Pierre Rolland (Europcar) finally laid down arms atop the Zoncolan on Saturday, wheeling to a halt just past the finish line and carefully removing his helmet, radio earpiece and nasal strip before handing them to his soigneur.
After three weeks of steadily moving up the general classification of his debut Giro d’Italia, Rolland’s offensive had finally stalled on the Monte Grappa time trial on stage 19, when Fabio Aru’s startling display saw him retreat from third to fourth place overall.
On the Zoncolan, the Kaiser of Friuli, Rolland gamely battled to try and outflank Aru, but he ultimately conceded four more seconds to the young Sardinian, and finishes the Giro one place shy of the podium. Rolland would doubtless have settled for that when he lined up for his debut Giro three weeks ago, but after three weeks on the front, he confessed to mixed feelings as his race drew to a close.
"I had extraordinary legs but I’m coming away without a stage win and just short of the podium, so it’s both a satisfaction and a disappointment at the same time," Rolland told reporters on Saturday.
"Still, I can’t reproach myself for anything. Again today I tried to get things moving from a long way out but I knew that with these gradients it would be difficult to make a big difference or move up to third or second on the overall standings."
The Frenchman set out on his Giro endeavour at a distinct disadvantage. In the Belfast team time trial, only Garmin-Sharp – whose effort was compromised by a four-man crash – posted a worse time than Europcar, and Rolland left Ireland already over two minutes off the maglia rosa.
From there until the Monte Grappa time trial, however, Rolland’s Giro was one of constant ascent. An aggressive showing on the road to Montecopiolo on stage 8 ended on a sour note – "I was away for a long time and I was caught just before the end, I probably should have won that day," Rolland said ruefully – but he reached the second rest day in 12th place overall.
Rolland was again to the fore en route to Oropa and Montecampione, but the keynote performance of his Giro came at Val Martello, where he moved up to fourth overall after joining Nairo Quintana’s controversial attack on the descent of the Stelvio. When Cadel Evans faltered at Rifugio Panarotta two days later, he moved up to third overall, and the podium was in sight as he faced into the mountain time trial.
"Monte Grappa was the first time since the start of the Giro that I fell back on GC," Rolland said. The irony was that Rolland’s display in that most difficult test – 4th, 1:57 down on Quintana – was above and beyond his own expectations, but Aru’s remarkable second place knocked him off the podium.
"I was happy because finishing fourth in the time trial was a big performance for me, but at the same time it was a disappointment because it’s cost me the podium," Rolland said. "I gave my maximum et cetera but Aru was just very strong. He’s shown how strong he is all through the whole Giro."
Rolland is one of the few Giro protagonists certain to line up at the Tour de France, and, not surprisingly, his June racing programme is a light one. "Just rest," he said. "Then the French championships and the Tour, and, well, we’ll see after that."
In July, Rolland will renew his double act with Europcar teammate Thomas Voeckler, and while matching or bettering his Giro result will prove an onerous task, he was optimistic that the terrain will be more amenable to his plan of attack.
"The cols at the Giro are much harder than at the Tour in terms of gradient. I weigh a bit more than the likes of Pozzovivo, so when the gradient goes above 10% I start to struggle compared to them," Rolland said. "That’s why I’ll enjoy riding the Tour, with more ‘normal’ percentages. But I’ve enjoyed myself on this Giro."