Dutchman Kruijswijk woke up in Pinerolo with a comfortable three-minute lead over Colombian Chaves on GC but will go to sleep on Friday evening across the border in France battered, bruised and with his race in tatters.
After an extraordinary collision with a snow bank that sent his bike spinning through the air on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello, LottoNL-Jumbo's Kruijswijk lost ground on his rivals to drop to third place in the overall standings, 1:05 down on Orica-GreenEdge's Chaves.
Astana's Nibali, the Italian national champion whose chances of repeating his 2013 Giro triumph looked dead and buried, rose to second place on GC after soloing clear of Chaves in the final five kilometres on the second of two monster climbs in the 162km stage 19.
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An emotional Nibali pointed to the sky and punched the air as he crossed the line in Risoul before promptly bursting into tears. Almost five minutes adrift and in fourth place in the overnight standings, Nibali is now just 44 seconds off an unlikely second win in his home grand tour – setting up an almighty battle on Saturday’s final stage in the Alps.
Victory was the sixth of Nibali’s career in the Giro d’Italia and the first in this year’s unpredictable race for his Astana team, who prior to Kruijswijk’s sensational crash had pinned their hopes on Italian veteran Michele Scarponi to save their blushes.
Scarponi crossed the summit of the Colle dell’Agnello – the highest point of the race at 2,740 metres – as the lone leader after attacking from a group of 28 riders who had extricated themselves from the peloton after a fast opening hour of the stage.
But snaring the prestigious Cima Coppi was as far as Scarponi’s personal glory would go after the 36-year-old was ordered back by his Astana team to aid Nibali as the unbelievable events unfolded behind on the misty, snow-capped mountain.
If Kruijswijk was deeply unfortunate to see what looked like an impregnable race lead slip through his fingers then he can at least count his lucky stars that he lives to fight another day – unlike Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), whose own crash on the same descent forced the Russian out of the race with a suspected broken collarbone.

Steven Kruijswijk's bike goes flying in spectacular snowy crash

SCARPONI JOY

With the riders completing the first 50 kilometres of the stage in under an hour it was no surprise that every attempt by riders to break clear had been keenly thwarted. A group finally formed with 80km remaining ahead of the Colle dell’Agnello as the pursuing peloton settled into a gentle tempo dictated by the LottoNL-Jumbo team-mates of the maglia rosa, Kruijswijk.
Double stage winner Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) made the first move from the break, edging clear with Igor Silin (Katusha) with the advantage over the pack approaching five minutes. Scarponi set off in pursuit and the veteran Italian waltzed past with apparent ease as the leaders entered the steep, double-digit wooded section of the 20km climb.
Scarponi’s lead over the race favourites was up to almost six minutes as he emerged from the trees, entered the mist and passed the first piles of snow – snow that would indirectly play such an important role in proceedings moments later. He would cross the highest summit of the race almost a minute and a half ahead of Spaniard Mikel Nieve of Team Sky – but all this would soon prove immaterial.

KRUIJSWIJK COLLAPSE

Surrounded by four LottoNL-Jumbo team-mates, everything was going to plan for the man looking to become the first Dutch winner of the Giro d’Italia. Then Orica-GreenEdge made their move with Damien Howsen and Amets Txurruka paving the way for Chaves, who soon forced the first major selection among the race favourites.
At first Nibali was dropped, but the Italian soon found his rhythm and fought back to join Chaves, Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who were soon joined by Zakarin and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff). A regrouping followed before another big acceleration by Chaves distanced Valverde, Zakarin and Majka.
Nibali led Chaves and Kruijswijk over the snow-clad summit and across the border into France just moments before the defining moment of the 99th edition of La Corsa Rosa. Misjudging a corner in the foggy conditions, the maglia rosa slammed into a snow bank and flew over his handlebars, propelling his Bianchi high into the air.
By the time Kruijswijk had composed himself and got back on his bike, he had been passed by the Valverde group and the race had been well and truly turned on its head. Meanwhile, Nibali and Chaves continued their fast descent – the snow covered peaks giving way to rocky meadows basking in sunshine.
Kruijswijk’s chase was disrupted after he was forced to change bikes half way down the descent – and the 28-year-old was soon two minutes behind the Nibali group, which had been bolstered by the dual presence of Astana's Scarponi and Chaves' Orica-GreenEdge team-mate Ruben Plaza, also part of the earlier break.

NIBALI TWISTS THE KNIFE

Maxim Montfort (Lotto Soudal) led the stage after Scarponi received his team orders to drop back – but the Belgian was swept up by the Nibali and Chaves chasing group ahead of the final 13km climb to the finish. With Nibali putting time into third-place Valverde and riding in pursuit of a sixth stage win on the Giro, the Shark of Messina rode with renewed vigour.
Nibali and Chaves burst clear inside the final 10km with Nieve hot on their heels. By now the adrenaline had worn off for Kruijswijk and the Dutchman looked a picture of pain as he rode in a group containing Bob Jungels (Trek-Segafredo) three minutes in arrears – making Chaves the virtual maglia rosa on the road.
Nibali made his decisive move 5.5km from the finish, riding clear of a tiring Chaves and never looking back. His pursuer was caught and passed by Nieve before the finish – but with Kruijswijk unable to stage a miraculous comeback, the Colombian rallied to ensure he would be the principal beneficiary of his rival’s cataclysmic loss.
Chaves crossed the line 53 seconds down on Nibali for third place, two seconds behind the impressive Nieve. Ulissi held on for fourth, at 1:02, while Majka led Valverde and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) across the line at 2:14 before the tense wait for Kruijswijk’s arrival.
His elbow bloodied and his face a picture of exhaustion and loss, Kruijwijk crossed the line for 16th place 4:54 down on Nibali having been dropped by the likes of Jungels and Andre Amador (Movistar) on a final climb that must have been among the hardest he has done in his career.

Stage 19 finish: Nibali takes win on day of drama

BIG WINNERS OF THE DAY

Look no further beyond Nibali, the stage winner, and Chaves, the new race leader – both of whom will harbour ambitions of wearing the pink jersey into Turin on Sunday. Nibali was on the verge of quitting the race after his travails in the Dolomites; now he’s up to second place on GC and within 44 seconds of the summit. As for Chaves – even he wouldn’t have dreamed of this moment: the Giro is now his to lose.

BIG LOSERS OF THE DAY

Kruijswijk went from overwhelming race favourite to rank outsider all within the space of a couple of hours. He can count his lucky stars that his crash was not as serious as that which ruled Zakarin out of the Giro with a suspected broken left collarbone – but he may never be able to expunge from his mind the moment he careered into the snow bank while leading the Giro d'Italia.
It was a needless and unnecessary crash for someone who had looked so assured and comfortable in his role as Giro champion elect. It remains to be seen how Kruijswijk feels after the dust settles, but even for a fully fit rider of his ability, it’s surely too big an ask for him to move back into the maglia rosa on Saturday.
Elsewhere, it was a bad day for Valverde, who couldn’t keep up with his rivals on the Agnello and dropped off the podium and into fourth place, 1:48 behind Chaves.

COMING UP

The fight for pink will be decided in the 134km stage 20 from Guillestre with three back-to-back first-category peaks – including the majestic Col de Bonette – in the French Alps ahead of a short final climb to Sant-Anna di Vinadio back on Italian soil. With the top three riders all within 1:05 on GC we can expect a fierce battle right to the very end.
Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze
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