Steven Kruijswijk took a three minute lead into the the final weekend of the Giro d’Italia—the second-biggest stage race in the world after the Tour de France—which looked like a fairly safe lead over Colombian sparkplug Esteban Chaves and mopey Sicilian Vincenzo Nibali (another minute and a half behind Chaves). Both dudes behind him had a better pedigree and superior teams, but the angular Dutchman hadn’t looked bothered by either rider all month. The French Alps are a brutal terrain and race organizers backloaded all the hardest climbing into the last few days, but three minutes is a huge cushion, and besides, Kruijswijk beat both dudes on the uphill time trial. All he had to do, essentially, was avoid catastrophe.
Instead, he quite literally rode right into it.
When Kruijswijk went ass-over-teakettle into the snowbank, he had just summited the Colle dell’Agnello—the Cima Coppi, or highest point in the race—in a tiny group with Chaves and Nibali. Despite each rider’s superior team, he showed that he was too stubborn and too strong to get sent reeling backwards on any climb. Kruijswijk’s a steady rhythm climber; he’s too big to vault away and attack, but he’s utterly consistent going uphill. As decisive as climbing is, however, winning a Grand Tour requires that you also excel on the flats, in time trials, and on descents. Cycling isn’t just a fitness contest, staying upright is a skill too.
Nibali went on to win the stage, with Chaves trailing closely behind. Chaves has a 44-second lead over Nibali, and Kruijswijk is, sadly, third at 1:05. The poor Dutchman probably would have won the Whole Shit if he didn’t fall. It’s sort of that simple. Chaves was making noise about going for it, but three minutes is a big chunk of time to eat away at. Kruijswijk didn’t get injured on his fall or sit there for a minute just waiting for support, but once Nibali and Chaves linked up with their teams it was over. One day, you’re in the lead, the next you’re fighting for your podium spot. Cycling is a cruel sport like that.
This Giro in particular has been a messy, sinister affair. Tom Dumoulin looked feisty and serious about winning until he crumbled to pieces in the first mountain stages and abandoned the race. The man who inherited the race lead from him, Bob Jungels, had a similar air of rebellion about him, but he too couldn’t hang once the race pitched upwards into the Dolomites. Andrey Amador became the first Costa Rican to hold the Maglia Rosa—the Giro’s equivalent of the yellow jersey—but it lasted exactly one day. In between all the jersey swapping, Team Sky melted down, Nibali started fighting with his teammates and was thinking about quitting because he couldn’t win, and the specter of a Bahraini takeover loomed over the entire race.
Kruijswijk was a fun little surprise, but Chaves is a magnificent, joyful rider who absolutely deserves the win. Nibali’s Astana team will go all-out to unseat Chaves on tomorrow’s final Alp stage, but he’s been the best climber in the race all month, and the fact that he’s even racing bikes at all is a minor miracle (he suffered a horrific crash in 2013 and sustained nerve damage, broken ear bones, and a mangled jaw). If the end result of a crash-marred, paranoid Giro is the happiest, bravest rider in the peloton winning, that’s a twist ending befitting this strange, beautiful race.