Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) won the stage 18 individual time trial at the Giro d'Italia on Thursday in Polsa. Nibali was the last starter and logged the fastest time, a 44:29, in the 20.6-kilometer climbing test to win his first stage of the 96th Giro.
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was second, at 58 seonds, and Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) was third, at 1:20.
Nibali extended his hold on the maglia rosa with three days of racing remaining. He leads second overall Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) by 4:02 and third overall Rigoberto Urán (Sky) by 4:12.
"I have a significant advantage now and that will allow me to control the coming two stages in more tranquil fashion," said Nibali.
The Giro d'Italia continues Friday with the 139km 19th stage from Ponte di Legno to Val Martello. The Passo di Gavia and Passo dello Stelvio are both on the menu, but organizers may be forced to reroute the stage due to snow.
Sanchez nearly hangs on to the stage win
The climbing TT started in the Mori Velodrome and quickly headed skyward, gaining a total of 1,018 vertical meters. After a flat opening kilometer, the road climbed at a steady six-percent gradient for 6km. After a brief respite, the climb kicked up again, rising for almost 7km with an average gradient of seven percent and ramps as steep as 10 percent.
Cool temperatures and rain blanketed the corsa rosa on Thursday.
Stage 8 time trial winner Alex Dowsett (Movistar) has an engine built more for the flat chronos than the climbing tests and after an early bike change, he did not factor.
"It's a completely different race [than a flat time trial]," he said. "I didn't enjoy that much. It's a completely different dynamic. It's pure power-to-weight ratio. There's not a lot of technique to it. If there is, I don't have it. I paced my effort quite well. I had to change my time trial bike right at the bottom, because my gears were not working. If there was an edge to be had, it was on my TT bike. I had to swap straight away and do the rest on my road bike."
Stef Clement (Blanco) registered an early fast time, finishing in 46:05 to take the lead with the GC heavy hitters still to come.
Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) registered a 45:49 to unseat Clement and take the lead just moments before Evans rolled down the start ramp as the penultimate starter. The 2011 Tour de France champion was focused in the start house, his mouth closed, before he burst onto the track to try and erase his 1:26 gap to Nibali.
Moments later, Nibali exploded out of the start house, resplendent in his pink skinsuit.
Best young rider contender Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff) set the second fastest time at the time check halfway into the stage, but it was 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) blazing the quickest path up to Polsa. The Spaniard logged the day's best time, in 45:27.
"I am content with the legs I had up the stage," said Sánchez. "I've been looking for a stage victory in this Giro. I've had good sensations in the last week. It was getting wet and some of the corners were getting dangerous."
Evans rode through the intermediate time check well off Michele Scarponi's (Lampre-Merida) new fastest time; it was clear the Aussie was not on a good ride. Nibali was doing the opposite, however, and set a new standard at the halfway point. For his part, Urán was holding his own and protecting his third overall placing.
Majka dropped off the pace on the upper reaches of the climb and logged the third fastest time at the finish, 27 seconds slower than Sánchez. Best young rider Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) was chasing Majka, climbing out of the saddle, his bike lurching from left to right, over the final kilometer. The Colombian finished seven seconds adrift of Majka, forfeiting the white jersey ahead of the race's final three stages.
The rain began falling harder as the GC leaders climbed toward the finish. Scarponi pushed to the finish in the saddle, but saw his hopes of a stage win close with 100 meters to go when the clock ticked over Sánchez's mark. The race's 2010 champion logged the third fastest time, 23 seconds adrift.
Down the road, Nibali was putting big time into Evans, extending his overall lead beyond two and then three minutes as the Aussie neared the finish.
Urán sprinted over the line to log the fifth fastest time, 28 seconds slower than Sánchez, and defend his podium position against Scarponi, who would leave the stage 1:02 off the Colombian's overall time.
Evans stood on the pedals and pushed his way into the fence-lined final kilometer. Nibali was not far behind.
With Nibali only 100 meters behind him, the top times ticked by as Evans rode into the final 400 meters. Backstage, Sánchez shook his head. Evans logged the 24th fastest time, 1:38 down. The Spaniard could dream of the stage, but not for long.
Less than a minute later, Nibali pushed toward the line, looking down at his handlebars. He crossed the line, in pouring rain, with the stage win in hand and pumped his right fist in celebration.