Just when the Giro d'Italia risked playing out in grayscale, a polemica arrives to add a splash of colour to its final days. Tom Dumoulin's assured defence of his pink jersey on Thursday's Dolomite leg had the feel of another crucial, though not yet decisive, step towards a final overall victory. Vincenzo Nibali's stinging post-stage criticism of what he decried as the Sunweb rider's cockiness, however, suggests there may still be plenty of life in this race.
When Nibali arrived at the Bahrain-Merida team bus, two kilometres away from the stage 18 finish in Ortisei, he learned that Dumoulin had queried his tactics and those of Movistar's Nairo Quintana in the finale. In particular, the maglia rosa was aggrieved that Nibali and Quintana had allowed fourth-placed Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) to slip away and gain more than a minute in the closing kilometres.
"They are only focusing on me and trying to make me lose instead of trying to win," Dumoulin complained to Eurosport. "In the last moments, they lost a lot of time to the other competitors. I really hope that riding like this they will lose their podium spot in Milan, that would be really nice, and I would be really happy."
After trying and failing to unseat Dumoulin on the day's third ascent, the Passo Gardena, Nibali was hardly in the mood for a lecture on race tactics from the maglia rosa. Almost an hour after the stage, having showered and changed, Nibali's irritation was still obvious when he emerged from the team bus for an interview with RAI television.
"I don't care what Dumoulin says. He's being a bit cocky," Nibali said, speaking in rapid, staccato sentences. "But he needs to be careful – because if we let the others go up the road, he could lose his podium place, too. If you have to talk, talk when you're in Milan and you've won. He's strong, and he showed that by controlling things very well when we tried to attack him. He can't expect Quintana and me to chase down the riders in fourth and fifth place, otherwise, we might as well carry him in an armchair to Milan.
"I think he needs to keep riding and keep his feet on the ground. I have never been that cocky. He needs to talk less. Does he know what karma is? What goes around comes around…"
We're in a game of chess
There had been no indication of the polemic to come when Nibali crossed the finish line in the company of Dumoulin and Quintana (Movistar), 1:06 down on stage winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC). The top three on general classification had marked one another tightly over the top of the final climb of Pontives, but as he made his way through the finish area, Nibali focused on his abortive attack on the Passo Gardena midway through the stage rather than the time they all frittered away to Pinot.
In the general classification, Nibali remains third, 1:12 down on Dumoulin, but he is now just 24 seconds ahead of Pinot, while Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), also a later attacker, is only a further 22 seconds back.
"We tried to attack a bit, but it wasn't easy. We're in a game of chess…" Nibali told reporters, putting a brave face on his and Quintana's failure to discommode Dumoulin on one of the toughest stages of the entire Giro. "They were climbs that maybe suited him. He could push with his strength."
Nibali returned to the theme more forcefully when he spoke to RAI an hour later. Despite being isolated from all of his teammates, Dumoulin dealt comfortably with attacks from Quintana and Nibali on the Passo Gardena, bridging across coolly just as they crested the summit, and the maglia rosa was utterly untroubled thereafter. The day featured a total altitude gain just shy of 4000 metres, yet, remarkably, Nibali complained that the terrain had suited the Dutchman.
"Dumoulin was fortunate today. Our tactic and Movistar's was ideal: We sent our teammates up the road and we made a strong attack on the Passo Gardena, but the descent didn't come straight away and he was able to close the gap," Nibali said. "It's not easy. It's like a game a game of chess that's being played day by day."
At times, Nibali's interview risked aping Kevin Keegan's infamous tirade against what he perceived as Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's mind games in 1996, but the Sicilian did at least temper his invective before he finished. "Dumoulin is bravo and honest in the peloton, there have been no arguments," Nibali said. "But during the race, we all look after our own interests."
It was perhaps telling that Nibali repeated one phrase several times during his brief interview: "Non è semplice." From the very outset of this Giro, Nibali has placed great store on how his powers of endurance and recovery might bend the race to his will during its demanding third week. With just two stages to come before the concluding Milan time trial, however, the man for the long road is fast beginning to run out of it.
"Tomorrow there's another hard stage and we have to try," Nibali said of Friday's summit finish at Piancavallo. "Winning the Giro is very difficult, because in the race so far, Dumoulin has been almost impeccable, but it's not over yet."