Perspectives change quickly at the Giro d'Italia. On Sunday afternoon, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was being asked if he had placed a down payment on final overall victory by soloing clear on the Blockhaus. By Monday lunchtime, he was being asked if his hold on the maglia rosa would last beyond Tuesday afternoon's demanding time trial in the Sagrantino vineyards between Foligno and Montefalco.
Quintana sits 28 seconds clear of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and 30 ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) with the 40-kilometre test looming, and, based on past performances against the watch, each man will set out with legitimate aspirations of divesting the Colombian of the pink jersey.
On Sunday, Quintana launched four accelerations before finally shaking off Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). In Foligno on Monday, he provided almost as many answers to various versions of the same question – namely, how much ground does he expect to concede to Dumoulin on Tuesday afternoon?
"Certainly, we can lose a bit of time because we're talking about Dumoulin, who's a specialist, and Pinot and others. I'll do the best time trial I can, and then wait until we're back in my terrain," Quintana said.
Another iteration yielded a similar response. "I hope I don't lose too much tomorrow, but we know that Tom is very fast and a specialist. Certainly, I'll try to do well and lose as little as possible," Quintana said, and he showed no exasperation even when he faced one further reworking of the question, even if his answer this time was a little more final.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm feeling good. I'm in good form. Tom is in good form too and he's a specialist. Now is not the time to say whether the gap will be so many minutes or so many seconds. We'll find out tomorrow."
On Monday morning, Quintana had time to sample the route of the time trial, where the condition of the roads has caused some concern, though – mercifully – the course is not an especially technical one. The slightly descending run to the first time check out to put Quintana on the back foot from the off, while the rolling roads thereafter also seem better suited to Dumoulin and Pinot.
"It's a route for powerful riders," Quintana agreed. "Strong men will go well. It's quite a straight route, and you have to pedal a lot. The specialists will be the ones who will do best."
During the phony war that marked the opening week of the race, the supposed frostiness of Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali's relationship generated its own share of column inches in the local press. Though Nibali suffered on the Blockhaus, he remains just 1:10 down, and will hope to peg back at least some time on Quintana on Tuesday.
"No, we're just rivals, but we respect one another," Quintana said of his rapport with Nibali. "He's a rival like the others, like Froome or Contador. With some you have more feeling and with others you have less."
There was more than a hint of Team Sky's dominance on the La Pierre Saint Martin at the 2015 Tour de France about the way Movistar took command of the Giro on the run-in to the base of the Blockhaus, though Quintana shrugged off the idea that his defeat at the hands of Chris Froome two years ago had provided him and his team with something of a template. "No, I couldn't say it was an inspiration," Quintana said. "With our team and our experience, we were just able to analyse where we could improve and do things better as a team."
A banner behind Quintana proudly listed Movistar's four successive seasons at the WorldTour's top-ranked team, but, even by their normal standards, Eusebio Unzué's men have been particularly effervescent thus far in 2017. At 37 years of age, Alejandro Valverde enjoyed the best spring of his career, while at the Giro on Sunday, Andrey Amador and Winner Anacona performed much of the heavy lifting ahead of Quintana's final assault on the summit.
"It's a great fortune to have a team like the one we have, and not just in this race," Quintana said. "The team has never been as good as it is this year. We're having a great season. I'm proud to be in a team like this."
Read more on this article
- Robert Millar blog: Rating the Giro d'Italia contenders
- Giro d'Italia: Analysing the GC contenders after Blockhaus
- Giro d'Italia: Rest Day round-up - Podcast
- Dumoulin: If I can take Giro lead on Tuesday, I will
- Giro d'Italia: Pinot not afraid of the pink jersey
For much of Quintana's press conference, he might have been minded to reply, "Just put me down for what I said yesterday," but fortunately La Gazzetta dello Sport's Claudio Gregori, a doyen of the Giro press room, was on hand to open a new line of inquiry. He wondered if Quintana was aware that Gabriel García Márquez had carried out what is believed to be the longest-ever cycling interview. When he spoke to 1955 Vuelta a Colombia winner Ramón Hoyo, the resulting interview was carried across fourteen parts in El Espectador.
The question drew a broad smile from Quintana and, by some considerable distance, his longest response of the press conference. "No, I didn't know those details, but I know that he was the greatest Colombian writer and a source of great pride for us Colombians," Quintana said, before listing off a litany of some other notable Colombians, from Falcao to Shakira to Fernando Botero.
Quintana proceeded to segue into a message on rider safety, referring both to the crash at the foot of the Blockhaus that proved so ruinous for the challenges of Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates, and to the tragic death of Michele Scarponi ahead of the Giro.
"Yesterday there was another accident. We have also suffered pain for our friend Scarponi, which left a hole in our hearts," Quintana said. "There needs to be an awareness campaign, like the 1.5 metres campaign, with billboards, and adverts in newspapers, magazines, and on television."