impressive strength to make it back to the peloton. However, he was unable to join the move when Majka, Kruijswijk, Zakarin and Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) attacked. Jungels tried to make a solo move but he didn’t get clear.

 

The pace went down and this allowed Firsanov to make it across to the leaders. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) was the next GC rider to attack but again Kruijswijk, Nibali and Valverde were attentive to follow the move.

 

Jungels countered the attack and quickly bridged across to the leaders, meaning that five riders had noe gathered in front. Further back, Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale), Darwin Atapuma (BMC), Riccardo Zoidl (Trek), Valerio Conti (Lampre-Merida), Montaguti and Sebastian Henao (Sky) all tried to get clear and they formed a chase group from which Dombrowski went solo.

 

Rein Taaramae attacked hard with his teammate Zakarin on his wheel and as Kruijswijk gave chase, that spelled the end for the chase group. Taaramae went solo and Zakarin, Kruijswijk, Cunego, Nibali, Valverde, Michael Scarponi (Astana) and the Cannondale pair of Moreno Moser and Andre Cardoso joined him following a move from Zakarin.

 

Dombrowski became the next rider to join the leaders before Nibali went all in with a big attack. He briefly got clear but Valverde managed to join the Italian. Kruijswijk also made the unction and finally Zakarin also made it across.

 

Lopez beat Firsanov and Jungels in the KOM sprint while Nibali, Valverde, Zakarin and Kruijswijk followed just a few seconds later. Nibali went 100% on the descent, with Valverde staying glued to his wheel. Kruijswijk and Zakarin were hanging on for dear life and in a matter of a few seconds, they closed the gap to the six leaders.

 

Kangert went straight to work for Nibali and so the gap to the peloton went out to 40 seconds. However, there was no great cooperation in the group and Valverde was visibly frustrated

 

Jungels rode so fast on the descent that he briefly got a gap but he decided to wait for the group. Instead, the group started to work together to maintain the 35-second gap over their nearest chasers which was a 25-rider group with Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE).

 

Ruben Plaza and Damien Howson were working incredibly hard in the Chaves group but they were not getting any closer. Hence, the gap was still 35 seconds as they entered the final 50km.

 

Jungels and Kangert briefly got a small advantage on the descent as the cooperation was not perfect. Hence, the gap dropped to less than 30 seconds when they hit a small climb with 41km to go.

 

Kangert gave it his all on the small ill, just as Howson and Plaza did in the second group. However, the Estonian won the battle and when Ulissi beat Valverde and Nibali in the battle for bonus seconds on the top, the gap had gone out to 39 seconds.

 

Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) started to cooperate with Howson and Plaza but that didn’t have much of an impact on the gap. However, they got some unexpected reinforcement when Dombrowski lost contact with the leaders in a moment of inattentiveness. He dropped back to the peloton and as soon as he was brought back, Nathan Brown and Moreno Moser (Cannondale) started to contribute to the pace-setting.

 

Entering the final 25km, Brown and Poljanski blew up and the peloton was losing the battle as the gap had now gone out to 45 seconds. Howson swung off as they approached the final 20km and it was Moser and Plaza who reduced the gap to 30 seconds before they ended their work at the bottom of the final climb.

 

Kangert continued his pace-setting on the lower slopes but as Chaves went full gas right from the bottom. Only Davide Formolo (Cannondale), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and Majka could match his speed but Formolo was quickly replaced by Atapuma.

 

The gap had gone down to 15 seconds when Kangert finally swung off with 18km to go. The Estonian exploded completely and was passed by Chaves, Pozzovivo and Majka.

 

Lopez was the first to attack from the front group but Zakarin joined him immediately. Kruijswijk ws quick to respond and was followed by Nibali, Valverde and Jungels.

 

Ulissi also got back before Lopez sneaked away. However, the Italian was dropped as Jungels hit the front hard and also brought Lopez back after the Spaniard had enjoyed freedom for a while.

 

Ulissi and Firsanov were yo-yoing off the back while Chaves, Majka and Pozzovivo were stuck 20 seconds behind. For a while, it was Jungels against Chaves and they were equally matched as the gap didn’t chance at all.

 

Ulissi was dropped before Valverde made his big attack 15km from home. Only Kruijswijk could match him while Nibali and Zakarin gave the chase. The Russian came around the Italian to make it back to the leaders while Nibali started to lose ground.

 

Firsanov joined Nibali and they almost got back when Zakarin again increased the speed. Instead, Jungels and Lopez arrived from behind while Ulissi was caught by the Chaves trio. Meanwhile, Zakarin went full gas and easily extended the advantage to 20 seconds.

 

With 13km to go, Chaves, Majka, Pozzovivo and Ulissi rejoined Nibali, Jungels, Lopez and Firsanov and that gave the Colombian a chance to recover. It was Jungels against Zakarin as nobody else was contributing to the work and it was the Russian who won the battle, pushing the gap out to 25 seconds.

