Bahrain-Merida and Vincenzo Nibali remained upbeat despite giving away 21 seconds to race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) on stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana. Nibali had drawn Froome to a tantalisingly close 1:16 the previous day but gave away half of what he had earned on Los Machucos when the red jersey attacked in the final kilometre on Thursday.
With just two stages before the final sprint into Madrid on Sunday, the chance of Nibali overhauling Froome to put himself into red looks slim, but the team is not ready to wave the white flag just yet.
"The race goes onto the finish line until Madrid," Bahrain-Merida sports director Gorazd Štangelj told Cyclingnews after the stage. "Every stage is different and a lot of things can happen in every stage, but of course we believe in Vincenzo and we will fight until Madrid."
To a certain extent, the team expected Nibali to struggle on the three-kilometre ride up the Alto de Santo Toribio de Liébana. Nibali gave away seconds here and there on climbs throughout the opening week and even when he won stage 3 he had to rely on the descent to chase down those that had dropped him on the climb. With this in mind, the team went into the final ascent with a defensive approach and left the day content to have maintained second overall in the general classification.
"We were trying to defend, but Vincenzo was not able. He lost a few seconds, but this already happened in the first week. I don't say that it is normal, because I wish that we didn't lose anything, but it happened," explained Štangelj. "Normally we suffer a little bit more on the shortest climbs. As we did a good effort yesterday, we expected another good effort today. We did a good effort, but some of the riders did better than us so we lost 20 seconds on some people.
"The race is still hard and long, and for now we're satisfied with the place that were are. Every day we're trying to do our best, Vincenzo and the team and as I've said a lot of times, Chris also has a strong team and he's also very strong. It will be a hard battle until the end."
Štangelj is expecting a slightly easier day for the overall contenders, although he acknowledges that easy is something that does not compute with the Vuelta a Espana. Perhaps a few seconds could be gained or lost into Gijon the big opportunity to do damage in the overall standings will be the following day when the riders take on the Asturian brute of the Angliru.
"Tomorrow is a kind of mixed day for the breakaway. Also, today's stage wasn't hard on paper but in the end, it was quite hard, full gas from start to finish," said Štangelj. "Actually, there are no easy stages on this year's Vuelta. We are waiting for the Saturday on the Angliru and we will see what we can do there."