Vincenzo Nibali of Astana returned to his home country of Italy from France in the most heroic way possible for a cyclist, ascending to his second career victory in the Giro d'Italia, with a patient but deadly attack on the penultimate climb of the Giro and a strong finish to the Santuario Sant Anna di Vinadio, the highest monastery in Europe. Nibali's effort gained him 1.40 over maglia rosa Esteban Chaves of Orica-GreenEdge, a full minute extra, allowing him to put behind him a difficult three weeks where he rode poorly and suffered a broken bike on the mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi, only to resurrect himself in nearly Biblical fashion to win the Giro. Among his victims were Chaves, who spent only a single, painful day in pink, and Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL-Jumbo, whose crash yesterday undid what had looked like his own career-defining rise.
Rein Taaramae of Katusha won the stage, honoring his fallen comrade Ilnur Zakarin who broke his collarbone on a high-speed crash yesterday, by outlasting a trio of strong stage-hunters on the final climb. Taaramae sat up as he crossed the line and made a "Z" in the air to show the world who was in his thoughts as he won his second grand tour stage in five years, and first Giro stage of his career.
Astana's big blow was delivered on the upper slopes of the Colle della Lombarda, where Nibali and his team slowly lifted the pace, slowly narrowed the group of leaders, and slowly put the Shark of the Straits into position to attack. When he did, he got himself away and up to his teammate Tanel Kangert, where together they very slowly established a gap that would never close. Eventually Kangert dropped away with 2km to the summit, but Nibali -- having crossed back onto Italian soil -- was ready to take over for himself. Behind him Cannondale's Rigoberto Uran caught up to his countryman, now riding with third-placed Alejandro Valverde. Uran went straight to the front and attempted to pace Chaves back to Nibali, a rare moment of open collaboration between riders who aren't teammates but one Uran pledged publicly in advance of the stage. So too did BMC's Darwin Atapuma, another Colombian who rides for BMC, offer his help to Chaves, so precious was the hope of a Colombian grand tour victory. But Atapuma was up the road chasing the stage (he finished second) when the moment of truth arrived. And after some ten minutes of pacing by Uran, Chaves cracked and could no longer do anything to stop Nibali. He went over the top of the climb a minute behind the Italian champion, his maglia rosa virtually off his shoulders.
The descent to the final climb saw no great change, with Nibali the ace descender putting in a steady ride, without taking any foolish chances, while the Valverde and Chaves groups filed in behind him. On the final climb, Valverde and Uran remained together and fought back to within sight of Nibali, finishing just a dozen seconds behind the Italian. Chaves caught on to a group containing Bob Jungels of Etixx-Quick Step, cementing his status as the Giro's best young rider, but they were nowhere near catching Nibali. Chaves emptied his tank in search of hanging on, but it was not to be.
Sky's Mikel Nieve was the first over the Col de la Bonette, where he officially took over the lead in the KOM classification, dispatching Nippo-Fantini's Damiano Cunego, the former Giro champion from twelve years ago, for good. He kept a sextet of chasers -- Atapuma, Taaramae, Kangert, Giovanni Visconti, Joe Dombrowski and Alexander Foliforov -- at bay until the descent, where they rejoined forces. Dombrowski attacked on the lower slopes of the Colle della Lombarda and set out with Atapuma in search of stage glory. But they couldn't escape permanently, and first Visconti and then Taaramae caught back up. Taaramae eventually got separation, while Kangert dropped back to help Nibali. Atapuma soloed in for second on the stage and Dombrowski third.
Tonight Nibali and the peloton will drop back down to the Po Valley to the town of Cuneo, in preparation for a flat ride to the finish of this dramatic, memorable Giro d'Italia, and the celebrations have already begun. Nibali was expected all along to win this Giro, until the racing actually started and it seemed that his hopes had disappeared with his form. With the reversal of his fortunes (and barring any re-reversals tomorrow), the Sicilian now writes a second Giro title and fourth Grand Tour next to his name, possibly the last in his remarkable career. As for the host nation, Nibali's victory ends a three-year run of foreign success, as well as a foreign domination of the maglia rosa throughout this year's race, where only Gianluca Brambilla of Etixx-Quick Step had donned pink on Italy's behalf. This race will be remembered for almost total foreign dominance, until the race left Italian soil and Nibali went rampaging across a small swath of southeastern France. To the Tifosi, order was restored at exactly the right time, by exactly the right person.