Sardinia and Sicily set the 100th Giro d'Italia on its way with a hearty welcome and some stunning backdrops, but the Corsa Rosa's early island-hopping ultimately had little effect on the battle for overall honours. The principal favourites reach the mainland on Thursday with the distinct sense that their race has yet to ignite.
Bob Jungels, sixth last year, carried the maglia rosa across the Strait of Messina, largely by dint of his part in Quick-Step Floors' late raid in the crosswinds at Cagliari on stage 3. The haul to Mount Etna two days later, expected to provide the first real shuffling of the deck, instead proved something of an anti-climax due to strong headwinds and all-round caution.
As the Giro leaves Sicily and begins the long ride north, Jungels has a lead of six seconds over Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), while (almost) all the pre-race favourites, from Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) to Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) to Nairo Quintana (Movistar), are locked on the same time, another four seconds back.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) are a little further behind but even their losses from the islands were minimal. Kruijswijk, caught behind a crash on the opening day, is only 23 seconds off Jungels, while Zakarin recouped most of his losses by clipping away from the group of favourites near the summit of Mount Etna and lies 14th at 14 seconds. They all begin again, roughly from the same place, for the remaining 16 stages.
The one exception, of course, is the unfortunate Rohan Dennis (BMC), who crashed heavily on the third day and abandoned early on stage 4. Despite the long list of podium contenders, the Australian's absence will be felt. His bid to transition from time trialist to Grand Tour rider was set to be one of the most intriguing subplots of this Giro, and it now falls to Tejay van Garderen to lead BMC alone.
Nibali and Quintana
For all the talk of eruptions beforehand, the ascent of Mount Etna was never going to prove decisive, yet no one anticipated either quite how little it would reveal about the respective form of the principal contenders. A block headwind on the climb meant that few were tempted to go on the offensive and it was difficult in such conditions for the GC men themselves to take the measure of one another.
"It was a strange stage coming after the rest day, so it could have been dangerous," Nibali explained last night in Messina after being feted by his home crowd.
"I felt good and I attacked to see if someone else came with me, but nobody had the courage to come with me. Tom Dumoulin made a move but we basically controlled each other all day. I'd not seen my rivals on a climb until now, so we were all trying to find out how we felt."
Nibali was a guest on RAI television's Processo alla Tappa programme after Wednesday’s stage to Messina, and in the absence of any real separation in the overall standings, he was instead asked how he felt about the television station’s pre-race rankings, which designated Quintana as the five-star favourite, while Nibali, the defending champion, was assigned ‘only’ four stars.
"He won Tirreno-Adriatico, so it's only normal he's got an extra star as a big favourite," Nibali said continuing to show his strong sense of superstition. "But I feel good and I'll give everything to win the Giro. My attack was a sign of something. Why didn't Quintana react? You'd have to ask him."
The fact that the cordiality or otherwise of Nibali's relations with Quintana continues to grab such local attention, meanwhile, only confirms the feeling that this Giro is still very much in a state of phony war. "I don't have the same relationship with him as I do with someone like Fabio Aru but that's because I train with Aru quite often when we're at home," Nibali said. "I don't really get a chance to speak to Quintana like I do with Alberto Contador, say."
Reading between the lines of the Giro to date is not straightforward. There were doubts over the strength of Nibali's Bahrain-Merida team ahead of this Giro, for instance, and it is difficult to say whether their work on the road to Etna was a merely show of defiance or a sign of their true worth. The brief stint of pace-making by FDJ, meanwhile, seemed to underscore Thibaut Pinot's confidence, though Nibali seemed less impressed.
"We put two riders on the front to lead the peloton on the climb but other teams didn't do anything," he said. "FDJ did one kilometre when Mikel Landa punctured, I don't think they can say they did some work."
The deep south and the days ahead
Much attention is already focused on the Giro's next summit finish, the tough climb of Blockhaus on stage 9 on Sunday, but the trek through Italy's deep south over the three preceding days is not bereft of pitfalls. Thursday's leg to Terme Luigiane ought to finish in an uphill sprint, but there is potential for the GC men to snatch seconds, either in bonuses or real time. Strong winds could also be a factor.
Stage 8, meanwhile, sees the peloton tackle the twisting, undulating roads of the Gargano peninsula as the Giro visits Peschici, where Danilo Di Luca won in 2000 and Franco Pellizotti triumphed in 2006. It is the kind of stage where it is difficult to gain time, but alarmingly easy to lose it. After the race reaches Manfredonia and tackles the Monte Sant'Angelo, the peloton is liable to split to pieces, and anyone caught on the wrong side will struggle to recoup the ground.
The Blockhaus follows 24 hours later and, prevailing winds allowing, one imagines Quintana, Nibali et al will be keen to rid themselves of men like the pink jersey Jungels and Tom Dumoulin on the 13-kilometre climb to the finish. When the Giro resumes after the second rest day, after all, the Montefalco time trial awaits, and the race could take on a very different complexion yet again.
"I did the recon of the time trial after Tirreno-Adriatico," Jungels warned. "I know it. I think it's a very interesting parcours."
Something to bear in mind for Nibali and anyone who thinks watching and waiting is the best strategy for this year's race.