Just below the walls of Osimo, as the gradient stiffened to 16% on the Via Olimpia, the general classification picture of this Giro d'Italia seemed to sharpen into focus. There is plenty of distance left to run between here and Rome, of course, but the finale of stage 11 felt a microcosm for the current lay of the land – Simon Yates alone in front, with Tom Dumoulin following him closely.
When Yates accelerated viciously with 1,500 metres to go, it looked as though none of his rivals even would even dare to try to match him, but Dumoulin suddenly surged forward from fifth wheel, all but gliding past Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo as he set out in chase of the bobbing maglia rosa.
The grim pursuit match continued through the cobbled streets of the old town, with Dumoulin inching closer but never quite close enough. As the road flattened out in the final 400 metres, it briefly looked as though Dumoulin might even swoop upon Yates before the Arrivo banner on Piazza Municipio, but the Briton kicked once more to claim the win by two seconds.
The victory and its attendant time bonus mean that Yates now holds a lead of 47 seconds over Dumoulin in the general classification, but the Dutchman can draw solace from the fact that Wednesday's punchy finale seemed better tailored to the characteristics of the man he was pursuing in those fraught closing metres.
"Well, I think today's stage suited me also, but there was one guy stronger. I'm happy with my performance. It's already the whole Giro that he's been a little bit stronger, and I cannot be unhappy. I gave everything, and I couldn't close the gap anymore," said Dumoulin.
"I think Yates is the moral winner today again, but I hope it will turn around. I was very close today and I was not that close before now. I hope I am getting closer every day."
The steep pitches of the Via Olimpia did not only reaffirm the status of the strongmen at the head of the general classification, it also seemed to confirm the downward trajectory of riders who have struggled since the race set out from Israel. Chris Froome (Team Sky) slid backwards on the climb and conceded another 40 seconds, while Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) coughed up 21 seconds. Both men are now more than three minutes behind in the overall standings.
"The differences are not so big yet. 47 seconds is not a lot, but it's already quite much if I lose more time on the Zoncolan or the day afterwards. Then it would be very difficult," Dumoulin said of his deficit to Yates.
"Fabio Aru, Froome and all of the other guys who are now in the top 10, they are definitely not out of contention yet. A lot can happen in the coming weekend and in the final week."
Asked if he had been surprised to out-kick ostensibly more explosive riders on such a finale, meanwhile, Dumoulin glanced at his legs and then smiled. "What people don't know is that I'm quite explosive sometimes." He will need to be to keep tabs on Yates.
Staying in the hunt
There have been persistent murmurs since the Giro left Israel that Dumoulin is riding this race with one eye already on a tilt at the Tour de France. That background noise might begin to fade after Wednesday's finale, where Dutchman had eyes only for Yates' rear wheel as he stalked the pink jersey along the cobbles of Osimo's centro storico.
"From the first day, I said I'm here to fight for the win again and I will do that again," said Dumoulin, who paused amid milling tifosi to speak with reporters before he rode the two kilometres to the Sunweb team bus, parked beneath the citadel.
Dumoulin laid down an early marker on this Giro by winning the opening time trial in Jerusalem before ceding the maglia rosa to Rohan Dennis (BMC) the following day. He has never looked especially discommoded in the days since, performing solidly if unspectacularly at Mount Etna and Gran Sasso d'Italia, though he confessed to suffering during the Giro's opening days on Italian roads.
"I feel better now than in Sicily, for example, and I hope it stays like this," Dumoulin said. "But a Grand Tour is always ups and downs. Sometimes you feel good for two days, like the last two days, and then you feel shit for two days again. It's like that and you just have to deal with it."
Dumoulin will be pleased, too, that he reported no lingering effects from his crash during the rain-soaked final salvos of Tuesday's breathless stage to Gualdo Tadino. The defending champion managed to finish alongside all of his rivals there, and he was present and correct when hostilities resumed among the podium contenders in Osimo on Wednesday.
"For the last two days I've been feeling better, and that's good to see," Dumoulin said. "After with my crash, I didn't feel good at the start today. I think it was also just because of the hard stage yesterday, but I felt better later."
Dumoulin will have to continue his grim pursuit of the seemingly untouchable Yates over the coming days in the hope of overhauling the Briton in the stage 16 time trial to Rovereto. Yates is adamant that he needs 'minutes' in hand on Dumoulin ahead of the 34.2km test next Tuesday. With the imposing Zoncolan and a demanding leg to Sappada to come at the weekend, however, Dumoulin is reluctant to indulge in prognostication.
"I don't know, I really don't know," Dumoulin said. "I never look at time differences, I just go full gas until the finish of the time trial and I will see what I get. But first, there's the weekend."