Hands slumped over the bars, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) took a long swig of water at the finish line of Xorret de Catí before providing some clues to one of the bigger mysteries of this year's Vuelta a España: what kind of condition the former Tour de France winner really has in his second Grand Tour of 2017.
After his impressive mountain stage victory in Andorra, Nibali briefly looked like he could be Chris Froome's most important rival in this year's Vuelta. After two summit finishes, though, the multiple Grand Tour champion has slipped to fourth overall at 53 seconds, losing 17 seconds to both Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and race-leading Froome on Xorret de Catí.
That was less than the 26 seconds he lost on a theoretically easier climb to Santa Lucia on Wednesday, but it creates a downward trend of time losses that Nibali needs to reverse if he wants to remain in the Vuelta GC game.
"I feel good, but it was difficult to stay with Froome and that's all there is to it," Nibali told a small group of reporters after stage 8. "Today was a very different climb to Wednesday's, much steadier and more suited to me as a racer, compared to the other day when I suffered a bit more. I tried to defend myself as best I could, but I was missing a bit."
Asked how he felt compared to the Giro d'Italia, Nibali was rather more non-committal. "It's difficult to say," he answered, "but my feelings are good. The level of the rivals here is very high, the race is going really fast every day, maybe faster even than the Tour."
Nibali and the rest of the field face another difficult uphill test, a much more uneven one, at Cumbres del Sol on Sunday. It may not be so much to his liking as Xorret de Catí, where he finished sixth in 2010, at the head of the GC contenders alongside Joaquim Rodríguez and Igor Anton. After that, the Vuelta's mountain stages will feature the longer, steadier climbs of southern Spain and Andalucía which will theoretically suit Nibali better, just like those of Andorra. But in a Vuelta where every second can count in the GC battle, Nibali knows he will have to try to raise his game on Sunday first.