Can Kruijswijk defend in Giro’s Alpine pressure cooker?

The Giro d'Italia's final standings will be decided in two short Alpine stages where Chaves, Valverde, and Nibali all promise to attack.

Photo: BrakeThrough Media

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PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — Short mountain stages are exciting mountain stages, and the Giro d’Italia is set up for a shootout in the Alps.

Giro organizers have served up two short stages — 162km Friday and 134km Saturday — loaded with painful vertical (five first-category climbs) and two summit finales that should promise high-octane, unpredictable racing to keep the peloton and spectators on their toes.

“It’s madness, it’s absolutely madness,” said Orica – GreenEdge sport director Matt White of this weekend’s menu. “We are going to see even more explosions than we did [Tuesday]. If you’re on a bad day, 30 seconds isn’t going to be the difference.”

Short mountain stages are highly unpredictable and very hard to control. The GC captains can be quickly isolated, meaning the stage is reduced to a mano-a-mano battle to the line. Any sign of weakness can spell disaster, and anyone on a great day can make dramatic gains.

“Anything can happen, and I am going to go for it,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, third at 3:23. “It won’t be easy, but if I am in this Giro, it’s to try to win. I can’t say where I will attack.”

Valverde’s win in Tuesday’s frenetic stage provided a preview of what could be in store, when the GC favorites threw down early and isolated Orica’s Esteban Chaves.

That’s what Steven Kruijswijk’s pink jersey rivals will have to do: isolate him and then attack him.

Despite having never been in a leader’s jersey of a grand tour, the LottoNL – Jumbo captain is looking steady in the pink jersey, with a three-minute lead to Chaves. The Dutch rider looks to have the legs to fend off the inevitable attacks, but the question mark is how much help he will have once the road tilts upward. Enrico Battaglin rode with Kruijswijk on Thursday, but he cannot expect much more help, so defense will be the best offense.

“We should not overshoot anything, there is a danger in that. We have to stay sharp, and look at our rivals as if they are three seconds behind instead of three minutes,” said LottoNL – Jumbo sport director Addy Engels. “The main goal is to defend this position. He does not need to attack until Saturday on the last climb. If he feels he can drop them, then I will say, OK, you can have your chance. Not before that.”

Here’s what’s on tap: Friday’s 162km crosses this year’s high point at the 2,744 meter (9,003 feet) Colle dell’Angello (Cima Coppi) before ending up the “mini-Alpe d’Huez” in France at Risoul, 12.9km at 6.9 percent with 10 switchbacks. With the 20km-plus opening climb into France, it will be an easier stage to control, and will likely come down to attacks on the final climb.

Saturday’s 134km stage 20 Guillestre to Santa’Anna di Vinadio could be epic. The stage opens with the Cat. 1 Col de Vars topping out at 2,108m in the opening 19km. That’s followed up by the Cat. 1 Col de la Bonette at 2,715m at 63km and the Cat. 1 Colle delle Lombarda at 2,350m at 123.7km. After a sharp descent, it’s a quick, punchy climb to the finale. It should be a full-on shootout right from the moment the flag is dropped.

No one is riding for the podium, at least not yet. Chaves has promised to attack, and surprisingly, so has Vincenzo Nibali, fourth at 4:30 back. The Italian has struggled, but vows to go down swinging.

“If I have legs, I will attack,” Nibali said. Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli added, “I always believe in Vincenzo. A big champion is always capable of anything. These are the two decisive stages in this Giro, and everything is possible.”

The dark horse is Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin, fifth at 4:50 back. After crashing and losing time in the Chianti race against the clock, Zakarin once again is looking sharp.

It will all come down to Kruijswijk. If he can follow the attacks, the pink jersey will be his. If he cannot, he still has a comfortable lead to manage, but he falters early on, especially in Saturday’s stage, it could be anyone’s race. After riding through the Giro’s longest stage Thursday, he sounds ready for battle.

“Only the last climb did I have to do it by myself, although I was never in trouble,” Kruijswijk said Thursday. “I’m getting closer every day to winning the Giro. Tomorrow it looks like a good stage for me. I like long climbs. Maybe I can do something. After finishing second three times, I’d like a stage win as well, but first, I’ll defend the pink jersey.”

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