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Nibali erases doubt, but the lower Giro steps are in play

Vincenzo Nibali is nearly certain to carry the maglia rosa into Brescia, but the race for the podium is on in the Dolomites

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POLSA, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) erased any doubt Thursday over who is the strongest in this Giro d’Italia and will carry a nearly insurmountable lead into the final three days of racing this week.

Only Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) could come within one minute of the Sicilian as Nibali won Thursday’s 20.6-kilometer climbing time trial. He tightened his grip on the pink jersey, pushing second overall Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) to 4:02 adrift and celebrated with a fist pump as he crossed the finish line.

“My legs don’t hurt,” Nibali said. “Over the past week, I’ve started to feel better and better. I was very calm this morning. When I woke up and did a course inspection, I knew I had good legs.”

Nibali was right. He stopped the clock in 44:29 (27.785 kph) to win his first stage of this Giro and confirm once and for all that he’s a step above everyone else in the peloton.

“What Nibali did today was impressive. He’s the just winner,” said Sánchez, who posted a fast early time and watched rider after rider fall short until Nibali surged across the line in the rain. “He had the extra stimulus of riding for the pink jersey. He’s clearly the strongest rider in the race.”

“The Shark” once again proved he’s immune to cold and wet conditions in what’s been a terrible Giro. Conditions are so bad organizers confirmed Thursday afternoon that the Gavia and Stelvio climbs are unsafe for passage and laid out a new route for Friday’s climbing stage, with the original finale at Val Martello remaining intact.

With the Giro still hanging in the balance, a determined Nibali took gains on all of his GC rivals, including a deathblow of 2:36 to Evans.

The Australian started the day in second, at 1:26 — the only real threat to Nibali. Evans struggled across the line a distant 25th as rain pelted the late starters on the upper reaches of the winding course from Mori to Polsa.

Evans retained second by just 10 seconds over Rigoberto Urán (Sky), and slipped to 4:02 back, a difference that will be all but impossible to recoup despite two brutally steep climbing stages across the snow-bound Dolomites.

Anticipation was high ahead of what many expected to be a race-breaking stage. It was a breaker, but in the wrong direction for Evans.

The 2011 Tour de France champion needed to take time on Nibali, not lose it. Evans, who decided to race the Giro just five weeks before the start in order to prepare for the Tour de France, essentially threw in the towel after studying the GC.

“I am unlikely to win, but since I came here as training for the Tour de France, second is not so bad,” Evans said. “And Nibali, he’s in a class of his own right now, so he deserves to win the Giro.”

Nibali said he was expecting more from Evans.

“Cadel has been hidden away in the peloton these past few days, so it was hard to judge his legs. I expected he would go better today,” Nibali said. “He was my rider of reference [starting three minutes apart], so when I could see that I was close to catching him, I pushed even harder.”

Nibali looks firm in his grip on pink. He’s shown no cracks since the start of the Giro, and has ridden with confidence since taking the maglia rosa in the individual time trial at Saltara in stage 7.

Evans, Uran packed tightly in the race for the podium

The real race is now on for the podium, and Nibali knows it.

“The most important thing now is to defend the lead that I now have,” Nibali said. “Now we can breathe a little easier.”

Urán rode well in a discipline that’s not his specialty to defend third, stopping the clock sixth, 1:26 back. The Colombian is now just 10 seconds behind Evans, at 4:12, so there’s still a lot to race for at Sky.

“It was a real good performance from ‘Rigo.’ He paced himself well and now he’s just 10 seconds off second place,” said Sky director Marcus Ljungqvist. “It gives us something to fight for. We’re getting toward the end of the race and we want to leave it all out there and really go for it.”

Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), winner of the 2011 Giro, revived his podium chances by posting a strong time trial. He finished fourth, at 1:21, to slot into fourth overall, 5:14 back and just 1:12 from second place.

For Nibali, he can ride into the final crescendo of this Giro on cruise control. He’s been consistent in every key stage, either marking his rivals or taking time when necessary.

“I could see today again that I am stronger,” he said. “I think we can manage things no matter what happens.”

When asked why he’s so strong, he said his move to Astana is paying dividends.

“The team has supported me since the start of the season. They’ve helped me make tests on the aerodynamics. We were on the track with the time trial bike all day, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” he said. “The entire team is at my disposal. It gives me confidence and allows me to work with more tranquility. I can come into the race with a lot less stress.”

Nibali is clearly a step ahead of the peloton. The riders on the steps directly below him are still in doubt with three days to Brescia.