While Vincenzo Nibali slouched over his top tube behind the stage 20 podium, members of his Astana entourage watched a small television screen with widening smiles as maglia rosa Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) laboured up the final ramps of the climb to Sant'Anna di Vinadio.
Time moves slowly at 2,000 metres above sea level, but even after those 44 long seconds had passed, Nibali seemed to struggle to believe it. Perhaps it was only when Chaves' parents, who had travelled from Colombia for the occasion, graciously approached Nibali to offer their congratulations, did he realise that all was true. The Giro d'Italia was his.
"I only believed it after the finish," Nibali said. "I was there, listening to the speaker counting down the seconds. It was only when I understood I'd pulled it off that I could start to celebrate."
The bulk of the heavy lifting came in Nibali's startling solo victory at Risoul on Friday. That morning, he lay fourth overall and the bones of five minutes off the overall lead, and seemed to be racing with only the dimmest hopes of salvaging a podium berth from a Giro that oscillated between the subdued and the troubled.
By the beginning of the Giro's mammoth penultimate stage, which had 4,100 metres of vertical climbing crammed into 134 kilometres, Nibali was up to second, just 44 seconds off Chaves, and his remarkable reanimation the previous afternoon suggested strongly that the balance of the race was tipping towards him.
So it proved on the Colle della Lombarda, the penultimate climb of the Giro. Nibali delegated teammates Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi to lay down a brisk tempo from the lower slopes of the 18-kilometre ascent. The inevitable attack came five kilometres from the finish, as a seated Nibali forged clear spinning at a notably high cadence.
"Yesterday I realised that I was going very well at altitude and I was confident for today," Nibali said. "On the Colle della Lombarda we kicked off our forcing. The entire team was magnificent. I was feeling good and in the finale, I asked Michele to up the pace. I'll have to build a monument to him. I didn't even believe it myself that we would manage it, but thanks to some great teamwork, we defied a lot of predictions."
For a couple of kilometres, Chaves battled gamely to peg his deficit at 15 seconds, but as at Risoul, the gap stretched outwards towards the summit as Nibali briefly linked up with teammate Tanel Kangert, part of the day's early break. By the time Nibali began the descent, with 10 kilometres to race, he was already the virtual maglia rosa.
The final kick up to Sant'Anna di Vinadio was not quite a procession – the margins were too tight for that – but though Nibali finally betrayed some signs of suffering in the final kilometre, it was clear that the Giro was his. He crossed the line 6th on the stage, some 1:36 clear of Chaves, enough to put him in the maglia rosa by 52 seconds.
"This morning when I started, I wasn't afraid to win and I wasn't afraid to lose," Nibali said gnomically. "After yesterday, I understood that I was going better than everyone else at high altitude."
It seems a lifetime since Nibali set out from Apeldoorn as the outstanding favourite for victory, with the Spanish pair of Mikel Landa (Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) pegged as his most likely challengers.
As is its wont, the script for this Giro has been rewritten multiple times since then, but when Nibali told reporters during his rest day press conference that there were plenty of twists still to come, few expected them to be favourable to him.
After struggling in the Alpe di Siusi time trial – by Nibali's admission, the toughest moment of his Giro – the Italian champion conceded yet more time when the race resumed on the road to Andalo on Tuesday, and at that point, one wondered whether he would even reach Turin.
In Grand Tours in the modern era, there have been few turnarounds as remarkable or as difficult to comprehend as this one. On Thursday morning, Nibali underwent testing to check for an underlying health condition that might explain his low-key performances to that point. On Friday afternoon, he turned the race on its head. By Saturday afternoon, he had won it. How?
"In short, yesterday I saw I was much better," Nibali said. "These last few days were very important. It was a draining Giro. I started with the pressure of being favourite, but once I said to myself: ‘Whatever happens, happens' I felt more free."
The burden of being Vincenzo Nibali had appeared too much at times on this Giro. During the final week, Nibali even complained at what he felt was undue criticism from his home media, though in truth, he was never lacking in support.
"I spoke a lot with Michele [Scarponi] in my room and I began to realise that people loved me all the same, beyond what happened in this Giro," Nibali said, as the crowds by the podium area chanted ‘Vin-cen-zo, Vin-cen-zo' with a fervour not heard in three syllables since the days of Pantani.
"That's what made me go well in this Giro. In my head, I set out with the desire to do too much and I was expecting something straightaway. I was too focused and I wasn't riding well. But then we realigned ourselves and we rode well this last week."
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