The sporting battle between Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali morphed into a war of words after the finish of stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia in Ortisei, ending 17 stages of mutual respect and fair play.
Dumoulin calmly responded to the combined attacks by Nibali and Quintana on the penultimate climb of the Passo Gardena, but then vented his anger post-stage at what he saw as a clear sign of a pact between his two closest rivals on the final climb.
Before pulling on a fresh pink jersey, Dumoulin slammed Nibali and Quintana for combining against him.
"They are only focusing on me and trying to make me lose instead of trying to win. In the last moments, they lost a lot of time to the other competitors. I really hope that riding like this they will lose their podium spot in Milan, that would be really nice, and I would be really happy," he told Eurosport.
As Tejay van Garderen and Mikel Landa were fighting for the stage victory up the climb, Dumoulin responded to several attacks and then put two of his own in, asserting his authority over the front group and his rivals. Angry that Nibali and Quintana refused to work together or chase attacks, Dumoulin then refused to make a move when Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo leapt clear.
With Nibali and Quintana sitting behind, Pinot charged to third on the stage, earning a four second time bonus - enough to whittle his gap to Dumoulin to 1:36. He is now more of a threat to Nibali's third place, just 1:12 behind the defending champion, with Quintana still in second overall at just 31 seconds.
Nibali quickly responded to Dumoulin's provocations when reached at the Bahrain-Merida bus.
"I don't care what Tom says, I think he's a bit too cocky," Nibali told Italian television in a show of national pride by hitting back at Dumoulin.
"I've never talked that way. He's shown he's strong in the race but he's shouldn't talk so much. He could lose the podium too, anything can happen. He should keep his feet on a ground and talk less. Does he know what karma is? What goes around comes around.
"Winning the Giro is always hard but he's been impeccable so far. But it's not over yet."
Read more on this story
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- Giro d'Italia: Stage 18 highlights - Video
- Pinot moves closer to Giro d'Italia podium in the Dolomites
In the post-race press conference, Cyclingnews translated Nibali's comments into English for Dumoulin. Unapologetic, Dumoulin replied in a way would have pleased the likes of Bernhard Hinault and Eddy Merckx, at last embracing the role of patron of the Giro d'Italia.
"He called me cocky? They're strong words from his side, too," Dumoulin said hitting back without a blink of the eye.
"Until today I had no problems with Nibali. I didn't like his finale but I don't have any problems with him.
"I was very friendly to everyone for the whole Giro. But today I wasn't happy with how they rode. I think Nibali and Quintana are here to win the Giro right? Well, the only thing they did was to try to make me lose today. But that his choice.
"I was never really in trouble but in the finale, I was not completely happy with the situation. I'd have liked to stay all together. At top of the climb with four kilometres to go, it was a good situation for Quintana, Nibali and me. That's why I didn't understand their tactics. I was frustrated and angry that they only rode on my wheel. I don't understand them."
In control in the Dolomites
Before the war of words, Dumoulin looked in control as he chased down the attack by Nibali and Quintana on the Passo Gardena. His power helped him to reel them in before the summit and then he was able to mark them on the Pontives climb up to Ortisei.
"They made a strong attack on Gardena but I was able to close the gap. I know if that I do my own strong pace, I can't lose much," Dumoulin said.
"I don't know if I was the strongest today. I was with the few strongest riders. I stayed cool. They attacked me but it didn't work out. It was a good day for me."
Dumoulin showed some respect for Quintana's climbing ability but did not mention Nibali again. He shook hands with Quintana in the podium area but Nibali was already at his team bus. Team Sunweb and Movistar are staying in the same hotel in Brunico tonight and so Dumoulin and Quintana can perhaps make peace.
Any talks to clear the air with Nibali will have to wait for the start in San Candido and perhaps will not be resolved before the big mountain finish to Piancavallo.
"There are still two mountains and a time trial, so we're still a long way from Milan," Dumoulin warned.
"I lost it all on the last big day at the Vuelta in 2015 and so I know that you can lose a lot on a bad day. I was strong today but maybe not tomorrow. I believe in myself but I have doubts also. I'm just trying to look at things from a positive side. It's been good so far…"
Stage 18 highlights
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