The Giro d'Italia enters its final week on Tuesday with Vincenzo Nibali's leadership apparently impregnable - but Team Sky privately determined to give the Sicilian an uncomfortable ride to the race finale in Brescia next Sunday.
While both leader Rigoberto Urán and team principal Sir Dave Brailsford consider Nibali to be comfortably the strongest rider in the race, the British outfit are set to employ an aggressive strategy in the two remaining mountain stages on Thursday and Friday.
Sky's high-altitude onslaught was set to begin on the Colle del Moncenisio on Sunday, but the plan unhinged when the race was effectively neutralised due to adverse weather. The current mountains classification leader, Stefano Pirazzi, broke the ceasefire three kilometres from the summit, incurring the wrath of several riders including Filippo Pozzato. Cyclingnews understands, however, that Team Sky's management - if not their riders - would also have preferred a fast and furious opening. Whether a repeat of their mass surge on the Cason di Lanza climb on stage 10 would have brought the same result - victory for Urán - is a moot point. That, though, was their blueprint.
One rider, the Androni Giocattoli sprinter Mattia Gavazzi, said Monday that a Sky attack would have had seismic consequences at the back, if not the front of the race. "I saw a lot of guys on their knees at the finish yesterday. If Sky had done that, a whole load of guys would have been packing their bags last night," Gavazzi said.
Sky now has two huge mountain stages plus an uphill time trial to either consolidate or improve Urán's third position and deficit of 2:43 from Nibali. Speaking at the team hotel in Bardonecchia, Italy, Monday, Urán sounded realistic, rather than belligerent. "I think both Evans and I are trying to secure our podium places, while knowing that anything can happen. At the moment, it looks pretty difficult [to challenge Nibali]. The time gap to Nibali is pretty big. It's difficult but not impossible," the Colombian said.
Pretty big - but also only three seconds more than Urán conceded by waiting for his then team leader, Bradley Wiggins, when the Englishman crashed en route to Pescara on stage 7. When this was put to Urán today, he shrugged dismissively: "It's normal that when you go into a race with a leader who is feeling good, everyone helps him."
The question of whether Urán might now receive some assistance from outside his own team has set tongues wagging since the Colombian's stage win at the Altopiano di Montasio. Urán's compatriot, the 1985 Tour de France white jersey winner Fabio Parra, has already called upon the 12 Colombians left in the race to join forces in a bid to dislodge Nibali in the mountains. Many others have speculated in recent days that an alliance already exists between Sky's two Colombians, Urán and Sergio Henao, and AG2r's Carlos Betancur, after the latter claimed that he hadn't chased Urán at the Altopiano di Montasio out of patriotic goodwill.
If Betancur's was supposed to be a noble gesture, though, that is apparently not how it was received by Urán and Henao. To Urán, in particular, it sounded more like an insult, a belittlement of his victory. Hence all hope of cooperation between that trio, at least, has temporarily evaporated.
While Urán's future beyond 2013 remains uncertain - and Brailsford met with his agent Monday afternoon - the Team Sky principal hasn't ruled out the possibility of Wiggins returning for a second crack at the Giro before he retires. While it is believed that Richie Porte is being groomed to lead Team Sky here in 2014, Brailsford said there is no reason for Wiggins not to come back if his desire to win the 'Corsa Rosa' still burns. Brailsford said at the weekend that, contrary to what certain Italian pundits have suggested, Wiggins certainly wasn't surprised or "caught out" by differences between this race and the Tour - in particular the steep climbs and notoriously sinuous descents and finales.
"We started doing the Giro in 2010, Brad had done it before that, and we've got [team press officer] Dario Cioni who's been round scouting the whole course and knows it inside out, so I don't think it was a surprise to anybody," Brailsford said on Saturday. "I don't think we were caught out. Elements of the climbing within it are not like the Tour, but we all know that Dolomite climbs are steep - we've all done them ourselves."
On Wiggins's well-documented difficulties on wet descents in week one, Brailsford admitted that he, too, was surprised and still searching for an explanation.
"I think the descending was out of character. We couldn't have predicted that. When you think that Ryder Hesjedal attacked downhill on the second day, and Brad was one of the first guys on his wheel, and also that Brad attacked on a descent in the Volta a Catalunya, you know there's nothing wrong with his descending. There was obviously an issue here, but you don't know exactly what it was. You can't get inside someone's head and know exactly what they're thinking in those scenarios."