Vincenzo Nibali eased up before the finish line in Cles after sprinting shoulder to shoulder with Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky), admitting defeat to his younger rival and accepting that stage 4 of the Tour of the Alps would not be the day to end his 13-month spell without a victory.
The Bahrain-Merida team leader ended his altitude training camp a few days earlier than in recent years to be fresh for the Tour of the Alps and so perhaps find a morale-boosting victory. He has attacked on each of the four stages but has been controlled or beaten by Team Sky's next generation, with Pavel Sivakov setting up an overall victory and Geoghegan Hart winning two stages.
"The young Sky guys rode well today…." Nibali admitted with a sigh of resignation just after the finish area.
"Tao's good. He won the Giro della Lunigiana as a junior, so that's a sign he's a future champion. We know him well and here he's had the freedom to race for himself."
Nibali acknowledged the two Team Sky riders had out-ridden him and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the 10km Passo Predaia and then in the fast final 20km through the apple orchards and hills of the Val di Non, to the west of Trento and Bolzano.
Nibali attacked six different times in the finale of the stage. He eventually cracked Tour de France-winner-turned-super-domestique Chris Froome but could not shake off Geoghegan Hart and Sivakov. Nibali and Majka created a pact out on the road but they were kept in check and then beaten in the sprint.
"In the final I spoke to Majka because Sky was chasing us both down and so it was better for us to work together," Nibali explained.
"Majka made the mistake of chasing me at one point, so I told him to let a gap and force them to chase me. Unfortunately when he went, the climb was soon over and so they were able to pull him back. After that they deserved to win."
Despite missing out on victory yet again, Nibali is upbeat and optimistic. He and coach Paolo Slongo have opted to race to win this week to avoid any negativity and any expectation around him in the final days before the Giro d'Italia. It seems to be the right strategy for the often emotive Sicilian.
"The win escaped our grasp yet again, but morale is good. I'm happy with my form and with how the team rode," Nibali said.
"My brother Antonio got in break for a second day. Now we've got one day left and then I can catch my breath before the Giro d'Italia and Liege-Bastogne-Liege."