Blazin' Saddles: Carapaz tops the pack but Nibali now the favourite
As the Giro d'Italia approaches a thrilling climax, Felix Lowe looks back at the second week of racing and predicts what may happen in the final phase. With Richard Carapaz, Primoz Roglic and Vincenzo Nibali separated by less than two minutes – and the likes of Mikel Landa and Simon Yates coming to the boil – we're set for a pulsating finale.
Three more mountain-top finishes, some crumbs for the sprinters and a short time trial on the streets of Verona separate Richard Carapaz and a first ever Grand Tour victory for Ecuador.
Having stretched his lead to 47 seconds over Primoz Roglic on the thrilling ride into Como on Sunday, Carapaz entered the second rest day sitting pretty (but far from untouchable) at the top of the standings.
The 25-year-old has proved over the last week to be the best climber in the race and his Movistar team have, up until now, showed the solidarity and tactical nous they so often lack during the Tour de France.
Incidentally, 47 seconds is exactly the same gap that split Carapaz from Roglic in the opening 8km time trial in Bologna. With the all-important time trial in Verona just over double that distance, the Ecuadorian will need to find some more time if he wants to keep Roglic from taking back the maglia rosa – especially given that he trailed the Slovenian by 1'55" in the second time trial (albeit over 35km).
Of course, Grand Tours are not won on comparisons with time gaps and making predictions from arm chairs on rest days. Sure, these are a good indication of the way things are going, but as so often is the case deep into the third week of a stage race, the rule book and form guide often goes out the window.
Look at Simon Yates' meltdown last year or Steven Kruijswijk's collapse three years ago. Nibali trailed the Dutchman by 4'43" entering stage 18 in 2016 only to turn the race (and Kruijswijk) upside down on the Agnello. Two days later, the Shark was in pink after a swing of over six minutes. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. If anyone's the favourite now, it's Nibali.
Best rider of the week
Hands down this goes to Carapaz, who entered the second phase of the race in 20th place and now sits pretty on the top of the pile after winning his second stage of the race at Courmayeur. The first Ecuadorian ever to don the leader's maglia rosa now may well wear it all the way to Verona.
Best win of the week
Seeing a rider so used to delivering the champagne for Bora-Hansgrohe finally get to pop the cork himself even put a smile on the face of the man Cesare Benedetti beat in the final sprint in stage 12.
For an Italian 31-year-old domestique to secure a first pro win not only in his home tour but in a stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo dedicated to the legendary Fausto Coppi – well, this was a moment Benedetti will cherish for the rest of his life, and even runner-up Damiano Caruso realised that. It could not have happened to a nicer guy. Hail Caesar!
Unlikeliest win of the week
Given that Sunday's stage to Como was pretty much a carbon copy of Vincenzo Nibali's two Il Lombardia wins, it was no surprise to see the Shark zip clear of his GC rivals on the descent of the Civiglio.
But no one could have foreseen that the token two-man break which the peloton had let get away some 200km earlier would actually go the distance. So, as Nibali was being caught in the final kilometre by his chasers, compatriot Dario Cataldo was celebrating a first ever win on the Giro some 11 years after his debut.
Having twice finished runner-up before in stages on the Giro, it was third time lucky for the Astana veteran against fellow Italian Mattia Cattaneo.
Biggest blunder of the week
When you're isolated and being attacked on all sides, the last thing you want is your own team management taking the p***.
It's a sign of the times that two of the previous three Giri may have hinged upon calls of nature. Two years on from Tom Dumoulin's so-called poo-gate incident, Primoz Roglic's chances were dealt a blow after his directeur sportif picked the wrong moment to stop and take a leak.
With Roglic suffering a mechanical and needing a bike change ahead of the decisive Civiglio climb in stage 15, his Jumbo-Visma support car was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Roglic opted to swap bikes with teammate Antwan Tolhoek before promptly crashing the unfamiliar steed into the barriers on the descent.
The biggest blows suffered by Roglic were to his face and ego; he was down but his carapace was not broken. But with Carapaz taking an extra 40 seconds – and Nibali moving up to within a minute – the former ski [unmentionable] will be feeling the pressure entering the final week.
Second biggest blunder of the week
Woe betide any portly fan who tries to take a water bottle from Marco Haller's mouth...
It was nice while it lasted
Ilnur Zakarin won stage 13 amid the snow drifts on the Colle del Nivolet, blowing the bloody doors off Nibali's attempt to do an Italian Job on the same mountain made famous by that cliff-hanging scene involving Michael Caine and a bus load of bullion.
Back in the big time after two years in the doldrums, the unzipped Zakarin could be forgiven for making a right fudge of his team sponsors' first chance all season to have their logos broadcast on TV and associated with a WorldTour win.
But having risen to third place on GC amid whispers that he could now kick on and snare a second career Grand Tour podium finish, the Russian promptly collapsed the next day and now sits almost seven minutes down and outside the top 10.
Best team performance
As mentioned above, Movistar managed for Carapaz and Landa what they've been trying to do for Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde for years. Last week, the team's age-old tactic of sending riders up the road – most notably Andrey Amador and Hector Carretero in stage 13 to Ceresole Reale – paid off.
On Friday it was Landa who was able to bridge over to take third place while Carapaz attacked behind for fourth; then on Sunday Movistar went all in for the Ecuadorian and it worked.
Can they continue deep into the third week? It remains to be seen. Bahrain-Merida duo Damiano Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo have done a superb job for Nibali and could steal the momentum, while Mitchelton-Scott, through Mikel Nieve and Lucas Hamilton, are proving their worth to a resurgent Yates (doing his best to regain control over the bowel movements of his rivals).
Whatever Movistar do, however, it's bound to be far better than the thinning Jumbo-Visma team of Roglic, who not only look like boys, they're riding like them, too. And don't get us started on the team management..
Unluckiest rider of the week
The mechanical suffered by Miguel Angel Lopez at the start of the Colle del Nivolet took the wind out of the Colombian's sails just as the hammer came down and after Astana had put on their own display of collective attacking and bridging over. Lopez is currently riding more like Clark Kent than Superman and he'll need more than a phone booth in which to change his costume if he wants a third consecutive Grand Tour podium finish.
Demare in control of ciclamino battle
Had Arnaud Demare not kept on pushing Pascal Ackermann for points in the intermediate sprints in the opening week of the race, the outlook for the maglia ciclamino competition may have been far bleaker.
The German's nasty crash in stage 10 – coupled with the Frenchman's win moments later in Modena – saw Demare close the gap to a single point amid claims of arrogance on Ackermann's part. Demare's second place in Novi Ligure then saw the Groupama-FDJ rider take over the lead in the points classification – a lead which now stands at 13 points after yet more intermediate additions.
With Thursday's stage 18 to Santa Maria di Sala the only opportunity for the sprinters in the final week, all may hinge on a final dust-up between the two remaining big-name sprinters. Even if Ackermann makes it a hat-trick of wins, Demare's intermediate sprint haul may be enough to keep him dressed in the two-tone purple togs he so clearly loves.
Final top 10 prediction
1. Nibali, 2. Carapaz, 3. Yates, 4. Lopez, 5. Landa, 6. Roglic, 7. Majka, 8. Sivakov, 9. Mollema, 10. Formolo