BELLUNO, Italy (VN) – Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Euskaltel-Euskadi) survived a brutal 229km, five-climb, seven-and-a-half-hour, often rain-soaked race through the Dolomites to win the 15th stage of the Giro d’Italia.
Nieve beat 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) by 1:41 and race leader Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) by another 10 seconds.
Contador, who wasn’t necessarily in the hunt for a stage win, added another minute to his advantage in the overall standings, leading Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) by 4:20. Scarponi moved past Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo), who struggled on the final climb, losing more than a minute and slipping to third on GC.
“It was the hardest stage of my life,” Contador told Spanish radio at the finish line. “It was hard, super-hard. There were some moments when I was completely isolated, 50km from the finish line. I played with the interests of the others in my favor and measured by strength. I believe that I met the objectives to open more differences and further distance my rivals.”
The longest day
While there had been some debate among the cognoscenti regarding which would be the toughest day at the Giro when the 2011 route was unveiled, that debate became moot on Saturday, when organizers cut 40km and two climbs out of stage 14. Sunday’s stage remained as brutal as planned, a 229km march through the mountains highlighted by five difficult — and steep — climbs along the towering limestone cliffs of the Dolomites:
• Piancavallo (1290m) 13.7km at 8.3 percent, summiting at 43.3km
• Forcella Cibiana (1530m) 10.2km at 7 percent, summiting at 123.1km
• Passo Giau (2236m) 15.9km at 6.5 percent, summiting at 171.8km
• Passo Fedaia (2057m) 13.4km at 7.9 percent, summiting at 201.4km
• Gardeccia (1948m) 6.2km at 10 percent, summiting at the finish at 229km
As the highest summit of the Giro, the Passo Giau offered the added incentive of being labeled the Cima Coppi, a climb that offered double climbers’ points and a cash bonus for the first rider to cross the summit.
But riders had to cross two tough climbs to even reach the base of the Passo Giau. The day began to sort itself out early on the slopes of the Piancaval as a series of attacks shattered the peloton and eventually led to a big split that included the day’s eventual winner, Nieve and second-placed Garzelli.
Nieve, the highest ranked on GC of those who made the break, starting the day at 9:08, was joined by Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto); Olivier Kaisen (Omega Pharma-Lotto); Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM); Philip Deignan (RadioShack); Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack); Francisco Javier Aramendia Llorente (Euskaltel-Euskadi); Alexander Kuchynski (Katusha); Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step); Emanuele Sella (Androni Giocattoli); Danilo Di Luca (Katusha); Johann Tschopp (BMC); Evgeni Petrov (Astana); Alberto Losada Alguacil (Katusha); Pieter Weening (Rabobank); Luis Pasamontes Rodriguez (Movistar); Stefano Pirazzi (Colnago-CSF); Carlos Sastre Candil (Geox-TMC); and Garzelli.
By the time the big break reached the day’s second climb, the Forcella Cibiana, the escapees had upped the lead to more than 10 minutes, putting Nieve into the virtual leader’s jersey for a few kilometers.
Near the top of the climb, the cooperation in the group began to unravel as Di Luca, Popovych, Tschopp, Sella, Garzelli, Bakelants and Seedraeyers moved ahead of the others and reached the summit first. Garzelli, winner of the King of the Mountains jersey in 2009, was clearly in the hunt for KOM points and started off with the top prize on the Forcella Cibiana.
The original break regrouped on the descent and the break again added time, upping its advantage to 10:40 approaching the base of the Passo Giau. Vacansoleil’s Hoogerland — a rider with a solid reputation as an escape artist — attacked on the lower slopes of the 16km climb and worked to establish as much of an advantage as he could while he could.
Once the Belgian’s advantage hit 20 seconds, Garzelli and Nieve moved out of the group in pursuit. Garzelli soon moved ahead of the Euskaltel man as he closed in on Hoogerland and held on to claim the Cima Coppi at the top of the climb.
Nieve, too, caught and passed Hoogerland, cresting the summit with a 40-second deficit on Garzelli. Behind, the original break had fractured into small chase groups. The peloton — what was left of it — crested the climb at 9:30.
Contador had upped the tempo near the summit of the Passo Giau, a move that showed the first real sign of Nibali’s weakness. The race leader crested the climb 15 seconds ahead of the Liquigas leader, but that gap was quickly erased as Nibali took advantage of his exceptional descending skills and attacked on the long drop off of the Cima Coppi. Contador and others, including Movistar’s Pablo Lastras, worked to pull back Nibali well ahead of the next climb. Nibali would soon need those descending skills again.
The final battle
Garzelli continued to lead the stage as he reached the top of the Passo Fedaia with Nieve in pursuit. Many of their former companions, however, were being picked off by the hard-charging and aggressive group of GC contenders.
Behind, Nibali was again gapped, this time crossing the climb nearly a minute off of Contador’s group. Remarkably, he again fought back and caught the maglia rosa near the base of the descent.
Garzelli reached the base of the day’s final climb — a painful 6.2km rise that averaged 10 percent and reached grades of as much as 18 percent near the summit — with a small lead over Nieve. The big effort, however, had taken its toll and Garzelli was soon caught and passed as Nieve fought to hold on for the stage win.
While Garzelli may have conceded the stage win, he had a new worry as news broke that Contador — who began the climb nearly six minutes back — had attacked out of the lead group and was making time up the steep sections of the climb.
Garzelli held on for second, finishing 1:41 behind Nieve and, remarkably just 10 seconds ahead of Contador.
By day’s end, Nieve’s win represented the second successive victory for his Euskaltel squad, but the big winner of the day was Contador, who now holds a 4:20 lead over Scarponi and 5:11 over Nibali, who slipped to third on GC.
Monday brings the Giro’s second rest day before racing resumes with another day of climbing — an uphill individual time trial on stage 16.