For a man whose Giro d'Italia challenge was shaken to its foundations the previous afternoon, setting out from a town named after a ruined medieval castle was hardly the most auspicious start to Sunday's mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi.
Sitting on the start ramp in Castelrotto, a pleasant mountain town dwarfed by its backdrop of snow-dusted Dolomites, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) knew that he would have to summon up a remarkable performance on the 10.8-kilometre climb if he was to re-enter the fight for pink after losing three minutes on Saturday's tappone.
The early omens were promising, as Valverde trailed Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) by just 12 seconds at the 4-kilometre mark. The Spaniard gauged his effort well thereafter, placing third on the day to finish 23 seconds behind both the surprise stage winner Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom-Rusvelo) and the maglia rosa Kruijswijk.
On crossing the finish line, Valverde declined to stop for the waiting television crews, instead offering a few perfunctory statements – variations on "It was a really hard day" – as he soft-pedalled to the end of the road and then back again, before being ushered towards the anti-doping caravan.
The last starters had finished their efforts by the time Valverde emerged, and although his position on general classification (4th) remains the same and his deficit to Kruijswijk (3:29) has grown, he wore a broad smile and a back-turned baseball cap as he spoke to the reporters waiting outside.
"It was a day that neither completely good nor bad, it was just regular," Valverde said. "It was difficult today but I'm happy, I'm still in the fight and there's a lot of Giro still to come, a lot of stages to gain time."
Valverde – somehow – seemed a man transfigured on Sunday afternoon following his travails in the Dolomites 24 hours previously. Distanced when Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) forged clear on the Passo Valparola, Valverde shipped three minutes by day's end, with Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue hinting that his ambitions had been downscaled to chasing a podium place.
Nibali's disastrous time trial, in which he slipped his chain in the finale and conceded 2:10 on the day, has put a rather different complexion on the Giro as a whole and Valverde's in particular. Valverde is now just 38 seconds off Nibali's third place and 1:17 behind Chaves.
"In the end, we're all human beings. This is sport. You can have good days and bad days and regular days," Valverde said. "Today Nibali had a regular day but with bad luck, because he had to change his bike. Still, Nibali is a big fighter and he'll go on. He's in good shape. It's just that he's up against someone who's superior at the moment."
More on the story:
- Nibali's Giro d'Italia challenge dealt major blow in Alpe di Siusi time trial
- Kruijswijk keeps his feet on the ground despite taking control of the Giro d'Italia
- Giro d'Italia stage 15 - Finish line quotes
- Giro d'Italia stage 15 highlights - Video
- Giro d'Italia: Stage 15 report, results and photos
Altitude and alliances
Valverde blamed his sluggishness on Saturday to the effects of racing at altitude, and it hardly augurs well for the 36-year-old that the highest mountain passes of this Giro are still to come. This year's Cima Coppa is the 2,744-metre Colle dell'Agnello, which crops up on stage 19, while the following day, the peloton will tackle the 2,715-metre Col de la Bonette.
"But they're totally different, because you go down into the valley and then climb back up again," Valverde said. "Yesterday we was constantly going back and forth between 2,200 metres and 1,800 metres. We were at altitude the whole time and that was what really killed me. But the big mountains coming up next week are different."
The lay of the land in the battle for the podium will be different, too, when the Giro resumes after Monday's rest day in Castelrotto. Valverde was Nibali's chief antagonist up until Saturday afternoon, but each man now finds himself minutes off the maglia rosa and running out of road in which to recoup that ground. Could Astana and Movistar become allies of circumstance in the bid to unseat Kruijswijk?
"Why not?" Valverde grinned. "Anything could happen."