TORINO, Italy (AFP) — Some will call Vincenzo Nibali’s dramatic Giro d’Italia victory on Sunday lucky, but it served as a reminder that “the shark” is dangerous when in deep water.
Three years after the Italian sealed a maiden pink jersey with an epic ride through the snowy Dolomites, a second Giro triumph looked out of reach when Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL – Jumbo opened up a huge lead in the final week of a thrilling 99th edition.
Over two intense days in the mountains, pre-race favorite and Astana rider Nibali went from trailing the Dutchman by 41 seconds to seemingly out of contention at 4:43 back.
But “the shark” has a habit of biting back at his rivals.
And when Kruijswijk crashed into a snow bank early on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello climb bordering France and Italy on Friday, the race for pink was suddenly back on two days before the finish.
On stage 19, Nibali forged ahead to victory on the summit finish at Risoul in France, where he also won on his road to the Tour de France overall triumph in 2014.
Like a great white patiently circling his prey, Nibali was unforgiving when he went in for the kill.
“Steven Kruijswijk had a good advantage after the Dolomites but I knew the highest mountains were yet to come,” Nibali said.
“Riding above 2,000 meters isn’t easy for anyone but I felt comfortable. Kruijswijk crashed … but towards the summit of the Colle dell’Agnello I noticed he was breathing heavily so I put pressure on him climbing and then descending.
“Had I not, probably nothing would have happened and [Esteban] Chaves would have had an easy ride as well.”
Orica – GreenEdge climber Chaves took the race lead Friday with a 44-second advantage over Nibali, but he trailed behind the Italian after Saturday’s penultimate stage that ended atop the Sant’Anna di Vinadio.
On Sunday, Nibali revealed he had been suffering from a stomach bug, news of which he kept to himself.
“I had a stomach bug during the Giro but it’s better not to tell everything sometimes,” he said.
It is not the first time the Sicilian has fought back from adversity to triumph in one of the world’s biggest bike races.
He upset pre-race predictions to win the Tour de France in 2014, becoming the first Italian to do so since the late climbing ace Marco Pantani in 1998.
And when he was excluded from the 2015 Vuelta a Espana for illegally hanging onto a team car following a crash, he blew away his shame with a stunning performance to win the Il Lombardia classic weeks later.
Shy off the bike, the Sicilian becomes a fierce competitor on it — although he is known for his sensible side, too.
After fighting his way back into victory contention in Risoul, Nibali wept tears of relief and joy as he hung his arms over the handlebars.
Nibali, 31, left his native Sicily for Tuscany as an ambitious 16-year-old to follow his dream, and has become one of the most formidable and feared stage racers in the world.
A strong climber with descending skills that have left more than one rival fearing for his safety, Nibali copes well in tough weather conditions.
He secured his maiden pink jersey on the penultimate stage in 2013 when he emerged through a snow blizzard to triumph atop Trois Cimes de Lavaredo in the Dolomites.
After Kruijswijk flew over the handlebars head-first into the snow on Friday, Nibali remarked: “Descents are just as much a part of racing as climbing.”
Next up for Nibali is the Tour de France, although he plans to ride in support of teammate Fabio Aru. Nibali will then focus on winning gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.