LottoNL-Jumbo's Steven Kruijswijk dealt more heavy blows to his Giro d'Italia pink jersey rivals as Astana's Vincenzo Nibali melted down on the slopes of the Fai della Paganella and Orica-GreenEdge's Esteban Chaves saw his own second place position weaken after missing a critical move. Kruijswijk, riding in the maglia rosa he intends to keep all the way to Turin, joined an attack by Katusha's Ilnur Zakarin to thin out the front group, drawing only Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and shedding all the rest of the hopefuls. The three crested the Fai della Paganella and comfortably fended off various chasers all the way to the line, where Valverde outsprinted Kruijswijk for the stage, 38 seconds ahead of the Chaves group.
Chaves spent the day on an odyssey, missing out on the acceleration on the day's first climb, the Passo della Mendola, and struggling to limit his losses all day. By the final climb to Andalo he had burned through his team support, joined Bob Jungels of Etixx-Quick Step, saw Nibali fade past them, and continued on to the line with Serguei Firsanov of Gazprom, Lampre's Diego Ulissi, Rafal Majka of Tinkoff and Sky's David Lopez. Eventually Ulissi capped off the chase with a successful sprint for fourth place, positioning himself to take the lead in the Points competition. He sits nine points down on Giacomo Nizzolo of Trek-Segafredo, with a sprint stage tomorrow but mostly bad news for Nizzolo after that. Nizzolo was still breathing a bit from his effort today when he was hauled off his bike, just ahead of the time cut, and ushered onstage for the red jersey presentation.
Valverde was perhaps the day's biggest winner, not only bagging a stage prize -- somewhat belatedly, compared to the expectations he came into this Giro with -- but showing that he's a rare bird in this race, a rider whose form seems to actually be improving at the start of the third week. Valverde lost significant time on the queen stage in the Dolomites Saturday, but was good on Sunday's uphill time trial (third on the stage) and even better on today's brief but sharp parcours. With Chaves providing more questions than answers in today's performance, there is a real chance that Valverde, who inherited third place overall from Nibali, could move up another step. Only 23 seconds separate them now on the general classification.
Nibali's plight was plain for all to see, as the former winner of all three Grand Tours slipped off the page, dropping 1.47 to the leaders and looking to all the world like a rider headed in the wrong direction. He is barely ahead of Zakarin for fourth, and should hear the pedalstrokes of Jungels coming up behind him, perhaps, before it's over. The race's other big revelation, besides Kruijswijk, Jungels was again very strong, just conceding fourth to Ulissi, though none of the stages so far tell us much about what will happen in France this coming weekend. Still, the white jersey for best young rider seems riveted to his shoulders, as he further padded his lead that was already over 11 minutes.
Still, it will be a complete shock if Kruijswijk is not still the overall leader. Day after day he only confirms his position as the strongest rider in Italy right now. Even with minimal help from his team, the Dutchman from Nord-Brabant has been exceptional, riding confidently, aggressively, and patiently, all at once. Today he once again chose the right acceleration to match, hammered home the advantage, and tried to sprint for the victory, though for the third consecutive stage he came up just short (that's three second-placings in a row).