The Tour de France may have been billed as a battle between Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Cadel Evans (BMC), but Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) has carried himself with a quiet defiance through the opening week of action.
Weaker in the time trial than both Wiggins and Evans, the Sicilian is aware that he must pick up seconds on the pair wherever he can, and he sent a brief frisson through the yellow jersey group when he hit the front on the final downhill section of stage 8, the technical descent of the Col de la Croix.
Although Nibali's probing effort yielded no tangible gain – he rolled into Porrentruy safely alongside Wiggins and Evans – it was emblematic of the kind of campaign he will have to wage over the coming two weeks if he is to upset the prognostics and carry off the maillot jaune.
After showering and changing into a team issue polo shirt, a relaxed Nibali sat on the steps of the team bus to talk reporters through a day of tense détente ahead of the first lengthy time trial of the Tour.
"I was trying to get away on the descent alright," Nibali said. "I knew that Evans would be able to follow me, so I suppose it was a bit of an effort to get away even if I knew the descent was very short. It was very difficult, and there was a headwind on the run-in afterwards, so it was going to very hard to stay away."
With 41.5 kilometres of time trialling between Arc-et-Senans and Besançon weighing heavily on the contenders' minds, Nibali was not surprised that the leaders remained deadlocked, in spite of the forcing of Lotto Belisol's Jurgen Van Den Broeck on the way up the Col de la Croix.
"Van Den Broeck was very strong, maybe because he was angry about losing time yesterday," Nibali said. "My own thoughts were to save myself as best I could for the time trial tomorrow. It's long and quite hard."
Indeed, Nibali's overall victory at the 2010 Vuelta a España was a monument to the art of managing one's resources over the course of three weeks of racing, and he is looking to repeat the feat in France. "I think that you'll need to manage your strength well in this Tour," he said. "I've hidden myself well in the first week and stayed on the wheel. I made an acceleration today but it was only on the descent and even then, I was quickly back in the wheels when it didn't work out."
Even when Liquigas-Cannondale hit the front in the final 50 kilometres in a vain bid to bring Peter Sagan into contention for the stage victory, saving energy was a primary concern. "Initially, we were thinking that Peter Sagan might be able to hold on to the lead group and win, so we set a decent tempo for him," Nibali said. "We made the pace that suited us, we didn't want to force it too much as there's an important stage tomorrow."
Damage control behind Wiggins
With Wiggins widely expected to extend his overall lead on in Monday's time trial, Nibali knows that he faces a damage limitation exercise on the road to Besançon, although he pointedly noted that there is more than one Sky rider in the shake-up for the podium places.
"I'll have to defend myself against Evans and Wiggins, who seems to have something more in the time trial, but I would put Froome in the mix too, if he can do a good time trial like he did at the Vuelta last year," Nibali said. "They are the ones who will go well and I'll have to look to defend myself as best I can."
Before he departed, Nibali sounded a defiant note when asked if he had any regrets about telling L'Équipe that Wiggins "didn't impress him" as the race entered the mountains.
"Why should I? You don't need to be afraid," he said. "Sky is a really great team and has come here with big ambitions, but we've all come here with big ambitions, including Evans and me.
"I don't think the Tour is finished here, and there's no need to be afraid if I have to attack, be it on the climbs, on descents, on the flat. Wiggins has shown that he's very strong in the climbs and in the time trial, and he's come here as the big favourite, but you have to get to Paris first."