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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) defended his maglia rosa on Sunday as Maxim Belkov (Katusha) won stage 9 of the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
The hilly 170km leg from Sansepolcro to Firenze was a rain-sodden affair that saw Sky captain Bradley Wiggins gapped on a sketchy descent.
First Astana, then Garmin-Sharp pushed the pace — not so much to chase Belkov, who was off the front alone — but rather to distance the Brit, who struggled to close the gap despite having a full complement of teammates pacing him back.
Sky finally delivered Wiggins back to the bunch with some 24km to race and he crested the penultimate climb with the other contenders as Belkov soldiered on alone, some 90 seconds ahead of Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia), who likewise was on his own. The peloton was a couple minutes further in arrears.
Twelve kilometers from the finish it was Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) who was struggling, finding himself hard pressed to stay in contact with the bunch on the final climb of the day.
“It was a tough day out there, again, after a tough time trial yesterday,” Hesjedal said. “We’ve been getting hit with these bad conditions, and I just had a few bad moments on those last two short climbs.”
Belkov once again summited alone, a time-trial specialist facing a 10km ride to the line. Pantano had been joined by Tobias Ludvigsson (Argos-Shimano) and the two were nearly 90 seconds behind, with a surging Carlos Alberto Betancur Gomez (Ag2r La Mondiale) fourth on the road at 1:48.
Once more Wiggins slid to the rear of the bunch on the descent, but not quite out the back.
Off the front, meanwhile, it was Belkov taking the win with plenty of time to spare after more than four and a half hours of racing in the rain. Still, he didn’t begin celebrating his first victory as a pro until the finish was safely in sight. He sat up, straightened his kit and saluted the crowd as he soared across the line.
Betacur pinched second from Pantano, who hung on for third. The Ag2r rider seemed awfully excited to take the runner-up spot; as it turned out, his earpiece had failed and he thought he’d gone one place better. Behind, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) led in the bunch, taking the points jersey for his troubles.
Evans said the 170km stage, which finished on the course that will host this year’s UCI world road race championships, was a difficult stage made more challenging by the weather.
“Every day has been full of surprises,” he said. “You prepare as best for these stages and hope for the best. When a storm comes in and it rains and you are driving your car, you turn your wipers on and you slow down a bit. But in the peloton, that’s not the case at all. It’s been a real test of positioning, staying in front, having a bit of luck and no technical problems. So it’s been a surprisingly difficult first week.”
The stage marked something of a hometown triumph for Belkov, who lives in Prato and knows the roads well.
“I’m thrilled I won this stage,” said. Belkov, who has been part of three winning time-trial teams. “Yesterday I didn’t do a great job, but I decided to save my legs for today, a stage dedicated to breakaways — better a first position today than a 10th place yesterday.
“I knew they were riding very hard behind me, and I was never certain I would win. I simply did the best I could. In the final 2km, I had so much cramp I could hardly think.”
On the overall, Nibali remains in charge, finishing safely with the bunch in 10th at 1:03 and sitting 29 seconds ahead of runner-up Evans with Robert Gesink (Blanco) third at 1:15.
“The team was always together today,” said Nibali. “The final part of the stage was probably the most delicate, when your strength, and that of your teammates, is a bit drained. But Tanel Kangert was always with me, and he was so strong that I had to ask him to hold back a bit in the closing kilometers.
“We started in the sun and ended in the rain, and at Vallombrosa, the temperature dropped to 10 or 11 degrees. But I’m in good shape and it wasn’t a problem for me.”
After his earlier scare, Wiggins likewise finished with the contenders, crossing 24th and sitting fourth overall at a second behind Gesink.
Teammate Danny Pate said the team never hit the panic button.
“Any time you have to do a chase, not panicking is one of the most key things,” he said. “We just tried to bring our group back to the main group and we managed it right on the third category climb. We had Rigo’ [Uran] and Sergio [Henao] ahead and everyone else was behind helping Brad. Then after he got back on that was it, I was pretty much blown!”
Sky sports director Marcus Ljungqvist praised his riders for their composition under pressure.
“The guys raced as a team, didn’t panic and that was the key today,” he said. “We were able to chase down the gap and at the end of the day we’ve moved up the GC with Rigoberto and Sergio. We have to be happy with that after a hard stage like this.”
Defending champion Hesjedal — who lost contact entirely on that final climb, finishing 43rd at 2:09 — dropped from sixth to 11th on GC and is now 3:11 out of the lead.
“I felt fine on the longer climbs, but I couldn’t get any power out of my legs on the short climbs,” said Hesjedal. “I think it was just a combination feeling the effects from yesterday, and the cold. When the race is on like that, on those short climbs, with the last one downhill to finish, it’s not ideal to have a bad patch.”
But Nibali wasn’t counting Hesjedal or anyone else out.
“Wiggins and Hesjedal have lost time, but they are still among my main rivals, along with Evans and [Michele] Scarponi,” he said. “But the Giro is long, we all know that, and you can always have a bad day.”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Italy.