 

Entering the final 12km, the gap had gone out to 35 seconds and now the front trip started to cooperate. Nibali and Chaves also got to work in the chase group which was too much for Ulissi and Lopez who were dropped.

 

Lopez made it back while Nibali took a massive turn on the front that reduced the gap to 20 seconds. Moments later, Chaves went all out in a final attempt to close the gap. Nonetheless, Ulissi managed to rejoin the group.

 

Chaves’ efforts didn’t pay off and the gap again started to grow when Kruijswijk went full gas in the steep section near the top. The Dutchman led Zakarin and Valverde over the top while Chaves, Jungels, Ulissi, Firsanov, Majka and Lopez were next, 30 seconds later. Nibali and Pozzovivo were dropped, cresting the summit 12 seconds further adrift.

 

Valverde tried to attack on the descent but it was not technical enough to make a difference. Nonetheless, Jungels managed to split the chase group as only Chaves and Majka could match the Luxembourger. However, the group came back together

 

With 5km to go, the riders reached the bottom of the descent with gaps of 30 and 40 seconds respectively. Jungels, Chaves and Majka were cooperating well and slowly started to reduce the gap but the Italian pair of Nibali and Pozzovivo had already lost 1.10 as they entered the final 3km.

 

Chaves emptied himself as they climbed towards the finish and dropped Ulissi and Majka in the process. However, he could not prevent the gap from going out to 35 seconds with 2km to go.

 

Jungels suffered massively but managed to stay with the Chaves group while Ulssi also regained contact just as they reached the top. Further up the road, Zakarin was riding full gas in the final 2km, sacrificing his winning chances completely.

 

That allowed Valverde and Kruijswijk to recover before the sprinted for the win. The Spaniard was in a class of his own and easily held off his Dutch rival while Zakarin lost 8 seconds after having worked hard in the finale. 37 seconds later Ulissi beat Jungels in the sprint for fourth while Chaves arrived five seconds later. However, the big loser was Nibali who arrived in 11th with a time loss of 1.47

 

Kruijswijk again had to settle for second but this was enough to extend his lead over Chaves to 3.00 while Valverde moves into third, 23 seconds further adrift. Nibali is fourth at 4.43 and Zakarin is just 7 seconds further back in fifth.

 

There is no doubt that Kruijswijk will welcome an easier day tomorrow. Stage 17 has a few smaller climber in the lumpy first half but as the second half is completely flat, a bunch sprint is the likely outcome.

 

A short, intense stage

After the well-deserved rest day, there was no mercy for the riders who headed straight into the mountains on stage 16 which brought them over 132km from Brixen to Andalo. The first 50km were slightly descending and then the riders tackled the 14.8km category 2 climb of Passo della Mendola. A long descent then led to the category 2 Fai della Paganella which averaged 7.4% over 10.5km. The top was located just 10.25km from the finish and they consisted of 4km of fast descending and a 6% uphill drag that led to the final flat kilometre.

 

As expected, there was bright sunshine when the riders gathered in Brixen. However, one rider was absent: the Spanish climber David de la Cruz (Etixx-QuickStep) had fallen ill and stayed at the hotel.

 

Nine riders get clear

A Movistar rider had a flat in the neutral zone and so was unable to join the many attacks that were launched right from the start. Already after a few kilometres, 15 riders got clear but they were caught before they had covered 10 kilometers. Instead, Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Simon Clarke (Cannondale), Eugert Zhupa (Wilier South East) and Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff) escaped at the 12km mark and built up a lead of 8 seconds before 10 riders unsuccessfully tried to bridge the gap. However, Sky had missed the move and started to chase hard. The hard tempo split the peloton but nevertheless the gap went out to 16 seconds.

 

While Joey Rosskopf (BMC), Matteo Trentin (Etixx-QuickStep), Olivier Le Gac (FDJ), Pim Ligthart (Lotto Oudal) and Marco Coledan (Trek) made it across to the leaders, Zhupa was dropped from the front group which now consisted of 9 riders. Zhupa was caught by Roger Kluge (IAM) and Amets Txurruka (Orica-GreenEdge), but that trio never made it to the front.

 

Ag2r and Lampre-Merida lead the chase

The 9 riders had increased its lead to 30 seconds after 32km of racing and it had grown to 39 seconds just 2km later. In the peloton, Ag2r and Lampre-Merida were in charge as both teams had missed the break.

 

Coledan beat Trentin, Oss, Ligthart and Clarke in the first intermediate sprint while the peloton crossed the line 45 seconds later. Blel Kadri (Ag2r) took some huge turns on the front though and so the gap was down to just 20 seconds as they hit the first climb.

 

Clarke took off in a solo move before Mastri, Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani) and Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data) joined them. The quartet was brought back and instead Pirazzi, Taaramae and Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff) tried. It was impossible to get clear though as Movistar had gone to work with Sutherland and it would ultimately pay off as Valverde ended the day as the stage winner.

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