On cresting the first summit finish of the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was already all too keenly aware that he has a mountain to climb if he is to claim the yellow jersey in Paris. The Italian was unable to follow when Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) accelerated viciously four kilometres from the finish at La Rosière, and he could not lift his pace when Chris Froome repeated the dose shortly afterwards.
After Ax-3 Domaines in 2013 and La Pierre Saint-Martin in 2015, this was the latest disquieting display of collective strength from Team Sky on the Tour's first mountaintop finish on stage 11. Nothing to be done.
Nibali battled to limit his losses alongside Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), but he reached the finish some 59 seconds down on the stage winner and new maillot jaune Thomas, and 29 seconds behind Froome and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
"Like I said this morning, the heat has never caused me too many problems. It was because of the crazy rhythm laid down on the last climb by Team Sky, they were very strong," Nibali told reporters on crossing the line. "I went into the red for a moment and I didn't manage to recover. It was a very high rhythm. There's not much to say."
Nibali now lies 4th overall, 2:14 behind Thomas but still less than a minute down on Froome. The situation is hardly irreparable, not least for the man who retrieved the most desperate of causes to win the 2016 Giro d'Italia at the death. Yet while the margins are tighter now than at that remarkable Giro, the quality of the opponent is on another level altogether. Nibali laughed a hollow laugh when asked where his challenge now stands.
"I don't know. Today a lot of us – me, Quintana and others – paid a toll with respect to Froome, Thomas and maybe Dan Martin," Nibali said. "But there are still a few stages to go, so I don't know either."
Nibali's teammate Franco Pellizzotti was prominent in setting the pace on the penultimate climb of the Cormet de Roseland. At first glance, it was difficult to tell if Bahrain-Merida's intention was to peg back the attack of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) or lay the groundwork for a Nibali offensive on the descent.
"No, no, it was just to see if there was somebody who wasn't going well, to put them in difficulty. Today was a hard stage but not long, so there's always a bit of uncertainty," Nibali said.
Come the final 17-kilometre haul to La Rosière, it was clear that an attack from Nibali would not be forthcoming. The ascent proved to be an exercise in damage limitation and, in that regard at least, the Italian fared better than he did on a strikingly similar afternoon at La Pierre Saint-Martin in 2015 when his Tour defence ground to a halt. The battle was lost, and badly, but the campaign is not over.
"My good condition helped me," Nibali said. "There was a pair of very strong accelerations where I suffered for a bit, but I eased off and breathed a bit, that helped me, I got my rhythm again like before and I managed to go on quite well. But by then the damage was already done, and it was about limiting the damage that had been done with 4km to go."