Not so much an attack as a fact-finding mission. Having spent most of stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia sitting within touching distance of Astana's Fabio Aru, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) decided to test the Sardinian’s mettle on the final ascent of the Tre Monti, 8km from the finish at the motor-racing circuit in Imola.
It was Contador’s second telling attack at this Giro. The first time he went on the offensive, at Abetone a week ago, Aru had moved swiftly onto his wheel and responded impetuously with a rasping acceleration of his own.
This time around, although Aru climbed out of the saddle to give chase, he was unable to match Contador’s dig, and instead it was left to his Astana teammate Dario Cataldo to try to quell the move. Contador eventually relented over the top of the climb, but only after stretching the pink jersey group and briefly distancing both Aru and Richie Porte (Sky).
While Contador won the day's duel on points, his lead over Aru remains as it was when the peloton left Forlì on Wednesday morning – a mere three seconds – but in a game of inches like this Giro, every blow carries some weight.
"I'd have to look at the images again but I think some of my rivals didn't have a great day today and that's always important to know," Contador said simply of his attack, before managing to simultaneously highlight and downplay the fact that he had been stronger than Aru on the Tre Monti.
"Like I said, I'd have to see the images but I was beside him when I attacked. I wanted to try something. But when you ride a Grand Tour, you have good days and bad days, and there wasn't really the terrain to make the difference today."
Perhaps more importantly, Contador's cameo on the Tre Monti was his first attack since he injured his shoulder in a finish line crash at Castiglione della Pescaia on stage 6. By necessity, the maglia rosa was forced on the defensive in the days that followed, and he must have been relieved to emerge from two rugged days at the weekend with his lead over Aru almost entirely intact.
As the peloton makes it way northwards towards the high mountains of the final week, Contador's recovery seems to be continuing apace, though he was reluctant to place too much emphasis on his probing on Wednesday afternoon.
"I don't think it's too important. It was a hard day and my legs responded well but let's not exaggerate," Contador said. "I think there were a lot of riders up there and in the end, the difference was very small."
The day had begun with a rather unexpected boost to Contador's aspirations of final overall victory, following the race commissaires' decision to hand Porte a two-minute time penalty for accepting a wheel change from Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Clarke in the final of stage 10.
At 22 seconds, Porte would have expected to move into the maglia rosa in the Valdobbiadene time trial on Saturday. Now 3:09 behind, the Australian is now relying on that test simply to keep his overall hopes alive. Contador had already expressed his regret at his former teammate's punishment on Tuesday evening, and he reiterated those sentiments in his post-race press conference at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.
"Like I said already, at a moment like that you're only thinking about making up the ground you've lost as quickly as you can," Contador said. "The last thing you think about is the rules."
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Tuesday evening, Sky manager Dave Brailsford had expressed his belief that the race jury had applied the letter of the law rather than its spirit by penalising Porte and Clarke for the wheel change. Television images during Wednesday's stage showed Contador briefly removing his helmet in order to take off the cap he was wearing underneath. During his press conference, a journalist pointed out that he risked disqualification had the rule been strictly applied.
"I was taking it off to remove my cap. It's something that everybody does out of habit," Contador said. "I always had the helmet with me, so it was no problem."
Contador was diplomatic, meanwhile, when pressed on the idea that Sky and Orica-GreenEdge had been combining in support of Porte throughout the Giro - remembering, perhaps, that he has been able to call in favours of his own over the years, and indeed at this very race.
"They're two different teams," Contador said. "There are always people who are more sympathetic to you, that's normal, but they're two different teams."