When a domestique wins a grand tour

Vincenzo Nibali got the glory with a win in the Giro's stage 20, but his teammate, Michele Scarponi might be the day's MVP.

Michele Scarponi might just win this Giro. Not for himself, of course, but for Vincenzo Nibali.

Nibali collapsed on his handlebars at the finish line in Risoul on Friday, a towel to his face, his shoulders rocking with sobs. It was his first stage win of the race, redemption after a second week that left him on the back foot and embarrassed by his form. The victory came off the wheel of Scarponi, where Nibali has spent so much of this Giro. When Nibali finally looked up he spoke with RAI, the Italian broadcaster, about his Astana teammate.

“Michele was truly great,” he said, still emotional. “In this Giro d’Italia, he has sat beside me and believed in me until the end.”

On Friday, just a few days after Nibali threatened to drop out of this Giro, Scarponi set the Shark up for his first successful attack.

There was a plan, and it was executed. Scarponi made his way into the breakaway, which took nearly two hours to establish (an indication that everyone wanted to be in it). He was the first to cross the Cima Coppi, the highest point of the Giro, minutes ahead of the GC leaders.

Sitting comfortably in the break, Scarponi was protected from the accelerations of the GC group behind, which shredded the main field down to just Nibali, Esteban Chaves, and the maglia rosa Stephen Kruijswijk. Alejandro Valverde, third on Friday morning, was gone; the pundits say he’s no good at altitude, but all we really know he was no good on Friday.

Then Kruisjwijk crashed on the descent, and the day’s tactics solidified.

They say teams win grand tours. There are exceptions to this rule, but there’s no doubt that a team can lose a grand tour. Kruijswijk’s lack of teammates following his nasty snowbank tumble forced him to chase hard, alone, on the descent and then across a small valley, with only a bit of help from Etixx – Quick-Step. The team had no rider in the breakaway, ready to wait for the leader. Nibali had Scarponi, and Chaves’s teammate Ruben Plaza deserves special mention as well. As a result, Kruijswijk arrived at the final climb to Risoul with a 20-minute full-gas effort already in his legs. In hindsight, he didn’t stand a chance.

Ahead, Scarponi rolled a few turns with Lotto – Soudal’s Maxime Monfort, then sat up. He would have won the stage, almost without question. He’s already shown his form this week, finishing fifth in the uphill time trial (23 places ahead of Nibali, by the way). But the 37-year-old rolled slowly back to his team car, he stopped, grabbed a few bottles and a snack and prepared himself for the arrival of his leader.

The final tactics were simple. Scarponi pulled for half the climb, extending the group’s lead over Kruijswijk from a minute to more than three. When he swung off, job done, Nibali was already level on time with Kruijswijk, unlikely to factor with a crash-battered body. Thanks to in large part to Scarponi, the Giro is a two-horse race heading into the final mountain stage.

If Nibali manages to overhaul Esteban Chaves to take pink, he’ll have his Italian teammate to thank for the victory, and for encouraging him to stay in the Giro when things got rough.

Scarponi is a grand tour winner himself, thanks to the disqualification of Alberto Contador’s 2011 Giro ride. The 37-year-old was connected (via the nicknames Zapatero and Il Presidente) to Eufemianio Fuentes in 2007 and to Michele Ferrari in 2012, the latter of which resulted in a three-month ban. These days, though, he’s better-known within the peloton as a comedian. He’s quirky, certainly the only rider I’m aware of who trains with a parrot. Its name is Frankie.

Parrots aside, no domestique has had a greater impact on this Giro d’Italia. Scarponi saved Nibali half a dozen times already this Giro. A few seconds on stage 6, another few on stage 16. The importance of that time is now brought into focus, as Nibali sits only 44 seconds off the maglia rosa.

Saturday will be the final test. If Nibali passes — if he can take 44 seconds on Chavez and the final maglia rosa — he’ll have Scarponi to thank.