Inspired by the exploits of Euskaltel-Euskadi teammate Igor Anton in yesterday’s journey to the top of Monte Zoncolan, Mikel Nieve reigned in the Giro d’Italia’s queen stage to Val Di Fassa on a day when more cracks appeared in the title favourites’ chances... except those of maglia rosa Alberto Contador.
The Spaniard (Saxo Bank-Sungard) finished third to further consolidate his lead in this year’s event, with Italian veteran Stefano Garzelli going on a mountains classification points rampage to try to emulate his efforts in the 2009 edition of this race.
During his successful campaign to win the mountains classification two years ago, Garzelli used the day of the Cima Coppi – the event’s highest point – to secure his lead in the race for the green jersey. Two seasons later and the 37-year-old Italian did the same, kicking on the Passo Giau and holding on to take points on the Passo Fedaia in a bid for the lead in the climbers’ title.
They were just two of five big climbs on the parcours of 229km, with the Piancavallo, the Forcella Cibiana, the Passo Giau (the 2011 Giro’s Cima Coppi), Passo Fedaia and the finishing ascent to Val Di Fassa with which to contend.
One man who found those five climbs two mountains too many was Vincenzo Nibali, the Liquigas-Cannondale captain slipping behind the leaders on the final climb to finish over three minutes behind the stage winner and giving up second place overall to Michele Scarponi, who finished the stage in fourth after a solid performance from the Italian veteran.
A big ol’ group up front
There was always going to be a break given plenty of leash on the journey from Conegliano, such was the nature of the day’s route and the lead enjoyed by Contador in the general classification. A group of seven kicked off proceedings proper, with Emanuele Sella (Androni Giocattoli), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step), Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM), Aliaksander Kuchynski (Katusha), Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Javier Aramendia (Euskaltel) forming the septet.
Soon after they were pursued and eventually caught with 179km remaining in the stage. Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), Danilo Di Luca (Katusha), Luis Pasamontes Rodriguez (Movistar), Stefano Pirazzi (Colnago-CSF Inox), Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Philip Deignan (RadioShack), Alberto Losada Alguacil (Katusha), Evgeni Petrov (Astana), Nieve and Johann Tschopp (BMC Racing) made the running at the front of the race and would spend considerable time there.
The break was given plenty of leash, too – an advantage of 9:50 came shortly after starting the second climb of the day, the Passo Cibiana, although it was knocked back to 9:02 with 96 clicks until the finish as Liquigas-Cannondale again came to the front to deliver Nibali into position later in the stage.
Hoogerland tried his luck with a solo move that seemed to make little sense – although with 60km left in the stage he'd built a lead in excess of 1:20. Up the testing slopes of the Passo Giau, however, the two men who would fight it out for stage honours, Garzelli and Nieve, went in pursuit of the Dutchman and caught him before the summit. The Italian veteran continued on to take the Cima Coppi of this year’s Giro atop the Giau, among the snow and rain of the iconic mountain pass.
Little Stefano wants to fly
Garzelli had 45 seconds over Nieve at the summit of the Giau and looked set to continue his run as Hoogerland passed the Cima Coppi 1:25 down on the Italian. Further back a chase group of nine that included Di Luca and Sella had formed and crossed the top of the day’s third ascent 1:44 behind Garzelli.
When Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Movistar's David Arroyo moved off the front of the peloton it spurred the maglia rosa into action, with Contador following their wheels in addition to Scarponi, Anton, Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), Nibali and Roman Kreuziger (Astana) to form an elite selection for the descent of the Giau.
Nibali decided he was going to descend alone, however, flying down the mountain ahead of his illustrious colleagues and remaining between Garzelli and his main title rivals for the entire descent and into the following climb. It wasn’t long until Nibali sat 42 seconds behind Garzelli, conscious of the fact he posed a threat to the favourites who had gathered behind. Next on the menu: the Passo Fedaia.
The Fedaia’s brutish slopes reach 18 percent and average 7.9 percent over 14km of torture... perfect for the men who have aspirations of winning the Giro d’Italia, and as the big names took on this ascent there were dribs and drabs of breakaway remnants such as Di Luca and Nieve between Garzelli and the big GC names behind.
To prove he’s a rock of stability in this year’s Giro, Contador attacked the favourites’ group halfway up the climb, taking José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) and Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) with him as Nibali went backwards after his efforts on the descent of the Passo Giau, and possibly putting him out of a podium place overall.
With the climb ramping up pressure on the riders, Contador et al came back to the fold and the members of the hitherto leading group were dragged back and spat out. There were only three men seemingly able to resist the surge of the favourites: Nieve, Garzelli and Bakelants.
The latter put up little resistance on the Fedaia and on the GPM atop Passo Fedaia the smooth cranium of the lone ranger out front enjoyed a lead of seven minutes over the GC guns; with the descent and a finishing climb remaining in the 27km on offer, he could afford to continue believing in stage victory and a certain lead in the mountains classification.
No fairy tale ending
Speeding along the stretches of the lake above the Passo Fedaia, Garzelli had managed to preserve a lead of 6:41 as he rode under the banner indicating 25km of suffering to go – and how he was going to suffer! Another man suffering was Nibali; the Sicilian was dropped from the favourites’ group and crested the Fedaia solo.
Whilst Garzelli’s advantage had been cut by 30 seconds in the subsequent 5km, the Acqua e Sapone captain continued his gutsy ride as his pursuers topped the summit of the Fedaia and dressed themselves to take on the wet and cold descent that would lead to the final climb of the day.
After some heroics from Nibali on the descent to get back into the gruppo maglia rosa and on the lower slopes of the climb to Val Di Fassa, Garzelli passed the 10km-to-go banner with an advantage of 20 seconds over the previously anonymous Nieve, who'd held onto his position behind the Italian despite the rest of the break succumbing to the speed of the favourites.
Four kilometers later and Nieve was the new leader on the road, kicking with 5.7km remaining and never being headed while behind him Contador was wreaking more havoc on his rivals by attacking – again – and breaking the tenuous link between himself and the rest of the would-be title contenders.
And at the end of three torturous days in the mountains the 2008 Giro champion was able to enter the second rest day with a massive 4:20 lead over Scarponi and more than five minutes on Nibali.