Tom Dumoulin was in a place beyond words. Monte Zoncolan has that sort of effect. Fifty metres or so past the finish of stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, the Dutchman was flagged down by a pair of Sunweb soigneurs, and he eased to a halt. With eyes glazed and face drawn, he leant silently against a barrier as they helped him into a long-sleeved jersey and wrapped a towel around his neck.
Dumoulin had reached the finish in 5th place on the stage, 37 seconds down on winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) and 31 behind maglia rosa Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), but it was too soon to talk numbers with his entourage, too soon to mull over the verdict the mountain had delivered.
Like all the top finishers on the stage, Dumoulin was called to the anti-doping tent near the podium, and the wait gave him time to compose his thoughts on the day's stage. When he emerged shortly afterwards, however, the traffic and tumult in the narrow finishing area was such that he could scarcely hear himself think, far less hear the questions of the television crews that stood in his path as he edged his way down the mountain.
"I think it's going to be difficult to win the Giro even though my performance was good today," Dumoulin said on reaching the Sunweb team bus.
Even 40 minutes after the stage had finished, Dumoulin seemed unsure if his glass was half full or half empty after tackling what he described as the toughest mountain he had ever encountered. "It was brutal, the hardest one I ever did. I expected that, but it was even harder than I expected," he said.
On the vertiginous slopes of the Zoncolan, Dumoulin managed to avoid enduring any obvious moment of crisis as he finished just ahead of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). However, he was unable to follow when Froome's fierce acceleration split the front group a little over 4 kilometres from the summit.
To that point, Dumoulin had been flitting towards the rear of the gruppo maglia rosa, though he had still given the impression that he would not be shaken loose by men of slighter build despite the severity of the climb. Every time Yates glanced over his shoulder, he saw Dumoulin not far behind, pedalling as smoothly as the gradient would allow. Once Froome and then Yates attacked, however, it was immediately clear that Dumoulin would be forced to limit his losses to the British pair.
"It was good, but I was never able to stay with the real first riders and so I lost again a little bit of time. I'm not the very strongest uphill but I'm close. It's like that," said Dumoulin. "I'm satisfied. I did well. I paced myself, I got everything out of it. You can never be unsatisfied, I guess."
Dumoulin's battling display on the upper reaches of the Zoncolan was enough to ensure he remains in second place overall, but his deficit to Yates has now stretched out to 1:24. Yates has been, by some distance, the outstanding climber of this Giro so far, pedalling with disarming facility in the high mountains, and he shows few signs of relenting as the race reaches its third week.
"It's still OK, but there's a lot of mountain stages yet to come so if it stays like this uphill every mountain stage then I'll definitely not win the Giro," said Dumoulin, who downplayed the impact Tuesday's time trial to Rovereto will have on the final destination of the maglia rosa.
"It's just one time trial coming up and I think there are four mountains days yet to come, so it's going to be difficult."
As well as confirming Yates' comfort in the high mountains, the ascent of the Zoncolan also saw the surprising re-emergence of Chris Froome on this Giro. The Briton and his Sky team had shown few signs of form to this point but appeared transfigured on the Zoncolan. Wout Poels set a fearsome tempo for much of the climb before Froome forged clear in the finale.
With a verdict still to be reached in Froome's salbutamol case, it is unclear whether his Zoncolan victory will survive in the record books, but in the here and now, the Briton is in 5th place overall, 3:10 behind Yates and just 1:46 down on Dumoulin.
"It was very impressive, and I don't know if this was one good day for him or that he keeps improving in the coming week," Dumoulin said. "If he keeps improving, then he's definitely in contention."