Vincenzo Nibali's continued participation in the Tour de France is in severe doubt as he sustained a suspected fractured vertebra when he crashed a little over 4 kilometres from the summit of stage 12.
It was initially suspected that Nibali had struck a police motorbike that had slowed in front of him, but footage filmed by a spectator later suggested that the Bahrain-Merida fell after clipping a fan on the roadside. Despite the incident, Nibali remounted and gamely limited his losses, reaching the summit in 7th place on the stage, just 13 seconds down on winner Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).
Nibali reported back pain when speaking to reporters after the finish, however, and he was later taken the Tour's mobile medical truck, parked 800 metres down the mountainside. A small group of reporters kept vigil while Nibali was assessed, and Bahrain-Merida doctor Emilio Magni provided an update shortly after 7pm local time.
Although the initial scans did not confirm a fracture, Dr Magni explained that Nibali would have to travel to Grenoble for further examination. "He did an x-ray. It wasn't totally clear, but we very strongly suspect a fractured vertebra given the pain that he has," Magni said quietly.
Nibali emerged from medical truck just as Magni finished speaking, and he winced as he negotiated the steps. "Enzo, com'è?" a reporter asked in hushed tones as he caught Nibali's eye. Nibali caught his eye with a doleful glance and slight grimace. No words needed.
A small ambulance was on hand to transport Nibali to hospital in Grenoble, some 65 kilometres away, though the 2014 Tour champion declined a stretcher and took a seat in the back. A handful of supporters shouted their encouragement and then applauded as the ambulance pulled away.
Magni accompanied Nibali in the rear of the ambulance, while his coach Paolo Slongo and soigneur Michele Pallini followed in a team car on the lonesome road to Grenoble. Nibali lies 4th overall on general classification after stage 12, 2:37 down on Thomas, but his prospects of continuing in the race appear slim.
Nibali evinced calm when speaking about the incident outside the anti-doping truck immediately after the stage. The crash itself was missed by the live television cameras, and Nibali was in visible pain as he picked himself up from the road, but he rode strongly over the final 4 kilometres – and perhaps benefitted from the late caginess of the leading group – to come home just 13 seconds down.
"Bardet was in front with 10 seconds of an advantage and there were motorbikes between him and our group," Nibali said as he squinted against the late afternoon sun. "The road narrowed a lot at that point, there were no barriers and there were two police motorbikes. When Froome accelerated, I followed him, and I felt good, too, but then there was this slowing down, and I went down. I don't even know what happened myself.
"My back is sore, but I'll take stock when we get to the hotel. I took a blow and I was a bit winded, too, when I tried to get up and go again. Right now, I don't feel very well able to move on my feet. I hope it isn't something more serious, but we'll see in the coming hours."
After struggling to limit his losses at La Rosière the previous afternoon, Nibali looked altogether more comfortable on the 21 hairpins of Alpe d'Huez, which he first tackled on his Tour debut a decade ago. Although a probing attack 10 kilometres from the summit was pegged back by Egan Bernal (Team Sky), the Sicilian was part of a much reduced yellow jersey group as the summit drew near.
"Well, I was going well, I really believed in it. My legs were turning well, I had good sensations," Nibali said. "The first attack I made was only to see if someone would respond, but my idea was to make the real attack in the finale."
Instead, Nibali spent the kilometres past the village of Huez desperately chasing to keep his Tour challenge alive, catching Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) as he went. He demurred when asked if he felt he should have been awarded the same time as the leading group, in keeping with the race jury's generosity to Froome when he was brought down by a motorbike at Mont Ventoux on the 2016 Tour.
"I don't know because Froome was in the yellow jersey and that was a bit different," Nibali said. "These are things that can happen because there are lots of people and fans on the roadside, and the road narrowed."
Nibali wasn't to know it then, but, sadly, any polemic over correcting his time might well be moot.
Suspected vertebral fracture for @vincenzonibali A long journey in an ambulance to Grenoble Hospital because no helicopter available. More news later. @LeTour VIDEO AT X-RAY VAN pic.twitter.com/zRX1vYCHAg— Cycling Pro (@cyclingpro) July 19, 2018