Stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia unexpectedly escalated into a shoot-out between the general classification contenders on the final climb of Andrate but Cadel Evans (BMC) opted to hold his fire and he remains 1:26 off the maglia rosa of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
When a 22-rider break sallied clear early on, it appeared as though the stage would follow the set script, but instead they never managed to form a smooth collaboration and the race came back together on the third category climb of Andrate, with 24km still to race.
"We weren't certain but we spoke about it this morning as there was a chance that some teams would want to close it back down to win the stage," BMC directeur sportif Fabio Baldato told Cyclingnews afterwards. "The climb was hard so when it all came back together it became a question for the general classification riders and we knew that it would be hard enough for only ten or twenty riders to be left up there. Six kilometres at an average gradient of 9% are tough, especially at the end of a stage."
Once on the climb, Michele Scarponi and his Lampre-Merida teammate Przemyslaw Niemic sparked the attacking in the maglia rosa group and triggered a flurry of accelerations that reduced the leading group to 17 riders. Opportunities for Evans to chip away at Vincenzo Nibali's lead are receding as the days tick by, but the Australian chose to follow the moves rather than seize the initiative himself.
"No, he was never thinking of attacking because after the descent there were still nine kilometres, so it was always going to be hard for anybody to stay away," Baldato said. "Scarponi had a go and it's clear that he was going well. Cadel, Nibali and the others went after him, and I don't think anyone could have gone up the climb any harder than Scarponi did anyway."
After struggling in the frigid Alps, Scarponi seemed happier beneath blue skies on Tuesday, but overall ambitions can still die when the sun is shining. Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) was the man who tripped up on the Andrate, and Evans' former teammate conceded 2:10 to the podium hopefuls, slipping from 4th to 6th on general classification. Baldato believes that the strongest four men in the race now occupy the top four places on general classification.
"We've seen everyone's level on the road at this stage - the guys who are up there are Cadel, Nibali, Uran and now Scarponi," he said. "Scarponi maybe suffered in the cold weather more than the others but if the weather is good, he could be a threat. He's always up there and he's got a bit of class and he goes strong in the mountains."
Thursday's mountain time trial from Mori to Polsa ought to be Evans' next chance to make inroads into Nibali's lead, although the Sicilian has been comfortable in his defence of the maglia rosa to date. Rather than attacking Nibali, it appears that Evans must hope he can outlast him on the Giro's two tapponi to Val Martello and Tre Cime di Lavaredo at the end of the week.
"It's hard. It might be that we have to hope for a giornata from Nibali and wait for the last two days," Baldato said.