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The Vincenzo Nibali of old emerged on the climbs...

Nibali animates decaffeinated Giro

Vincenzo Nibali ripped apart the Giro d'Italia in stage 20, winning the day and coming within striking distance of the maglia rosa.

If it was the fourth quarter of a football game, Vincenzo Nibali threw the cycling equivalent of a Hail Mary, connecting the long bomb to put him right on the goal line with seconds to play.

The Shark’s daring attack blew open a somewhat blocked, back-and-forth Giro d’Italia, and single-handedly turned the race upside.

In a nation known for its exuberance, its passion, and its color, this Giro was a little bit decaffeinated, at least for local tastes. Sure, the racing has been intense, but the 99th Giro was lacking those larger-than-life moments that make the Italian grand tour so endearing.

Well, Friday’s two-climb smasher over the Alps changed all that. It seemed to pack two weeks of headlines into one action-packed stage. The GC changed, the pink jersey crashed, another favorite went out in a harrowing crash, (Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin), and the Giro saw a fresh-faced Esteban Chaves don the pink jersey — only the third Colombian to do so. All stories in their own right.

The instigator: Nibali, who else?

Just 48 hours ago, Astana’s Italian champ was in “crisis.” He couldn’t understand — or rather, the Italian media didn’t understand why he wasn’t smashing this Giro. With all three of the “big four” — Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador — steering clear of Italy this month, everyone thought Nibali would win in a cakewalk. There were whispers of a mysterious ailment. A pact against Astana. Even the suggestion that Nibali was past his sell-by date. Starting Friday’s stage in fourth at 4:43, most had already written him off.

Not Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, who said this yesterday morning: “We still believe in Vincenzo. Great riders can do great things. That is what sets apart true champions.”

Already a winner of all three grand tours, Nibali reconfirmed Friday why he’s the best Italian rider since the troubled Marco Pantani in the 1990s. With a long-distance attack that blew up the race, he won the stage, and clawed within 44 seconds of the pink jersey.

“I couldn’t express myself in this Giro,” Nibali said, as if he were an artist. “I just didn’t have my normal strength in the Dolomites. Today I felt like myself again.”

As the stage unfolded across the Cima Coppi and the French Alps, something special started to happen. A big group pulled clear, and the pack was setting a very high tempo as it worked up the 21km summit. Astana was like a pack of wolves trying separate a weak member of the herd for a meal. Nibali noticed that Kruijswijk was surprisingly struggling up the slopes of the day’s first monster.

“I noticed that Kruijswijk was not going very well, so I decided to accelerate,” Nibali said. “Initially, I was only thinking about the stage win because I was far back on the GC, but 3km from the top [Col dell’Agnello], I saw a lot of riders suffering, and I decided to attack.”

Chaves and Kruijswijk followed, but Kruijswijk swerved wide over the top of the snow-bound pass — either because he was cross-eyed from the effort or perhaps he was eating something — and flipped over his handlebars into a snow bank.

When the race is on, no one waits. Nibali later claimed he did not realize what had happened to Kruijswijk, only that he wasn’t there. The Dutchman never recovered, and the Giro was suddenly a very different race.

Astana played the perfect tactic, and called Michele Scarponi out of the breakaway, who sat up, forfeiting his chance for the stage win, and helped pace Nibali to the base of the 10-switchback climb at Risoul. Nibali kept pouring it on, dropped Chaves, and won his first stage of this Giro.

Nibali now has major momentum going into Saturday’s 134km, four-climb decider with the pink jersey still in play. With the day’s first Cat. 1 summit coming in the opening 20km, it will be a battle all the way to the line.

“I’ve always said that a grand tour is raced until the final day,” Nibali said. “Until the final day, anything can happen.”

Tomorrow the Giro will be above the fold in La Gazzetta dello Sport, with this headline (or something very close): “Grande Nibali!”