As soon as Kenny Elissonde (Team Sky) heard the clatter of carbon against asphalt behind him, he guessed but he just didn't know. Once the Frenchman turned his head, his fears were confirmed. A little over five kilometres from the summit of Montevergine di Mercogliano, his team leader Chris Froome was lying on the ground, another setback in a most inauspicious Giro d'Italia.
"We were all in a line, I heard 'tat-tat-tat' behind me and I thought 'not Froomey, not Froomey,'" Elissonde said as he stood wearily against his bike by the finish, blinking against the rain. "I looked around and saw that it was Froomey. We had to drop back and make a big effort to help get him back up."
Heavy claps of thunder and stinging bullets of rain had greeted the Giro gruppo as it approached the climb to the finish of stage 8, making the road that winds its way up the hillside to the basilica at the summit all the more complicated. Froome, a rider who somehow appears more awkward on his bike than off it, fell to the ground when his rear wheel slid from under him as he sat in the middle of the pink jersey group on a hairpin bend.
Froome, who is riding the Giro despite his ongoing salbutamol case, was already wearing blue tape on his right leg following his crash ahead of the opening time trial in Jerusalem a week ago, but there was no time to assess his injuries here, with the Mitchelton-Scott team of maglia rosa Simon Yates setting a brisk tempo on the front.
Instead, Froome remounted almost immediately, while Wout Poels was the quickest of the Sky riders to realise what had happened and drop back to his aid. Elissonde and David De La Cruz soon joined him, and within the space of 800 metres or so, they had guided their leader back to safety.
In the closing kilometres, the white jerseys of Sky even hit the front of the group of favourites, though as a precaution rather than as a precursor to a late attack. After stage winner Richard Carapaz (Movistar) had clipped off the front, the podium contenders did battle for the time bonuses at the summit. Froome maintained a watching brief, guided by Sergio Henao, and placed 22nd on the stage in the same time as Yates, Tom Dumoulin and company.
"It was a nasty climb and the surface was really slippery. Chris had some bad luck and he crashed but as a team we went well and we brought him to the front, and finally we made it through," De La Cruz said as he propped against a barrier after wrapping against the elements for the sodden and cold descent to his team bus at the bottom of the climb. "We are working well, we are keeping a high level of motivation and we are sure Chris can win the race."
Froome had, by that point, already begun his descent towards the Team Sky bus, accompanied, as ever, by his bodyguard, who followed on a bike of his own. On reaching the bus, Froome did not warm down on the rollers and climbed aboard without speaking to reporters, leaving directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto to field their questions.
A couple of hours after the stage, Team Sky released Froome's own account of an eventful afternoon. The Briton's very presence on the Giro is a contentious one, given his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España, and his race to date has been a trying one.
"The guys were fantastic. They helped me get straight back into the race – and straight back to the front of the race – within a kilometre," Froome said. "It's never much fun crashing in the final of a race, especially on a hilltop finish, but the roads were really slippery and I just lost my back wheel when I went over a white line accelerating out of the corner."
Froome lies in 9th place overall, 1:10 behind Yates and 56 seconds behind defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), though he has succeeded in finishing alongside the Dutchman at each of the race's summit finishes to date.
"I didn't want to be caught off guard coming into that final, so I think it was the right thing to do, to get back to the front and stay in control of things. I think the guys did a really good job of getting me back up there," said Froome. "I'm happy to tick off another day. Tomorrow is going to be a really tough stage."
On Sunday, the Giro tackles its most demanding stage yet, a 226-kilometre trek through the Apennines that concludes with back-to-back category 1 climbs to Calascio and Gran Sasso d'Italia. It remains to be seen if the effects of his crash will prove an impediment, but the stage ought to provide a firmer indication of Froome's form.
"We limited the damage and didn't lose any time today," Elissonde said. "It's not been an easy Giro to this point, but we're taking it day by day."