You'd have to say the Colle dell'Agnello (literally, the lamb's pass) was aptly named, because for anyone other than Vincenzo Nibali last night, it was like watching lambs to the slaughter.
Even though he's bounced back before, as he did on Stage 19 of the 2015 Tour de France to La Toussuire, until yesterday's stage, the Sicilian had not returned from the jaws of defeat to find himself in a position to win a Grand Tour, which is the situation he now finds himself.
"All things being equal, it is a stage made for Chaves. This Giro is his to lose."
From being 17 seconds short of five minutes adrift of overnight leader Steven Kruijswijk to just 44 seconds off maglia rosa incumbent, Esteban Chaves, with one crucial stage remaining is an extraordinary turnaround. Speaking of Chaves, I don't think I've seen a more hesitant leader this Giro than the one we saw last night on the podium in Risoul; I doubt it was because he and Nibali profited from the crash of Kruijswijk on the Agnello, for that was an accident borne of skill (or more precisely, a lack of it) and they had every right to take full advantage. It was because Nibali believes he can win. The Shark can smell it, and Chaves fears it.
Orica-GreenEDGE head sports director Matt White says there's only one guy they need to watch on this climb-heavy penultimate stage. I'm not so sure: Kruijswijk's 1'05 deficit to Chaves could be so much worse (I'm thinking about Ilnur Zakarin here, out with a broken collarbone), and it depends how he's pulled up from the catastrophic events of yesterday, when, virtually single-handedly, the battered and bruised Dutchman had to keep a rampaging front group at bay for almost 60 kilometres. Crash aside, the big mistake LottoNl-Jumbo made was not placing anyone in the break as Astana, OGE, Movistar and Tinkoff duly did. As a collective it was the one thing they needed above all else; had they done so, Kruijswijk might still been in pink. "The odds are not in our favour anymore, but when he's able to recover, he can strike back tomorrow," LottoNl-Jumbo DS Addy Engels said Friday, despite Kruijswijk lamenting "I lost my Giro today."
Do you think Alejandro Valverde, 1'48 in arrears, will simply down weapons? Yes, his weakness is the altitude and that's where we're going - but if Nibali can reverse a near five-minute deficit in a day, the Spaniard will think, under the right circumstances, he can produce something similar. Even Rafal Majka, four minutes behind Chaves, thinks he still has a shot: "If tomorrow the race explodes like today," said his Tinkoff DS Tristan Hoffman in Risoul, "then things can change again. We are still racing for a podium spot until the end." Foreshadowed Majka, "It has been a tough, long Giro with strong adversaries, but we still have another day ahead where differences can be made before the finish." And out of the current top five on GC, it is only Tinkoff that still has all nine riders.
In yesterday's post-race interview, Chaves looked like he was crapping himself because he lost a minute to Nibali in a handful of kilometres and thinks the same thing could happen again, which would see him lose the race. However, the Colombian should remember (and Matt White will tell him so) he was the best on the stage to Corvara that was arguably tougher than today's and the climbs today are more similar in profile to Stage 14 than Friday. All things being equal, it is a stage made for Chaves. This Giro is his to lose: "If I bring the jersey home, it'll be great, if not, I'll have done everything I could," he said. Also, this is not the same Nibali who won the 2013 Giro or 2014 Tour; his form is some way off those heady heights.
There has been so much drama and uncertainty in this Giro it seems pointless to try and predict what may happen, other than to say more drama and uncertainty will follow.