Giro d’Italia 2017
Despite Dumoulin’s victory and Quintana’s final-kilometre slump, it was the pint-sized Colombian climber who first broke clear of the thinning pack of main favourites with just over three kilometres remaining of the 131km stage from Castellania.
But a rousing reply from the towering Dumoulin saw the composed maglia rosa keep his calm and lead a select chasing group back to the wheel of the lone leader.
After defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) was distanced, Dumoulin caught Quintana and attacked instantly – taking Katusha-Alpecin’s Zakarin with him. Team Sky’s Landa dug in with Quintana and the quartet approached the finale with Dumoulin driving a fast pace.
Zakarin made what looked to be the decisive dig on the home straight – but once Dumoulin saw that Quintana had dropped back, the race leader summoned the strength to leap out of the saddle, pass Zakarin and deliver a psychological blow to his rivals.
While Zakarin missed out on a second career stage win in the Giro, the 27-year-old moved up to fifth place from tenth on GC ahead of the all-important final week of the race.
Once the riders had rolled out of Castellania, the birth town of Fauso Coppi, there was an extraordinary fight between would-be escape artists vying to be the daily cannon fodder for the peloton.
Three sacrificial lambs – Sergey Lagutin (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Daniel Martinez (Wilier-Selle Italia) and Natnael Berhane (Dimension Data) – finally met the lofty requirements set by the peloton.
The break opened up a maximum gap of 2:25 over the peloton as the race crossed the flat rice fields of Piedmont and headed towards the snow-capped Alps.
As expected, it was shortly all over for the three escapees – and once they were swept up inside the final 20km, the battle commenced as the pack approached the town of Biella at the foot of the final climb.
Italy’s Diego Rosa opened up a small gap at the start of the climb but the Sky rider was caught with 6km remaining. Spanish veteran Igor Anton (Dimension Data) was next to roll the dice but he, too, was pegged back once Zakarin put in the first attack from the GC favourites.
Zakarin rode clear with Quintana and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale) inside the final 4km while the likes of Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Pinot, Nibali and Dumoulin dropped back.
Another attack from Quintana saw the Colombian surge clear but Dumoulin managed to ride back into contention in a chasing group that also contained Nibali, Landa, Zakarin and British youngster Adam Yates (Orica-Scott).
Fans flocking to one of the largest religious shrines in the Alps ran alongside Quintana just as Dumoulin dragged back the chasing group. And once the Dutchman drew level – and saw that both Nibali and Yates were in trouble – he stepped on the pedals and forced yet another selection.
On the climb where the Vespa was tested for the first time, Dumoulin tucked into his notorious time trial position and motored towards the final kilometre. And while it was Zakarin who drew first blood on the cobbles, the sight of Quintana having a rare wobble was enough of encouragement for Dumoulin to twist the knife – and with it take his second win of the race.
Quintana won’t be happy with his performance, but others saw their chances take a far bigger knock today – most notably the Dutchman Mollema, who finished 1:44 back to drop out of the top three to sixth. Nibali, too, looked on course to make some in-roads before the defending champion faded considerably in the closing kilometres to finish seventh and drop to 3:40 behind the imperious Dumoulin.
For his part, Dumoulin moved to the top of the king of the mountains standings with a two-point lead over Omar Fraile of Dimension Data. But with the Dutchman increasingly pretty in pink, the Basque Stage 11 winner will continue to wear the maglia azzurra.
Tomorrow’s 199km Stage 15 from Valdengo to Bergamo is largely flat but features two lower-category climbs in the final quarter which could act as a spring-board for a breakaway or ensure that things do not return for a routine bunch sprint.