"Like you say in Italy, it was a fucilata today," Esteban Chaves exhaled as he sat on the steps of the Orica-GreenEdge bus after the Giro d'Italia had reopened for business after the rest day with a breathless 132-kilometre leg over the Passo della Mendola and Fai della Paganella to Andalo.
That shoot-out arrived far sooner than Chaves had anticipated and ultimately cost him another 48 seconds in the general classification. The Colombian remains in second place but now trails maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) by three full minutes, though he is still standing in the battle for final overall honours in Turin.
"It was a very, very fast stage, with no respite. Everybody was attacking and expending a lot of energy," Chaves said. "I made a small error on the first climb but I managed to save my position on GC at the end of the day, which was the most important thing."
There was no gentle reintroduction for riders after the rest day, as the downhill start from Bressanone only made for a particularly brisk opening hour of racing. Inevitably, the peloton fragmented upon hitting the lower slopes of the day's first climb, the Passo della Mendola, though it was notable that so many podium contenders – chief among them Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) – were prepared to go on the offensive so early in the stage.
While Kruijswijk, already bereft of support, moved himself to snuff out more or less every move, it was notable that Chaves was not responding with quite the same verve. When Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) fired off a rasping attack 500 metres shy of the summit, Kruijswijk, Zakarin and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) followed, but Chaves was caught on the wrong foot.
"It wasn't a question of not having the legs, I just left my guard down," Chaves told reporters afterwards.
"I was too far back when Nibali attacked and the group formed with Zakarin, Valverde and Kruijswijk 500 metres from the top of the climb. I thought the gap would close because there'd already been a lot of attacks on the climb but the group always came back. But the last attack didn't come back. That was the error."
Unfortunately, his teammate Luka Mezgec was forced to abandon after the stage, when scans revealed a broken scaphoid in his right wrist that the rider suffered in a crash on stage 11, leaving Chaves with one fewer teammate to help in the coming stages.
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A frantic pursuit
While the maglia rosa quartet struck a working agreement and quickly bridged across to a group of earlier attackers that included Nibali's teammate Tanel Kangert, Chaves did not enjoy the same degree of collaboration in the chasing group. His teammates Damien Howson and Ruben Plaza rode on the front to keep the deficit pegged to 40 seconds on the long drop to the foot of Fai della Paganella, but they enjoyed little help from the Cannondale and Tinkoff teams of Rigoberto Uran and Rafal Majka, respectively.
"As you could see, Cannondale were pinned, Saxo Bank [Tinkoff] were pinned. We thought they weren't helping for a reason but the reason was that they had nothing," Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White pointed out. "Our boys took full responsibility, they gave Esteban every chance at the bottom of the penultimate climb."
At one point, Chaves even dropped back to the Orica-GreenEdge team car to pick up bidons while Howson and Plaza fought to keep him in contention. "Damien and Ruben Plaza saved the day for me, they did incredible work," Chaves said.
Chaves hit the base of Fai della Paganella precisely 40 seconds down on the leaders, and decided to take matters in hand on the lower ramps of the 15-kilometre ascent, bouncing clear with Majka and Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) locked to his wheel and picking off the remnants of the early break.
"If you look at the statistics, Esteban was the fastest guy up the penultimate climb. He went from being 28 or 30 seconds down to just 12 or 13 at the top," White said.
As the gradient stiffened, Chaves even caught and then dropped a flailing Nibali, though by that juncture his thoughts were on closing the gap to the maglia rosa. The shallow ramp to Andalo followed the short, steep descent off Fai della Paganella, and Chaves' deficit stretched out once again. He crossed the line 8th on the stage, 42 seconds down on Kruijswijk and the stage winner Valverde.
The next two days, at least in theory, ought to provoke few frissons in the general classification, but there is scope for the race to be turned on its head in the mammoth Alpine stages on Friday and Saturday. It remains to be seen, however, whether Chaves – or anybody else – can unsettle the seemingly unflappable Kruijswijk.
"Nothing is impossible," Chaves said. "Kruijswijk put in a big effort today but he showed great condition again."