Nairo Quintana is back in the maglia rosa, but is he back to being Nairo Quintana? Only once on this year's Giro d'Italia, on the steepest section of the Blockhaus on stage 9, has the Colombian sparkled like on his best days. That élan has been missing ever since, and yet, 48 hours from Milan, he finds himself on the cusp of winning the Giro for the second time.
At Piancavallo on Friday – as on the Stelvio and during the tappone in the Dolomites – Quintana hardly excelled, but he did enough. It's been the story of his Giro to this point. When maglia rosa Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) was distanced 11 kilometres from the finish of stage 19 after Movistar's early forcing, one expected Quintana to drive home that advantage with a telling attack, but the onslaught never materialised.
Quintana instead contented himself by tracking an acceleration from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) 6 kilometres from the summit and riding to the finish in the company of the Sicilian. After putting 1:09 into Dumoulin, Quintana leads the Dutchman by 38 seconds in the general classification, with Nibali a further five seconds back in third.
When Quintana last rode the Giro three years ago, his domination in the mountains of the final week was absolute. He seemed to climb to places others simply could not reach. His 2017 Giro has, for the most part, been written in prose rather than in poetry. After stage 19, Quintana was asked bluntly if his rivals were stronger than in the past, or if he was simply more tired.
"The level is very, very high. There's very little difference between the riders," Quintana said. "On the top of that, the Stelvio stage the other day was very demanding, and I think everyone is tired as a result of that.
"I was feeling very good today. It was a hard stage, but thanks to my team I managed to get back into the maglia rosa."
In victory and defeat, Quintana has never been much given to overt displays of emotion but he was decidedly light of bearing when he arrived for his press conference in a gymnasium by the finish line in Piancavallo. He soft-pedalled his bike all the way into the makeshift conference room and smiled bashfully when he wheeled to a halt and dismounted at the top table.
At one point on Friday, Quintana's gains on Dumoulin threatened to be decisive. Dumoulin was caught behind when the bunch split on the fast descent from the intermediate sprint at Sappada – where Stephen Roche (in)famously took Roberto Visentini's maglia rosa in 1987 – and he had to chase frantically to close a 30-second gap and catch back up on the Sella Chianzutan.
It was initially – and completely erroneously – reported on social media that Quintana and Nibali had attacked while Dumoulin was stopped for a toilet break, though the Dutchman admitted afterwards that he only had himself to blame for his positioning when the race split up.
"We didn't hear about it. Our intention was just to go fast and make the race hard. A lot of teams wanted to make the stage hard," Quintana said. "Dumoulin caught back up on the first climb. Other riders and teams were caught behind with him and they helped the chase, which is normal in the dynamics of the race."
The dynamic of this Giro has altered substantially now that Quintana is back in the maglia rosa, even if, with a 30-kilometre time trial to come in Milan on Sunday, the Colombian knows that he must increase his advantage on Dumoulin – not to mention Nibali and Thibaut Pinot (now 4th at 53 seconds) on Saturday's final road stage over Monte Grappa and Fosa to Asiago.
"It's going to be very difficult in any case. We have tomorrow's stage to come, and we'll have to try to put time into Dumoulin in particular because he's the strongest in the time trial," Quintana said. He crowned his 2014 Giro win by emphatically winning the Monte Grappa time trial, but he does not expect the climb to prove decisive here.
"The first climb is very hard and it will be raced hard, but the decisive attacks will come on the second climb," Quintana said. "A lot of teams will look to put riders up the road and hope to bridge up to them on the second climb if possible.
"It's a special situation because people won't just be riding to win the Giro, you'll also have people riding for places on GC. I think we have the strongest team, but I expect Nibali will try to attack. I think that whichever rider goes first, the others will follow him."
Friday's stage began with a choreographed handshake between Dumoulin and Nibali in the wake of their contretemps of the previous afternoon, when the Dutchman criticised both Nibali and Quintana for failing to help him track Pinot's late attack on the road to Ortisei.
While Nibali responded to Dumoulin's rebuke with a heated television interview of his own, Quintana preferred to keep his counsel, and he maintained a similarly diplomatic stance when the matter was put to him on Friday evening.
"I don't like to join in wars of words," Quintana said carefully. "I'm always respectful of my rivals. Like I said in a few interviews yesterday, I respect everyone's tactics and I hope my rivals are respectful of mine."