It was hard to tell what weighed more, the seconds won or the confidence gained. Richard Carapaz (Movistar) hasn't put a pedal stroke out of place since taking possession of the maglia rosa at the Giro d'Italia, and so it proved once again at Anterselva on stage 17.
After holding his fire when teammate Mikel Landa went on the offensive with a little under 3km remaining, Carapaz responded swiftly when Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) accelerated out of the dwindling pink jersey group shortly afterwards.
Once it became apparent that neither Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) nor Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) could follow on the short climb towards the line, Carapaz began to exchange turns with Lopez. By the time he reached the finish, he had added another 7 seconds to his overall advantage. With four stages remaining, including Sunday's concluding time trial in Verona, he leads Nibali by 1:54 and Roglic by 2:16.
"I saw that Lopez went, and I wanted to get on his wheel," Carapaz said. "When I saw that we opened up a few metres, we worked together. Those few seconds will always be welcomed ahead of Verona. It’s never certain, because a lot of things can still happen in this Giro. We are feeling confident, but the Giro isn't over yet.
"With the time gaps we have, we are a bit calmer. If we can continue taking a few seconds here and there, we'll be even more comfortable ahead of the time trial."
This was only the third stage that Carapaz has ridden in the overall lead at a Grand Tour, but the Ecuadorian has been carrying the pink jersey with the quiet assurance of a more experienced rider. He exuded calm in tracking Nibali's attacks on the run-in to Como on Sunday and on the Mortirolo on Tuesday, while in his post-stage press conference in Anterselva, he was careful to explain that Landa's attack in the finale had been unexpected but authorised.
"We had a plan to take advantage of an opening if we saw an opportunity to take more time. What Landa did was something on the spur of the moment, but it was also part of the plan, and what he did was just perfect," Carapaz said, delivering a response from the Miguel Indurain school of subtle diplomacy.
Landa remains in fourth place overall, now 3:03 behind, and while the Basque said afterwards that he had attacked for "everything" in the finale, Carapaz insisted that there was no internecine rivalry on the Movistar team. Named as Movistar's leader ahead of the race, Landa served a deluxe domestique on the Mortirolo but he retains ambitions of moving onto the podium – at the very least – on this Giro.
"The ambience within the team is phenomenal. The entire team is helping each other," said Carapaz, who turned 26 on Wednesday. "We cannot demonstrate in a better way than what happened yesterday, how we raced the stage. With Landa, I get along just fine. If he can end up on the podium, it would be something great for him and for the team. The team is like a family."
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Carapaz will still be part of the family next year. The Ecuadorian’s contract expires at the end of this season and La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Carapaz is likely to join Team Ineos in 2020. Those talks reportedly began at the end of last season, after Carapaz placed 4th overall at the Giro, though his performances on this year’s race have undoubtedly raised his market value.
Speaking in Anterselva on Wednesday afternoon, Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué said he was still hopeful of retaining Carapaz’s services in 2020.
"Yes, of course, we hope so," Unzué said. "Right now, we’re in the race and we’re thinking about doing as well as possible. For the rest, the moment will come."
Carapaz is not the only high-profile Movistar rider whose contract expires at the end of this season. Mikel Landa has been heavily linked with a move to Bahrain-Merida in 2020, while Nairo Quintana has reportedly been in talks with French Pro Continental outfit Arkea-Samsic. Unzué downplayed the prospect of losing three potential Grand Tour winners in one fell swoop.
"Every year it’s like this: some riders come and some riders go. That doesn’t change,” Unzué said. “The riders we are interested in, we will look to keep. If they want to stay, they will stay."