Movistar appeared to have plenty of firepower for...

Dolomites dash Valverde’s dreams of pink

Movistar struggles through the Giro's decisive stage 14

CORVARA, Italy (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) may have to recalibrate his Giro d’Italia ambitions following a crushing setback in Saturday’s epic stage 14.

The six-climb, 210km stage across the ragged, snow-bound spires of the Dolomites was just the kind of decisive stage that crowns Giro champions. In the haunt of Pantani and Coppi, Valverde’s pink ambitions turned to black. Or at least to purple.

Now fourth overall at 3:06 back, he’s not out of it yet, but the Giro’s first major mountain stage certainly didn’t end the way Movistar wanted. Instead of racing for the pink jersey, a spot on the podium will become the realistic goal with more than a week to go.

“What affected me the most was the altitude. We were already around 2,000m, and I think that’s what affected me most,” Valverde told Spanish radio Onda Cero. “It was Nibali who started it all, but Chaves and Kruijswijk were better than him today. We’ll have to shake up the race, both Nibali and ourselves, so we’ll see what happens.”

Movistar, however, insists that was the ambition all along. Valverde did not speak to journalists immediately after the stage, but a team press release stated that with Valverde fourth, and overnight leader Andrey Amador fifth at 3:15 back, the team will “continue with two [leaders] to keep fighting for the podium and stage victories, which were the objectives at the beginning of this Giro d’Italia.”

Sunday’s 10.8km climbing time trial will prove critical. If Valverde cedes even more time, the podium could prove even more distant. A strong rebound, however, would do much to revive his ambitions. With plenty of hard racing to come, this Giro is far from decided, but Valverde will need to be stronger than he was Saturday.

Attacking rivals left Valverde gasping on the final climb over the Valparola, and he ceded three minutes to stage-winner Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge) and new pink jersey Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL – Jumbo). When the dust settled, Valverde remained in fourth, now 3:06 behind Kruijswijk, 2:25 behind arch-rival Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and 1:34 behind Chaves. With those three flying high in the Dolomites, Valverde will have his work cut out for him to reach the podium.

“It was a hard day. We defended the best we could, and we have to be happy with that. I am not frustrated in the least,” Valverde told Onda Cero. “The Giro is always full of surprises, but it’s obvious, at three minutes behind the leader, will have to give everything.”

Valverde’s rivals quietly sighed a sense of relief to have the dangerous Spaniard further out of the frame.

“We could eliminate Valverde as a rival, and he was one of the most dangerous at this Giro,” Nibali said. “My legs were feeling good today, and I wanted to take advantage.”

Chaves suggested that Movistar paid the price for working hard, especially with the effort Friday to chase the pink jersey for Amador, and added, “Movistar had worked a lot, and they paid for it. That’s cycling, that’s the Giro. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

How quickly things can change. Just a day before, things were looking rosy when Amador became the first Costa Rican to claim the pink jersey. Valverde was poised to be his successor, starting Saturday fourth at 43 seconds back. To round out the Spanish fiesta, Mikel Nieve (Sky) won Friday’s stage. What could go wrong?

Midway through Saturday’s stage, Movistar looked to be in control, putting riders into an early moves, and placing riders at the front to set the pace. Cracks started to appear when Amador got gapped on the penultimate climb at Passo Giau, but the Costa Rican used his deft descending skills to regain contact coming to the day’s final climb up Valparola. Now it was Valverde’s turn to step up.

The Shark of Messina could smell blood, however, and Astana continued to turn the screws, dropping Amador yet again. Nibali then surged clear about a third of the way up the climb with a searing acceleration that exploded the GC group. Valverde could only watch as others bridged across. In little more than a few minutes, Valverde’s Giro turned upside down.

Valverde crossed the line looking tired and dejected, hunched over their handlebars, and rode back to the team bus without speaking to a gaggle of media. His Giro carries on, but the harsh reality of the Dolomites turned his pink jersey dream a little dimmer.

“We’re still there, and there’s still a lot of racing left,” he said. “We have to stay motivated, even though it will be complicated.”