It was stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Vincenzo Nibali was out of form and out of ideas, a shadow of the gutsy, unpredictable racer adored by the Italian tifosi, and nothing like the dynamic champion who had won the 2010 Vuelta a España, the 2013 Giro or the 2014 Tour de France. Only five other riders have won all three grand tours, and the press were slow to write him off, but deep into the Corsa Rosa’s second week, criticism was building.
The Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had surprised everyone with his resilience, growing more comfortable in the Maglia Rosa every day. And if he cracked, went the common consensus, it would be the affable Colombian Esteban Chaves who would profit. Nibali was out of the running. Nibali, some argued, might even be finished.
What had happened, no one knew. Paolo Bettini, the 2006 and 2007 world champion, was one of several to publicly question his compatriot’s decision to change his pedal crank length so late in his career. Emilio Magni, the team doctor at Astana, blamed a surprise physical problem and promised extensive testing. Nibali’s coach, Paolo Slongo, insisted that he’d take his rider home if he was sick, saying that they didn’t want to “scrape the bottom of the barrel,” while Giuseppe Martinelli, Astana’s veteran team manager, said it was “a difficult moment, the most complicated of [Nibali’s] brilliant career.”
The 31-year-old Sicilian, normally a picture of composure, looked ill at ease, and more than a little upset at the flak fired his way by the Italian papers and a lot of cycling fans. “Leave me in peace! I’ve nothing to say. You can see how I’m going,” was his response to the media after stage 16. “Why do you want to keep hurting my pride? I’m already in bits.”
He’d silenced the skeptics before, ending a disappointing 2015 season with a remarkably defiant win at Il Lombardia to make him one of very few modern stage racers to also win a one-day monument, but this time it seemed different. It would take a miracle to turn this around. Or so we thought. In fact, was after all it took a stroke of luck, a rival’s mistake under pressure, and then his own tenacity, that visceral resistance to failure that sets the great apart from the good.
The Colle dell’Agnello is among the most irresistible climbs in Europe, and at 2,744 metres, also one of its highest. It stretches more than 50 kilometers from its base in Piasco, ascending 2,178 metres to its pinnacle and the French frontier, sweeping through bucolic vales and dense pine forest, the very picture of the Italian pastoral idyl, on long false flats, before peeling away the vestiges of agrarian timidity and revealing its true, brutal character, with the lone peak of the Monviso piercing the sky overhead. The highest point of the Alps along the Franco-Italian border, it’s an unconfirmed but popular belief amongst the locals that it inspired Paramount Pictures’ famous logo. Which is fitting, because the drama that unfolded in its shadow in May 2016 would make any Hollywood scriptwriter proud.
With snow covering everything but the tarmac, the race meandered upward toward 2016’s Cima Coppi, past hoards of fans braced against the cold and enveloped in a thick fog that dulled the senses, limiting sight and sound to just a few blurry metres. Michele Scarponi, 2011 Giro winner turned gregario di lusso, lost his breakaway companions early on the climb and rode alone to the summit, almost six minutes ahead of the peloton and of his team leader, Nibali, but not searching for personal glory. He was waiting for a surprise.
Close to the summit, Chaves attacked, covered by Kruijswijk and then by Nibali, and the trio stuck closely to one another as the road crested. Then, in an instant, the entire race changed. Kruijswijk, from northern Europe’s Low Countries, struggled to hold the wheels of Nibali and Chaves, both excellent descenders. And after misjudging the apex of a long, sweeping turn careered off the racing line and violently into the snow banks on the road’s edge, flying headfirst over the handlebars in a dramatic somersault. Luckily, the 28-year-old avoided injury and was soon on his feet, but as both he and the neutral service mechanic struggled to get his bike back on the move, his lead in the general classification vanished with Chaves and Nibali at ferocious speed, plunging down towards the Queyras valley and into France. There were still more than 50 kilometers to the line in Risoul, where another difficult climb awaited, but the Agnello had blown the 99th Giro wide open.
It was the moment Scarponi had been waiting for, and the 36-year-old came to a virtual stop on the day’s finishing slope where he sacrificed his own ambition in the service of the most unlikely victory in recent Giro history. Nibali, reinvigorated, launched one attack after another in the closing kilometers, against the persistent ripostes of Chaves.
The Italian eventually broke free, finishing 51 seconds ahead of everyone else. The pink jersey belonged to the Colombian, but Nibali’s was a greater prize: absolution after almost three weeks in hell. The next day, another stage packed with mountains, he would erase Chaves’ 44-second lead and take the Maglia Rosa for himself with just one flat stage to go. That too, was a tactical masterpiece, and Scarponi again played a huge part, but at that point the momentum had shifted. The Agnello changed the entire race, like only a truly great climb can, and it would be difficult to come up with a stage in recent memory that better illustrates just how captivating the Giro can be.