Romain Bardet (DSM) sat on the roadside beyond the finish line on the Blockhaus, shaking his head every now and then as he stared into the middle distance. His performance on the first true mountain test of the Giro d'Italia suggested that he was a contender to win this race outright, but for now, he could think only of how victory on stage 9 escaped his grasp.
The Frenchman matched fellow strongmen Richard Carapaz (Ineos) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) blow for blow on the stiff final ascent, but their lack of collaboration saw the leading group swell to six riders on the approach to the line.
In the closing metres, Bardet attached himself to Carapaz's wheel, but he was caught on the back foot when his former teammate Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) accelerated smartly on the crown of the final bend. Bardet scrambled to react, but he had to settle for second place.
"It's difficult to accept, because I made an error on the last corner and those were the few centimetres I was missing in the end," Bardet said after rising slowly to his feet, his low voice all but drowned out by the portentous strains of U2 blaring from the podium speakers behind him.
"I didn't do too much forcing on the mountain, because I knew that I was the quickest in the sprint. I just wanted to put myself on the wheel of Carapaz and then Hindley took three lengths on the corner, I didn't think it was so short from there to the finish."
Amid the confusion in the immediate aftermath of the stage, Bardet's DSM entourage briefly wondered if he was about to inherit the maglia rosa from Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo), who was still grinding his way up the final portion of the Blockhaus. When the dust eventually settled on a day that shook the general classification, Bardet lay third overall, 14 seconds down on López and two behind João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates).
"I didn't know anything about the pink jersey, but it's better to stay behind for the time being anyway," said Bardet.
As the Giro breaks for its second rest day, Bardet is a second ahead of the pre-race favourite Carapaz. Another, Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), fell out of contention altogether after losing 11 minutes. Bardet's long-term prospects in this race look increasingly rosy after the demanding twin ascents of the Passo Lanciano and Blockhaus, where Ineos laid down a brisk tempo.
When Carapaz launched his inevitable attack with 4.6km to go, Bardet was the first to respond, and they were quickly joined by Landa. This trio looked to be a level above everybody else on the Blockhaus, but the stop-start nature of their collaboration saw Hindley, Almeida and Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarcé-Wanty-Gobert) battle their way back up inside the final 2km.
"It was a difficult stage, and I had a mechanical problem [ahead of the Passo Lanciano – ed] that cost me a lot of energy," Bardet said. "Then, on the last climb, I knew that Ineos were going to do something, so I just needed to be on the wheel when Carapaz attacked. But afterwards, we didn't work together well. It was a pity to come to the finish in a group fighting out the win, that will serve as a lesson for me."
Bardet knows all about the demands of enduring the Ineos train, having put up stout resistance en route to podium finishes at the Tour de France in 2016 and 2017. On those occasions, Chris Froome proved an unvanquishable foe, but Bardet will surely draw encouragement from the way he broke even with Carapaz here. Blockhaus felt like a missed opportunity, but the chance of a lifetime may yet open up on this Giro.
"We didn't work together that well. I had the impression that everybody was withholding something," said Bardet. "It was a pity, because in group sprint, there's always a bit of a hazard like that."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.