This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Astana’s Roman Kreuziger climbed to victory in an epic stage 19 at the 2012 Giro d’Italia, coming home 19 seconds clear of Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal and going some way towards restoring his reputation after a race that hasn’t gone to plan over the last three weeks.
Kreuziger won the young riders jersey at last year’s Giro and was considered to be among the favourites for overall victory this time round. Starting the day over 12 minutes behind the leaders, the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic ensured that he will take home some fond memories by winning what was widely described as the toughest stage of the entire race.
Hesjedal produced an incredible performance in finishing second, out-performing his fellow rivals in the GC and putting himself into a position from which he might well secure overall victory on Sunday. Despite once again being written off before the start, he took thirteen seconds out of Joaquim Rodriguez’s lead at the top of the maglia rosa standings and now lies just 17 seconds behind him. Just as importantly he also extended his own lead over Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi.
Hesjedal puts time into Rodriguez
With Sunday’s closing time trial likely to suit him more than his rivals, Hesjedal appears to have his destiny in his own hands and if he can survive tomorrow’s final mammoth stage he will be the overwhelming favourite for glory.
The riders headed into the Alps from Treviso just after 11am local time this morning, making today one of the earliest starts we’ve had. The general classification was unchanged after yesterday’s downhill stage that resulted in a sprint finish, where the main contenders for overall success kept their powder dry ahead of the trials and tribulations that they knew lay ahead of them.
In front of them today was 197km and no less than five categorised climbs, so any reserves the riders had built up on yesterday’s downhill stage would be drained pretty brutally. After just 15km we already had our first breakaway, with 17 riders building up a lead of over seven minutes by the time they reached the first categorised climb with about 130km to go. The best placed in the GC of those who had broken clear was Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat), but the group also included some pretty able climbers such as Emanuele Sella (Androni-Giocattoli) and Stefano Pirazzi (Colnago-CSF Inox).
By the end of the first climb the lead had been reduced by roughly a minute and the riders passed through a brief shower as they made their way towards the category 1 Passo Manghen. By the time they reached it they had re-establish a large gap of almost nine minutes. Facing them was 20.5km of ascent rising almost 1,700 metres.
Stage 18 winner Andrea Guardini was the first of the breakaway riders to crack and he was swallowed up by the main peloton, closely followed by Alessandro Ballan (BMC). Pirazzi and Thomas Rohregger (RadioShack-Nissan) then attacked on the sharp and intimidating descent, building a 20-second lead on the rest that lasted for a few kilometres before they were caught with just under 60km to go.
They reached the first ascent of the Passo Pampeago and Casar, Rohregger and Pirazzi went on the attack, forming a breakaway trio from the first bunch. Back in the main peloton, which contained all the main GC contenders, Basso was being protected most efficiently by his Liquigas-Cannondale teammates, who were working tirelessly for him as they have done for the vast majority of the last three weeks. Rohregger was the first of the leading trio to feel the pinch and was dropped with just over 40km left, leaving Casar and Pirazzi in front on their own. A five-man group was forming behind the RadioShack-Nissan man and tried desperately to bridge the gap to the leaders. Back down the road Basso, Scarponi, Hesjedal and Rodriguez were all riding patiently and Kreuziger was starting to move through the pack.
The next climb came quick on the back of the Passo Pampeago and Sella and Rohregger joined forces to try and reel in the front two. It was at this point, roughly 25km from the finish, that Kreuziger attacked from the main peloton and began his long slog towards picking off those in front of him. He was aided initially by teammate Kevin Seeldraeyers but almost immediately Kreuziger decided to push on in a lone pursuit.
With 11km left Casar and Pirazzi had been caught by Sella and Rohregger, and the quartet held a 1:20 advantage over Kreuziger, who was in a chase group with Omega Pharma-QuickStep duo Serge Pauwels and Dario Cataldo. The peloton were closing, slowly but surely, and were just over two minutes behind as the riders gritted their teeth for the second ascent of the Passo Pampeago. Hesjedal appeared to be looking the strongest and was now being covered by his Garmin teammates, who had regrouped.
Eventually Kreuziger found himself at the front with Casar and Pirazzi and the stage was set with 4km for Giro redemption. He was looking strong, but there was always the chance that his efforts in closing down the leaders might take their toll. A kilometre later, on the final climb, he was all alone but back down the road the big guns were motoring. And it was Hesjedal that was looking strongest – despite Scarponi’s numerous attacks, designed to break the Canadian in the closing stage, an answer was found each time.
With 1.5km left Kreuziger looked like he was treading water. Hesjedal was closing, having dropped Basso, Scarponi, Rodriguez and Domenico Pozzovivo, and for a minute it appeared that the Garmin rider would catch Kreuziger for an almost unbelievable victory. But as the finishing line crept into view on the horizon the Astana man found some extra power from somewhere to hang on for the win. The battle belonged to him but it is looking increasingly likely that the entire war will belong to Ryder Hesjedal. In around 48 hours time we’ll know.