Somewhere amid the grey and white of the upper reaches of the Colle dell'Agnello, Vincenzo Nibali's catastrophe of a Giro d’Italia began to take on a different guise. As the race reached its highest point, beneath a shawl of cloud, on roads banked with snow, Nibali began to realise that perhaps he was himself again.
On Thursday morning, the Astana medical staff were so concerned about Nibali’s subdued form that he underwent additional testing to uncover if an underlying illness was to blame. Barely 24 hours, Nibali was somehow a man transfigured on the toughest day of the Giro to date, shining on the Agnello and then soloing to victory at Risoul to leap to second overall, just 44 seconds behind new maglia rosa Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
"In the high mountains, I feel good. I feel much more at ease on longer climbs like this compared to the shorter ones," Nibali said. "Today I found a bit of feeling again too. Over the years, I’ve always seen that in the Grand Tours you can always hope right to the end that something will happen. You never know. Not every year is the same. I’ve been through some very difficult days but today I certainly found the release."
Nibali has cut a troubled, often solitary figure on this Giro since the start in the Netherlands, burdened by the weight of Italian expectation and bedevilled by speculation over his team for 2017. After struggling in the Dolomites last weekend and slipping to fourth overall at Andalo on Tuesday, some 4:43 off the lead, many wondered whether he would even make it to Turin. Now, with one monstrous tappone that includes 75 kilometres of climbing still to come, the Giro suddenly seems to be bending towards the Italian champion.
Nibali's transformation began to take shape three kilometres from the summit of the Colle dell'Agnello, as the group of favourites fragmented under the impetus of Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge). When the dust settled, only Nibali and maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) remained with him. As they pressed on towards the summit, Nibali himself took over, laying a glove on Kruijswijk for the first time in this Giro.