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Nibali takes pink jersey to virtually clinch Giro victory

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SANT'ANNA DI VINADIO, Italy (AP) Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the final major climb of the Giro d'Italia and grabbed the pink jersey from Esteban Chaves to virtually clinch his fourth Grand Tour victory Saturday, capping a dramatic two days in the 99th edition of the Italian classic.

Nibali entered the penultimate stage 44 seconds behind Chaves but the Italian with Astana now has a 52-second lead entering Sunday's final leg, a flat 163-kilometer (101-mile) route from Cuneo to Turin that should be mostly a coronation procession.

Nibali wasn't even in the podium positions until surging back into contention during Stage 19 Friday when previous leader Steve Kruijswijk crashed into a snowbank on a tricky descent.

It's been quite a turn of events for Nibali, who appeared to drop out of contention as he struggled up the climbs in the Dolomites last weekend.

''I thought maybe everything was lost but also maybe that it still wasn't over,'' Nibali said. ''The last week can change and I thought something could happen. I'm very headstrong, I never give up. Last year at the Tour I had bad days but I always try and come back.

''It was a crazy Giro - a difficult, exhausting one for me,'' Nibali added. ''I started as the favorite and felt all the pressure. I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders but I've put on this great show.''

It would be Nibali's second Giro win to go with his 2013 title and add to his major trophy collection, which also includes a Tour de France victory in 2014 and a Spanish Vuelta win in 2010.

Rein Taaramae, an Estonian with Katusha, won the 20th stage, attacking solo from a breakaway.

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Taaramae clocked nearly 4 1/2 hours over the 134-kilometer (83-mile) leg from Guillestre, France, to Sant'Anna di Vinadio.

Nibali finished sixth in the stage, 6:44 behind Taaramae, while Chaves came across 14th, 8:20 back.

While he claimed the pink jersey a day earlier, Chaves also showed signs that he couldn't keep up with Nibali.

''We're still very proud of Esteban. He did all he could and that's all we can ask of him,'' Orica-GreenEdge sporting director Matt White told Eurosport. ''It's a great experience for him. We were fifth at the Vuelta, now we're second at the Giro behind one of the best Grand Tour riders of recent years. There's no disgrace in that.''

The stage featured three first-category climbs and finished uphill with a third-category ascent.

Nibali's attack came on the grueling 20-kilometer (12-mile) penultimate climb up the Colle della Lombarda. The Italian quickly dropped Chaves then widened his gap on a technical descent and the final brief climb to the Sant'Anna sanctuary.

Delighted home fans ran alongside Nibali as he climbed into the lead. Once he made it to the finish, Nibali hung himself over his handlebars in exhaustion, then was congratulated by Chaves' parents in a gesture of sportsmanship.

Darwin Atapuma, a Colombian with BMC, finished second in the stage, 52 seconds behind Taaramae, and Joseph Dombrowski, an American with Cannondale, was third, 1:17 back.

In the overall, Alejandro Valverde moved ahead of Kruijswijk into third position, 1:17 behind Nibali.