Even without the dreaded Gavia Pass, Stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia provided more than enough climbing to split the field of overall contenders. Race favorite Primoz Roglic, who entered the day in second place, 47 seconds behind leader Richard Carapaz, couldn’t keep up amid the rain and fog on the relentless, 10-kilometer climb of the Mortirolo and lost over a minute and 20 seconds to Carapaz and a group that contained Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa, and Hugh Carthy.
This year’s Giro will finish in Verona on Sunday with a 17-kilometer time trial, a disciple at which Roglic excels, so the goal for him in the mountain-packed last week of the Giro is to keep his opponents within striking distance – say, a minute or two – with the knowledge that he can reverse that deficit in the time trial on the final day to win the Giro.
But cracks began to show in Roglic just a quarter of the way up the climb of the Mortirolo, as Nibali and others upped their pace and began to pull away. Roglic was able to follow some of the earlier moves, but eventually he would slip back – with dark-horse favorite Simon Yates, who surely watched his chances disappear today. At the summit of the Mortirolo, in miserable conditions, the two found themselves a minute-and-a-half back on the pink-jersey group, which was gingerly descending hairpins streaming with rainwater.
Roglic and Yates would gain a bit of ground at the bottom of the descent, as the race hit the valley floor and began a long, shallow uphill drag to the finish line some 14 kilometers ahead. But there the pink jersey group would also find cooperation from Miguel Angel Lopez and Pello Bilbao who had attacked just before the Mortirolo summit and descended alone, as well as from various teammates who had been part of the day’s early breakaway and waited up to help their team leaders.
In the end, the stage victory was contested by the only two men left from that breakaway: Jan Hirt and mountains-classification leader Guilio Ciccone. The pair had been stuck together since the Mortirolo, and on the valley floor they launched a war of words that likely had to do with the fact that Ciccone was doing all of the work, as he shivered in short sleeves in the cold and wet. Even Ciccone’s coach would exchange sentiments with Hirt, pulling up alongside him in the Trek team car to encourage Hirt to pull his weight.
Hirt did indeed begin to contribute, a few pedal strokes at a time, but as the finale approached and it was clear that they wouldn’t be caught by the pink jersey group still two minutes behind them, all bets were off. With two kilometers to go, they began to look at each other, then back over their shoulders, then up the road, then back each other. In the final run to the line, it was Hirt in second position, Ciccone keeping a wary eye over his shoulder. With only about 200 meters left, Hirt faked an acceleration, but that was enough for Ciccone, who set off at a gallop, leaving Hirt far enough behind for Ciccone to raise his arms in celebration as he crossed the line.
Fausto Masnada, a survivor of the breakaway who had been riding in no man’s land between the leaders and the pink jersey group all this time, crossed the line in third place, one minute and 20 seconds back. Twenty-one seconds later, the group of Carapaz, Landa, Nibali, Carthy, and American Joe Dombrowski would cross the line and watch the clock for the arrival of Roglic and Yates.
The 29-year-old Slovenian, who entered the race red hot and, after the second time trial, led his rivals by almost two minutes, finished with Yates just over three minutes behind the stage winner, and one minute and 22 seconds behind the group of his rivals. He now drops to third place overall, two minutes and nine seconds behind race leader Carapaz. (Nibali moves into second place.)
The Mortirolo may have been the greatest of the climbs left in this year’s Giro, but three mountainous stages and 12 categorized climbs still remain, including two summit finishes. Meaning Roglic will no longer be able to simply limit his losses and hope his time trialing abilities will save him in the end. If he wants to win the Giro come Sunday, he’ll need to find some way to pull one over on Carapaz and the rest before the peloton finally arrives in Verona.