Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) remains in contention as the Vuelta a España resumes after its first rest day, but the Italian has acknowledged that race leader Chris Froome (Sky) has appeared unbeatable to this point.
Froome moved into the red jersey when Nibali won stage 3 in Andorra, and has steadily increased his overall lead since. On Sunday, Froome won on the summit finish atop Cumbres del Sol to cement his lead still further, while Nibali is now 4th overall, 1:17 down.
"At this moment, you can't beat him. On all of the summit finishes so far, he's shown himself to be the strongest, the most powerful, the most explosive. It's disarming," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Up to now…"
Froome and Sky's dominance has not been the only defining characteristic of the Vuelta to date. The soaring speeds in the front group, particularly on the final climbs, has not gone unnoticed within the peloton. Nibali said that the data from his power-meter demonstrated just how tough this Vuelta has been.
"We're going very strongly and in the bunch, nobody is talking about anything else," Nibali said. "Besides, the computers don't lie. We're flying."
Nibali began the Vuelta on the back foot following Bahrain-Merida's lowkey showing in the opening team time trial in Nîmes, and he admitted that he has struggled on the short, explosive climbs that have littered the Vuelta route to date. Even Nibali's canny victory in Andorra came after he had been distanced by Froome on the Alto de la Cornella.
"I've been losing time since the team time trial," Nibali said. "It would be ideal if I had 30 seconds fewer to make up, but it must also be said that I've always paid on finishes like the ones we've had so far."
Nibali placed third in the Giro d'Italia in May but then eschewed the Tour de France to prepare for the Vuelta and should ostensibly be fresher in the final days than the men who rode the Tour, like Froome, Italian champion Fabio Aru (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). As the terrain changes and the Vuelta begins to tackle longer, steadier climbs, Nibali believes that the tactical approach might change.
"Sky has left the race quite free in the last few days. We'll have to see if the stages will now be intense from the start: for me that would be better," said Nibali, who conceded that next week's 40-kilometre time trial in Logroño essentially gives Froome a virtual lead that exceeds his current buffer.
Nibali has, of course, successfully turned the tide in Grand Tours in the past. In 2016, he looked a shadow of himself at the Giro, only to produce two long-range attacks on the final two mountain stages to claim overall victory in Turin. At this Vuelta, Orica-Scott's Esteban Chaves – second overall at 36 seconds – and Contador could yet prove to be allies of circumstances.
"He holds the balance of power," Nibali said of Contador. "If he attacks from distance, and he can do it, it's going to hurt."