As Fabio Aru carried his pink skinsuit in a brown paper bag on pulling up in an Astana team car ahead of the Giro d'Italia's stage 14 time trial in Treviso, he was surely aware that he would be handing the garment right back to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) by close of business on Saturday afternoon. The only question was by how much.
Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov had arrived expressly for the occasion, and after Aru boarded the team bus to change, he told reporters that he believed the youngster could pull out a solid performance on the long road Valdobbiadene. Despite the rain, a crowd of tifosi began to gather to serenade Aru during his warm-up, while Astana's backroom staff – including erstwhile Continental team director Dimitri Sedoun, rehabilitated as logistics manager for the WorldTour team – bustled about inside the cordon, preparing riders for the off.
The morning's newspapers had devoted ample column inches to Aru's unexpected spell in pink, with Paolo Bettini sounding a particularly hopeful note, reckoning that Aru could limit his losses to 30 seconds or so. Inevitably, the maglia rosa received the loudest cheers as he sat in the start house, but the once out on the road, the general optimism dissipated quickly.
On a sodden day in the Veneto, the time trial delivered an arid truth. Aru appeared to struggle from the outset and even as the terrain became hillier in the finale, he continued to concede ground to Contador.
By day's end, he was 29th on the stage, 2:47 down on Contador and he falls to second overall, some 2:28 behind the Spaniard. A country mile after the game of inches of the opening two weeks.
"It was a long time trial, a long, long effort. To be honest, I'm not happy with my result, but we go on and the Giro continues," Aru said afterwards. "Alberto is a great champion and he put in a big performance today on such a long time trial. I still have a lot of work to do in this discipline."
Quite how much work was already evident by the first time check, where Aru had already lost his virtual lead, trailing by 48 seconds after 17.6 kilometres. He applied a band-aid of sorts to the wound on the next leg, keeping the deficit at 57 seconds by kilometres 35, but as the road became more rugged, so too did Aru's form become more ragged.
He continued to haemorrhage time on the final ascent, the Santo Stefano. Where Contador all but danced up the final ascent, bobbing lightly from side to side, Aru seemed laboured, and only the finish line brought any respite. His hopes of final overall victory require extensive surgery.
And yet, when the dust settles on this defining day of the 2015 Giro d’Italia, Aru can console himself with the fact that others endured far greater disappointments. The 59km test was supposed to signal Richie Porte’s fightback, but instead he lost another 4:20 and all hope of a podium place. Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep) climbed to fourth overall, but only picked up 16 seconds on Aru and is more than four minutes off the pink jersey.
As the Giro enters the high mountains on the road to Madonna di Campiglio on Sunday, Aru is the closest thing to a realistic challenger to Contador. Speaking in the mixed zone after Tinkoff-Saxo owner Oleg Tinkov had thrown a friendly arm around him beneath the podium, Aru recognised the scale of the task facing him.
"Alberto's a champion, it's going to be very difficult. He's won a lot of big tours in his career," he said, before brushing off a question on how he had enjoyed his day in pink. "Ma dai, it was nice to nice to wear it but Alberto certainly put in a beautiful performance today."
Aru was coy about where precisely he might try to upset Contador – his teammates Dario Cataldo and Mikel Landa also suffered heavy losses but remain useful allies in the top ten overall – though he appeared to warm to the task as he spoke, pointing out that almost all of the Giro's mountain stages are still to come.
"Tomorrow, there's Madonna di Campiglio. On Tuesday, there's the Mortirolo. On Friday, there's Cervinia. On Saturday, there's Sestriere," Aru said, breaking into a smile as he rattled off the litany. "There are still important mountain stages to come. A lot of hard stages. The last week is a hard final week."
Aru showed signs of weakness on shorter climbs at Imola and Vicenza in midweek, however, and he failed to trouble Contador unduly at Abetone and Campitello Matese during Astana's onslaught in the opening nine days. Asked what he might do at Madonna di Campiglio on Sunday, Aru laughed shyly.
"That depends on these," he said, pointing to his legs. "Tomorrow is a summit finish at the end of a difficult stage. We'll have to recover and have a go. The base is there for the rest of the Giro and I certainly haven’t lost any of the hunger I had before today."