Three times Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) followed Nairo Quintana's accelerations on the Blockhaus on stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia, but on the fourth attempt, the mountain delivered its inexorable verdict. On gradients of 14 per cent, Quintana bobbed his way clear, and this time Nibali could muster no response. He sat into his saddle with an air of finality, and the gap opened slowly, but remorselessly.
At that point, Nibali still had Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) alongside him, but his company was only notional. On slopes of this severity, climbing is a basically solitary pursuit, and the final 4,500 metres of the stage were to prove increasingly lonely for Nibali. He was dropped by Pinot with 3.5 kilometres to go, then caught and passed by Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) 500 metres later.
Nibali reached the summit in fifth place on the stage, precisely a minute behind Quintana, and he occupies the same place on general classification as the Giro breaks for its second rest day, 1:10 behind the Colombian.
A swarm of cameras and reporters waited for Nibali as he inched across the line. Cruelly, the road continued to rise past the finish area, and the Sicilian had to keep pedaling, pushed along by his soigneur Michele Pallini, until he reached the sanctuary of the enclosure by the podium where UCI inspectors were testing bikes. When he emerged a quarter of an hour later, he paused to speak briefly to RAI television, before soft-pedaling back down the mountain to his Bahrain-Merida team bus.
"Let's say that the final part of the climb was a lot more demanding and, niente," Nibali said. "I responded several times to Quintana. The last part was a lot more suited to the pure climbers, and I went into crisis a little bit. I tried to manage the situation as best I could by following my own pace."
Quintana's Movistar team had announced their intentions by leading the peloton on the run-in to the final climb, and they didn't adjust the intensity of their pace-making even when a police motorbike brought down Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Sky's Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa, and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott). Once the gradient began to bite, Winner Anacona and Andrey Amador forced the pace still further, and those in the wheels braced themselves for the ferocity of Quintana's ineluctable salvo.
Nibali cut his usual, impassive figure on the lower portion of the climb, and looked equally assured when he replied to Quintana's first acceleration with a shade under 7 kilometres to go, riding with his forearms draped over the top of his handlebars in the manner of Michele Bartoli. He seemed under increasing duress in the attacks that followed, however, and both he and Pinot – the only men to follow Quintana – had to yield at the fourth attempt.
"It wasn't pride; I responded more with the head," Nibali said of his attempt to go head-to-head with Quintana. "I didn't respond directly. I always made long, gradual accelerations, and I felt good like that."
Spinning a gear of 38x30, Nibali managed to hold his deficit to 20 seconds or so on the steepest portion of the Blockhaus, but his resistance weakened as the gradients relaxed slightly in the final three kilometres. Unable to follow Pinot, Dumoulin and Mollema, Nibali struggled to limit his losses in the finale, though he was hardly alone in that endeavour.
"I didn't have a hunger flat in the finale, I ate well all day," Nibali said. "I just knew that the final part, from 5k to go to 3k to go, was going to be the most difficult. Quintana gained ground on the harder parts that were better suited to him. That's normal, he weighs 10 kilos less than me. He's much more explosive."
Nibali might privately have expected to concede some ground to Quintana on the toughest ascent of the Giro to date, but would hardly have counted on losing so much, nor would he have anticipated being soundly beaten by Pinot, Dumoulin and Mollema to boot. A year ago, of course, Nibali extricated himself from a seemingly irretrievable situation to salvage Giro victory at the death, but he is aware, too, that the calibre of his opponent is rather different this time around.
Tuesday's Montefalco time trial ostensibly gives Nibali a chance to claw back the time he lost to Quintana at the Blockhaus, but his performances against the watch have hardly been unimpeachable since his first Giro win in 2013. A considerable degree of invention may well be required to win this Giro.
"Certainly, in the time trials, I might be able to gain something," Nibali said. "But, today, on a sharp, tough climb like that, it was a lot more difficult."