ANDOLO, Italy (VN) — No one pegged Steven Kruijswijk as a winner of the 2016 Giro d’Italia, but with five stages to go, everyone inside the peloton agrees it’s the LottoNL – Jumbo rider’s pink jersey to lose.
“[Kruijswijk] hasn’t shown any weakness yet,” said Orica – GreenEdge sport director Matt White. “He’s the strongest guy here. Unless he shows a weakness between here and Sunday, he’ll be the winner of the Giro.”
That near-universal consensus was reconfirmed in Tuesday’s short, explosive stage that saw the GC favorites taking potshots at each other right from the gun, but it was Kruijswijk who stomped the hardest.
The Dutch climber smothered attacks from stage-winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) early in the stage, and then gapped podium rival Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge) to finish second for the third consecutive stage to widen his maglia rosa lead to 3:00.
At the line, Valverde out-kicked Kruijswijk and fellow attacker Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) to win the stage, and bounced into third overall at 3:23 ahead of Nibali, who faltered on the day’s last climb to sink to fourth at 4:43. With only two difficult mountain stages left, Valverde joined the growing chorus that this Giro could be painted in orange.
“He’s looking very strong, and it will be difficult to knock him out,” Valverde said. “From what we saw today, Kruijswijk is clearly the strongest rider in this Giro, and, OK, there are two more hard stages to go, but if he’s like he’s been so far, he will be the winner of this Giro.”
Kruijswijk has been the steadiest and strongest rider so far in a Giro laden with inconsistencies among the top favorites. When the race started in his native Holland, nearly everyone was expecting a GC battle between Nibali and Valverde. Instead, both of those veterans have flagged in key moments, while the 28-year-old Dutchman has surpassed expectations at every major stage.
No one’s more surprised than Kruijswijk to be leading the Giro going into the final week.
“When I started two weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be in the leadership jersey at this time in the Giro,” he said. “I felt good from the beginning, and I was hoping to be at the front of the GC, but to be first is a little bit surprising as well.”
His best Giro result was seventh last year, and he started hoping to better that, with an eye on the top-five, and maybe the podium if things went well. Following his flawless defense of pink in his first road stage in the maglia rosa, Kruijswijk is on track to become the first Dutch winner of the Giro.
“I felt really good today, and I like to be in this jersey,” Kruijswijk said. “I showed myself at the front today, and that means I am still feeling good and in the right position. I hope I can do this for the next few stages.”
Kruijswijk is the steady hand at the top of a still wildly agitated, ever-changing GC that will soon convert into a battle for the podium. After losing time in a disastrous time trial Sunday, Nibali looked to be on the march early, attacking over the day’s first climb to gap Chaves, but he faded when Zakarin and Valverde accelerated, and even slipped behind the chasing Chaves to finish 11th at 1:47. With back-to-back losses, Nibali ceded a podium spot to Valverde.
Chaves, too, ceded ground, but he admitted it was a judgment error, not a lack of firepower.
“Today was a shootout, and I let my guard down,” Chaves said, who got gapped over the day’s first climb. “I saw Nibali and Valverde go with 500m to go on the first climb, and I sat back, thinking it would come back together on the descent, and that was my error.”
Orica’s White said it’s a fight for the podium, with Kruijswijk in the pole position for pink.
“When you’re the strongest guy in the race, you don’t need teammates like the way Sky rides the Tour,” White said. “The Giro is different, the teams aren’t as strong. This year, it’s very much a man-on-man race.”
So far, it’s been the unlikely Kruijswijk who’s stood tall when others have stumbled.