What a difference a day makes. Elia Viviani's hold on the maglia ciclamino was suddenly starting to loosen when he was dropped ahead of the sprint in Imola on Thursday, but the Quick-Step Floors rider responded by claiming his third victory of the Giro d'Italia in Nervesa della Battaglia on Friday afternoon.
Viviani hardly needed any additional motivation ahead of stage 13, but a quick perusal of the morning newspaper headlines seemed to add further fuel to his fire after a disappointing outing the previous day. One otherwise sober and clearheaded inquest, for instance, was given a rather blunt title: "Where did you end up, Viviani?"
"I don't like to be judged so easily. Everything is always exaggerated. For two days I wasn't up there, and people were already asking 'where's Elia gone?'" Viviani said on Friday. "This morning I read the headlines in the newspapers. They were nonsense, but they were annoying."
Viviani went from distance in the sprint in Nevresa della Battaglia, overhauling Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac) and then holding off Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), whose wins in Praia a Mare and Imola had drawn him too close for comfort in the points classification. Viviani's win gives him a little more breathing room, as he extends his advantage over the Irishman back out to a healthier 40 points.
Bennett has made a point of not disputing intermediate sprints in order to save his legs for sprint finishes, but he has also been climbing more strongly than Viviani throughout this Giro. On Tuesday, Bennett made the front group on the demanding leg to Gualdo Tadino, winning the bunch sprint for third, and he dealt comfortably with the Tre Monti on Thursday. Viviani acknowledged that Bennett might have a better chance of surviving the climbs on stage 17 to Iseo.
"Let's not forget what Bennett did yesterday. His sprint was incredible, he was on the front for 400 metres, something I've only seen [Peter] Sagan or [Fernando] Gaviria do," Viviani said admiringly.
"We'll try in every way possible to keep the points jersey to Rome. We've noticed that Bennett has gained a lot of points on mixed stages. At Gualdo Tadino, for instance, I didn't imagine I could be at the front, whereas he was up there. Maybe at Iseo, he could gain something.
"In any case, I'm happier to have the 40-point lead I have now than the 22-point one I had yesterday. If I finish second to him in the next two bunch sprints, I'd be certain to win the maglia ciclamino. It all depends on my legs and on not having another off day."
In Imola on Thursday, Viviani's disappointment and fatigue were such that he cloistered himself aboard the Quick-Step team bus immediately after receiving a fresh maglia ciclamino on the podium. Outside, directeur sportif Davide Bramati explained to reporters that Quick-Step had continued to ride on the front of the peloton even when their leader was struggling because the rainy conditions had limited the efficacy of their radio earpieces. It was, it seems, a giornata no in every sense for Quick-Step Floors, but Viviani was eager to prove that it was not symptomatic of a deeper malaise.
"I was really empty at the finish. Maybe we had some bad communication with the radio too, but I really struggled with the cold and I didn't feel at all well after the finish," Viviani said. "I couldn't do any more. I don't know how to explain it in detail, it was simply an off day. Maybe it came about because I haven't done a Grand Tour in two and a half years, and we had been racing for twelve days."
Friday's stage brought Viviani into his home region of the Veneto. A native of Isola della Scala near Verona, the 29-year-old raced in the province of Treviso as an amateur with the Marchiol squad, and he found himself on familiar terrain in the closing kilometres of stage 13. He smiled wryly when asked if knowing the final climb of Montello had been a help.
"Well, I knew the climb of the Tre Monti yesterday too, but…" said Viviani, who twice won the prestigious La Popolarissima race on these same roads during his amateur career. "Coming off the Treviso Nord motorway exit, I was reminded of the start of my career and the little Marchiol house. I knew the Montello because I'd climbed it from practically every side, and I went over it when I won La Popolarissma. It was beautiful to repeat that success today."