Somewhere amid the grey and white of the upper reaches of the Colle dell'Agnello, Vincenzo Nibali's catastrophe of a Giro d’Italia began to take on a different guise. As the race reached its highest point, beneath a shawl of cloud, on roads banked with snow, Nibali began to realise that perhaps he was himself again.
On Thursday morning, the Astana medical staff were so concerned about Nibali’s subdued form that he underwent additional testing to uncover if an underlying illness was to blame. Barely 24 hours, Nibali was somehow a man transfigured on the toughest day of the Giro to date, shining on the Agnello and then soloing to victory at Risoul to leap to second overall, just 44 seconds behind new maglia rosa Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
"In the high mountains, I feel good. I feel much more at ease on longer climbs like this compared to the shorter ones," Nibali said. "Today I found a bit of feeling again too. Over the years, I’ve always seen that in the Grand Tours you can always hope right to the end that something will happen. You never know. Not every year is the same. I’ve been through some very difficult days but today I certainly found the release."
Nibali has cut a troubled, often solitary figure on this Giro since the start in the Netherlands, burdened by the weight of Italian expectation and bedevilled by speculation over his team for 2017. After struggling in the Dolomites last weekend and slipping to fourth overall at Andalo on Tuesday, some 4:43 off the lead, many wondered whether he would even make it to Turin. Now, with one monstrous tappone that includes 75 kilometres of climbing still to come, the Giro suddenly seems to be bending towards the Italian champion.
"Tomorrow is another day," Nibali said. "Tomorrow’s stage will be pretty similar to today's, so we’ll have to see how to take it on with the whole team, and we’ll have to be focused,” Nibali said. “It’s sure to be a very difficult day."
Nibali's transformation began to take shape three kilometres from the summit of the Colle dell'Agnello, as the group of favourites fragmented under the impetus of Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge). When the dust settled, only Nibali and maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) remained with him. As they pressed on towards the summit, Nibali himself took over, laying a glove on Kruijswijk for the first time in this Giro.
The knock-out blow would be an inadvertent one, and considering how he has laboured under the yoke of flying the flag in his native land, it was perhaps fitting that Nibali’s luck turned as he crossed from Italy into France atop the Agnello. He continued to accelerate on the descent, and three corners after crossing from Italy into France, Kruijswijk, at the rear of the group, misjudged a bend and crashed into a thick bank of snow. Nibali and Chaves didn’t need an invitation to continue their forcing, though they were still 55 kilometres from the finish.
"Today I raced thinking only of the stage win knowing that there were a lot of riders ahead of me in the general classification," Nibali said. “But when we got towards the top of the Agnello, I could see that there were various riders suffering so I looked to accelerate. There were three of us over the top. I could see Kruijsiwjk wasn’t going very well, so I accelerated. I took the descent on fast. Then Kruijswijk crashed and we changed our strategy."
From that point, Nibali was a man apparently reanimated, unrecognisable from the figure who had appeared so jaded just three days ago. The Sicilian and Chaves linked up with the remnants of the day’s early break, including Astana teammate Michele Scarponi, and they reached the base of the climb to Risoul with a lead of 1:10 over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 2:20 over the ill-fated Kruijswijk.
The metamorphosis was complete on the final haul to Risoul. Five and a half kilometres from the summit, Nibali lifted himself from the saddle and accelerated. Chaves could follow for the bones of 500 metres before relenting. The Colombian kept his deficit at 15 seconds for a kilometre or so, but then the gap yawned outwards.
Nibali crossed the line alone, 51 seconds clear, and pointing to the sky in tribute to the late Rosario Costa, the 14-year-old Sicilian cyclist from the youth team he sponsors, who was killed in a training accident near Messina on the morning of the Chianti time trial. Kruijswijk came in 4:45 down, and slips to third overall, 21 seconds behind Nibali. A cruel business, the Giro.
At last year's Tour de France, Nibali put a different slant on a troubled race by attacking to claim a lone victory at La Toussuire in the final week, and ultimately moved up to fourth place overall. At Risoul on Friday evening, he shook his head when asked to compare this latest turnaround.
"No, I had completely different sensations, they’re completely different situations," Nibali said. “Here, even in the days when I was only so-so, I still had good sensations, it was just that I couldn’t express myself. It might simply be that the Dolomite stage was very hard and I made a big effort to chase for 25 kilometres, so maybe I paid something in the days that followed."
The biggest difference of all, of course, is that Nibali’s victory in Risoul was no mere consolation prize. With Col de Vars, Col de la Bonette and Colle della Lombarda to come on the road to Sant’Anna di Vinadio Saturday, the Giro itself is, improbably, now within reach. Even Nibali himself seemed to struggle to believe it.
"When we got above 2,000 metres, I started to feel much better and at ease. In the end it was a good day, but it wasn’t easy," he said. "Maybe I didn’t even believe in it myself either, but deep down I was hoping to do something like that."