A hundred metres or so past the line of stage 10 of the Giro d'Italia, outside the Beddini Bar in Montefalco, a small girl and her slightly taller brother stood on the tips of their toes and peered over a barrier as the finishers freewheeled past them one by one.
"Is that Nibali? Is that Nibali?" the girl cried out expectantly as one rider went by in a blur, and her brother craned his neck a little further into the road to check. "Nah, it's only Bob Jungels," he called down to her with all the condescension a 10-year-old can muster. Undeterred, they happily continued their vigil, shaded from the afternoon sun.
The ritual was repeated six more times in the following 20 minutes before Vincenzo Nibali finally reached the same spot, and even though he wheeled to a halt right by their vantage point, they likely saw little of their hero, who was quickly engulfed in a slew of cameras and microphones.
For the retinue of reporters following the Bahrain-Merida man on this Giro d'Italia, the overriding question has been more nuanced: What kind of Nibali is this? As on the Blockhaus on Sunday, Nibali's performance here raised more questions than answers. His 6th place finish on the stage leaves him just 24 seconds down on Nairo Quintana (Movistar) overall, but he is now some 2:47 behind the new maglia rosa Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who was a most dominant winner of the Sagrantino time trial.
"Look, I think I did a great time trial but I don't know the exact times yet, although [Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Paolo] Slongo filled me in a bit on the radio," Nibali said as the scrum of journalists drew tightly around him. "I think I put in a good performance and the work I've done with Merida to sort out the position has gone very well."
At the first time check in Bevagna after 10 kilometres, Nibali had already conceded 39 seconds to Dumoulin, and he did little to stem the tide on the drag to San Marco that followed. By the time Nibali dropped gradually to the second intermediate checkpoint at Bastardo, his deficit to the Dutchman had yawned out to 1:34.
Other news was more encouraging, however. Nibali would surely have expected to pull back time on Quintana, despite his underwhelming displays against the watch over the past three years, but gaining ground Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) was a bonus. Nibali's immediate concern, however, was picking up information about his own ride. For much of the 39.8 kilometres, he was in the dark, save for the information Slongo could offer him from the team car behind.
"I had to go mainly on sensations," Nibali explained. "My computer wasn't giving me any parameters because of interferenze from the television motorbike. I only had my current speed and nothing else, so I just tried to keep my cadence high. I just tried to manage my effort."
Nibali's sixth place in Montefalco marks his first top 10 finish in an individual time trial since he took fourth on the penultimate stage of his victorious 2014 Tour de France, almost three years ago. Although he – like everyone else – conceded more time to Dumoulin that he might have bargained for, clawing back 46 seconds on Quintana exceeded the public target of "30-40 seconds" set for him by Slongo. Nibali's satisfaction was such that he even broke into giggles as he remembered the rude place name he had encountered along the way.
"I knew that once I arrived at the town of Bastardo – sorry but it makes me laugh – I knew that the wind was going to be my face, and that was the place where you had to push on the pedals the hardest," Nibali said. "I tried to keep my effort steady all the way to the end, and Slongo was giving me the cadence because like I said, I didn't have any data on my computer. Still, he told me my revs per minute were high, so I tried to keep up that rhythm all the way to the line."
Nibali remains in fifth place overall, but the Giro has taken on a rather different complexion in the wake of the demanding time trial through Umbrian wine country. The deficit of almost three minutes to Dumoulin is daunting, at least based on the Dutchman's display on the Blockhaus, but only 24 seconds now separate Nibali, Quintana, Pinot and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) in the overall standings.
A year ago, Nibali overturned a larger time gap after a decidedly more troubled start to his race to snatch the maglia rosa at the death, but no two editions of the Giro are the same. A man cannot step into the same river twice, and it is as yet unclear if this is the same Nibali.