It's been a tough road to recovery for Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) in the Vuelta a España, but the Italian Grand Tour star is sure he's in fast-improving condition as the race draws towards an end.
Day-in, day-out at the Vuelta, Nibali has been either in breakaways or working hard on the front for Bahrain-Merida as they battle to defend Ion Izagirre's GC options.
At the Balcon de Bizkaia summit finish on Wednesday, there was something of a landmark for Nibali as he secured his first top-10 placing in a stage of the Vuelta - or any race, for that matter - since his bad crash in the closing kilometres on Alpe d'Huez in July at the Tour de France, fracturing a vertebra in the centre of his back.
But as Nibali and the Vuelta head towards the mountains of Andorra on Friday, where Nibali took a fine stage win last year in the Vuelta en route to second overall, the Italian is quietly satisfied with his rising form.
"It's been a difficult Vuelta for me. I've suffered a lot, firstly with the problems with my back after the Tour de France crash, then as I tried to find my form," Nibali told Cyclingnews before stage 18 - where he finished 65th, just behind the main peloton.
"I've dug deep because it was very important to finish the Vuelta well. Compared to the start things have changed, I'm getting better and better and that's a good sign," he said.
"I can't say I'm in super form now, but I expect that the week after the Vuelta will be very important to reach almost 100 per cent top condition."
Asked what he would do after the Vuelta a España and before the World Championships, where he will be a leading contender, Nibali said he will be following a program of racing and training working alongside the Italian National Team.
"It includes two races" - which Cyclingnews understands from other sources will probably be the one-day Memorial Marco Pantani and Trofeo Matteotti next weekend - "but we're going to finalise things in the next few days," NIbali said.
Following the two Italian races, the squadra azzurra will likely gather in Torbole in the Trentino region for a final get together and camp. After that, all roads lead to Innsbruck and Worlds.