A day after Tom Dumoulin's dominant time trial victory recalibrated the Giro d'Italia, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) set about the process of trying to tweak the race to more amenable settings on stage 11 to Bagno di Romagna. Nibali had come away happier than most from the Montefalco time trial, content to have clawed back 45 seconds on Nairo Quintana (Movistar), but he sensed Wednesday's deceptively tough trek through the Apennines offered a chance to test Dumoulin's powers of recovery.
"A lot of directors and leaders have said to me in the past, and Slongo today said the same thing, that on the day after a time trial stage, the effort might be weighing on some people's legs," Nibali said after the finish. "We said, 'Let's try something: maybe there'll be somebody who isn't going well, and maybe we'll manage to gain something.'"
Nibali's Bahrain-Merida teammate Giovanni Visconti was deployed to infiltrate the day's early break, while Franco Pellizotti took up the reins in the maglia rosa group on the final ascent of the Monte Fumaiolo. After Pellizotti's stint of pace-making, Nibali tacked on a tentative acceleration of his own, which shook Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) loose but failed to discommode Dumoulin.
A follow-up attack by Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) gained a little more traction, but the group came back together on the long drop the finish, and Nibali rolled across the line in the same time as Dumoulin and Quintana, in a 16-man group 1:37 behind stage winner Omar Fraile (Dimension Data).
"In the end, the various big riders were all quite good," Nibali said after he had wheeled to a halt past the line. His soigneur Michele Pallini cleared a path to the roadside, and Nibali paused there to give his snap take on the day's action. "The only one who made a big acceleration on the climb was Thibaut Pinot but then on the descent, well, it wasn't a descent where you could really make a selection."
At one point on the run-in, Dumoulin and Nibali could be seen holding a brief parley. The Dutchman, it seems, was keen to claw back some ground on Andrey Amador (Movistar), who was part of the break of the day. He was seeking some allies of circumstance, but Nibali preferred not to offer his services.
"In the finale, he said, 'What are you doing, will we all work together?' But I said, 'I'm alone, I'm not pulling,'" Nibali said. "Maybe if I still had a teammate left with me, I would have worked."
Nibali paid tribute to the efforts of his Bahrain-Merida team, and Visconti and Pellizotti in particular, but queried why Quintana had not opted to join him on the offensive on the final climb. When Movistar set the tempo on the day's first ascent, the Passo della Consuma, and then put three riders – Amador, José Joaquin Rojas and Jesus Herrada – in the early break, it appeared as though they were laying the groundwork for an ambush on Dumoulin's maglia rosa, but Quintana kept his sword in its scabbard for the afternoon.
"To be honest, I thought Nairo would have attacked on one of the climbs but instead Nairo stayed in the wheels," Nibali said. "He had three teammates in front, so we were thinking that maybe he was planning an attack. It seemed like he'd try something but it didn't happen."
Quintana, for his part, offered a gnomic explanation for his passivity in the finale. "We sent the riders ahead today in search of the others' weaknesses," he said, "but it turns out they aren't that weak."
Nibali lies fifth overall after stage 11, just as he did at the same juncture last year, though on that occasion, his deficit to the maglia rosa was a mere 1:09 rather than the 2:47 that currently separates him from Dumoulin. And yet, despite his weighty disadvantage, Nibali has appeared considerably lighter of bearing on this Giro d'Italia a stark contrast with the terse, almost troubled figure he seemed to be for much of last year's race. Despite Dumoulin's sizeable buffer, Nibali seems to be drawing considerable solace from his proximity to the pre-race favourite Quintana.
"Look, unfortunately not every year is the same. There's a year where you are going a bit better and a year where you're going a bit worse," Nibali said. "In this first part of the Giro, I'm happy with how I've been going.
"The Giro is hard. We know Nairo is strong in the mountains, he's shown that over the years. He's even dropped Froome, he's dropped me, so we know he's the man to beat on the climbs. But then Dumoulin has around three minutes of a gap, so this Giro isn't straightforward."