BARDONECCHIA, Italy (VN) — Cold might be the most dangerous rival for Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Nibali prefers warmer climates, but the Shark has erased any doubt about who is charge of this year’s Giro d’Italia.
In a weather-shortened stage 14, Nibali had such command of the race he could afford to play kingmaker at the same time as taking small, but important gains on his most direct GC rivals.
“It’s too early to say the race is over. The Giro is long,” Nibali said. “Today was a very hard stage, very cold, but I felt good and I took some time.”
Nibali punched the accelerator with just under 2 kilometers to go in the 7km final climb up the Jafferau summit to drop a grenade in the already highly stressed GC group.
Only the puffy-cheeked Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) could follow. Santambrogio countered with 800m to go to drop Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and his former BMC Racing teammate Cadel Evans to tow Nibali to the line. His payback was his first career grand tour stage victory.
With Evans and podium rival Rigoberto Urán (Sky) struggling in their wake, Nibali was content to let Santambrogio coast across the line unchallenged.
“Santambrogio was strong and helped me make the differences,” Nibali continued. “I don’t like being called the master of this Giro. Anything could happen. I need to take more time before I can breath easy.”
Snowy conditions forced organizers to reroute the stage around the Cat. 2 Sestriere summit, but Nibali only needed 7km of the final climb to Jafferau to turn the screws.
In fact, he only needed 1,800 meters. He jumped, Santambrogio followed, and the pair drove it to the line to help Nibali take a tighter grip on pink.
Despite ceding the stage and the 20-second winner’s bonus to Santambrogio, the damage was done. With the 12-second, second-place finish-line bonus, Nibali tightened his grip on the maglia rosa on a day when he feared the cold.
Evans dropped from 41 seconds to 1:26 back, while Urán also ceded ground to stay third at 2:46 back. Santambrogio bolstered his podium hopes to climb into fourth at 2:47.
Despite his fear of freezing, Nibali is in the hot seat of the Giro. Saturday only reconfirmed that he’s well positioned to win his first pink jersey with still more than a week of racing to go.
A half dozen riders lined up in the rain in Cervere within two minutes of the pink jersey. Nearly five hours later, that rain turned to snow as temperatures plummeted across the Italian Alps.
The GC hopes of two main threats dipped with the temperatures, with 2011 winner Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and Robert Gesink (Blanco) losing 1:28 and 4:16, respectively, to sink out of contention.
Sky tried to turn the screws to put pressure on Nibali, putting Dario Cataldo at the front to ramp up the speed on the final 7km climb up the Jafferau climb above the ski village at Bardonecchia.
With an average grade of above 9 percent and ramps as steep as 14 percent, the switchbacked climb seemed ideal for Urán, who started the stage third and was ready to take advantage of the full support of Sky the early departure of team leader Bradley Wiggins with a chest cold.
Urán surged clear with about 5km to go, but there was no dropping Nibali, who continues to race with a cool hand throughout the Giro.
“Sky showed their intentions today. They set the tempo of the stage and Urán tried a few times to attack us,” Nibali said. “They will continue to be dangerous. Evans is also dangerous. We haven’t seen the last of him yet.”
Although Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) started as the top favorites for the pink jersey, Nibali has demonstrated he’s a step ahead of the pack with consistent, steady racing throughout the first half of the Giro.
He hasn’t made a mistake yet, and his legs have responded when they needed to.
Nibali said he fears forecasts for continued cold weather almost more than his rivals.
“The cold weather is always a worry. We try to prepare by bringing the proper clothing, but I am still cold after the stage,” he said. “Let’s hope the weather improves in the coming days.”
He might not get his wish. Forecasts are calling for such horrid conditions Sunday that organizers are all but sure to neutralize most of the mountainous stage into the French Alps.
Both the Cat. 1 Mont Cenis and most of the beyond-category Galibier were erased from Sunday’s course as snow was expected to fall overnight.
In March, Nibali pulled out of Milano-San Remo in equally horrendous conditions. Though he admitted he started the stage with trepidation, he ditched his rain jacket late in Saturday’s stage and attacked up the final climb without arm-warmers.
“I preferred to treat the final climb like a climbing time trial,” he said. “I took off my jacket and rode up without arm-warmers. I was fine. The only thing that was cold was my feet.”
Nibali clearly does not have cold feet when it comes to the decisive moments of the race. If he keeps his cool head, the GC hopes of his rivals will continue to melt. The race could be on for the podium.