Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) had pledged to go on the offensive on the Blockhaus and vowed to enjoy the occasion, and he proved to be a man of his word on stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia. In the face of Nairo Quintana's onslaught in the final seven kilometres, most would have been minded to lay down arms and cry out 'no más,' but Pinot responded with a dig of his own before yielding to the inevitable.
That show of defiance did little to dissuade Quintana from his offensive, but it suggested that Pinot was feeling more confident than Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), the only other man to track the Colombian's initial acceleration. So it proved. 3.5 kilometres from the line, Pinot rid himself of Nibali and continued in lone pursuit of Quintana, limiting his losses to just 24 seconds at the finish.
"It was a very tough climb, no doubt about it, and it was a very fast stage. There was only one climb but it was so hard that it made the difference," Pinot said afterwards. "Quintana was very strong. I tried to follow him like Nibali did. It was a bit harder in the final, but I still tried to follow even then. After that, I just tried to limit the damage as much as possible."
Two kilometres from home, as the gradient began to relent ever so gradually, Pinot was caught by Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo). By that juncture, Pinot's normally languid style was becoming visibly more ragged, but he collected himself well ahead of the final ramps. At an earlier, more vulnerable stage of his maturity, Pinot might have panicked at their presence on his shoulder, but he was composed here, riding with Dumoulin into the final kilometre, and then outkicking the Dutchman to take second place on the stage.
"I felt him coming up, that's his style," Pinot said of Dumoulin. "He dosed his effort more like a time trial. It's a tactic that suits him. My aim was to follow Quintana and try to win the stage."
Like all of the top finishers, Pinot was marshalled into a tent beside the podium to change before descending to his FDJ team bus further down the mountain. On emerging, he paused to speak to a small group of reporters and shook off the idea that he was disappointed to have been beaten to the summit by Quintana. It had been, he said, an enjoyable kind of suffering. "No, I'm happy. I felt strong and rode well," he said. "I have no regrets. I tried to respond as best I could, but Quintana was the strongest today."
Pinot skirted with disaster as the pace ratcheted upwards on the approach to the base of the Blockhaus, and he only narrowly avoided going down in the crash that brought down both of Sky's leaders, Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa, as well as Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
"I didn't fall only for a miracle. I had to make a small effort to get back up, but fortunately, I didn't fall. It was unlucky for the Sky riders to get caught up in the crash," he said. "It's a pity for the race because I'd have preferred to have everybody in the battle at the end."
As the Giro breaks for its second rest day and the caravan makes the trek northwards to Umbria, Pinot lies second overall, just 28 seconds off Quintana. Pinot's improvement against the watch over the past two seasons means that he can realistically aspire to wear the maglia rosa after the demanding time trial from Foligno to Montefalco on Tuesday afternoon, even if Dumoulin – just a further two seconds back – seems the man most likely to divest Quintana of the garment.
"In terms of the time gap, it's OK," Pinot said of his deficit to Quintana. "The time trial will be 40km so that's very long. I think Dumoulin could also take the pink jersey, but beyond that, the top five and top ten have bigger gaps. It was only one climb today, but there's already a gap of three minutes to 10th overall."
The Giro d'Italia was billed beforehand as a duel between Quintana and Nibali, and while the Sicilian, now 5th overall at 1:10, is in no way out of the running, Pinot's display on the Blockhaus has highlighted his own credentials. Quintana's strength – and the startling collective force of the Movistar team – suggests that he will not be easily deposed, but Pinot was sanguine when asked if he could win the Giro. On the evidence of thus far, it is not an altogether fanciful idea.
"I don't know. Quintana was very strong on the climb, and Dumoulin is very dangerous, but a lot of things can still happen. We've done a week of racing, but there are still two to go: the most difficult," Pinot said. "We'll see. I'll give my best and then we'll see. The Giro is still long. A lot of things could happen. Today's truth is not necessarily tomorrow's."