"Un attimo," called out Bahrain-Merida press officer Geoffrey Pizzorni. One moment. The scrum of television crews that had hemmed Vincenzo Nibali in against a barrier immediately after he crossed the finish of stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia inched backwards almost imperceptibly in response to Pizzorni's calm appeal.
Soigneur Michele Pallini was holding the top tube of Nibali's bike to ensure he stayed upright while simultaneously helping him into a long-sleeved jersey. Nibali didn't yet know how much time he had conceded to maglia rosa Richard Carapaz (Movistar) in the finale at Anterselva – seven seconds as it turned out – but he wore the expression of a man whose Giro had suddenly lost some momentum.
If Nibali chose not to respond when Mikel Landa (Movistar) attacked forcefully from the pink jersey group with a shade under 3km to go on the short climb to the finish, then he was simply unable to do so when Carapaz set off in pursuit of Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) closer to the summit. He kept his response to a minimum, too, when asked if had been surprised by Carapaz's acceleration.
"I was expecting it, but today I wasn't really on a good day," Nibali said, already edging his way out of the eye of the storm of cameras and microphones. "But that's OK. We got through the stage quite well today and, well, nothing else."
And with that, Nibali was gone, soft-pedalling his way out of the finish area and back along the course towards the Bahrain-Merida team hotel, some two kilometres down the hill. Nothing more to say, though he would later explain that he had paid a price for his exertions on the Mortirolo on Tuesday but expressed satisfaction at limiting his losses.
After being the aggressor-in-chief on the Mortirolo on Tuesday, Nibali had to toggle quickly into damage limitation mode on the drag towards the biathlon centre of Anterselva, a German-speaking outpost near the Austrian border, where Nans Peters (AG2R La Mondiale) took the stage win from the early break.
Nibali followed in the wheels of teammate Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) in the final kilometre, coming home seven seconds behind Carapaz and 19 down on Landa. In the overall standings, Nibali remains in second place, but he is now 1:54 down the implacable Carapaz.
The addition of seven seconds to his deficit amounts to little more than a handful of moments in real terms, but the way the finale developed did little to dispel the impression that Carapaz, who was apparently "gifted" so much time at Ceresole Reale and Courmayeur, is now the strongest man in the Giro.
Then again, Nibali endured a far more inauspicious outing in the German-speaking Südtirol region when the Giro passed this way three years ago. On that occasion, the Italian dropped to almost three minutes off Steven Kruijswijk's maglia rosa after a calamitous outing in the mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi.
Nibali's Giro challenge seemed irretrievably damaged but, some way, somehow, he rallied to claim overall victory with successive long-distance raids on the final two mountain stages. It increasingly seems that Nibali will have to conjure up something similarly remarkable here.
Nibali's teammate Domenico Pozzovivo looked to strike an optimistic note when he appeared on RAI television's Processo alla Tappa programme on Wednesday evening, reasoning that it was better to suffer a giornata no on a transitional stage like this rather than in either of the two mountaintop finishes still to come.
"It was a complicated stage after yesterday, we might have expected an off-day from some of the leaders and unfortunately it happened to Nibali," Pozzovivo said. "Over three weeks, you can't always be at your best, and it's better that it happened today. We defended ourselves with a lot of intelligence."
In Ponte di Legno on Tuesday, Nibali hinted that Carapaz had betrayed some deficiencies on the Mortirolo that had been papered over by Landa's work on his behalf. Carapaz's sharp acceleration in the finale was a response of sorts, though Pozzovivo downplayed the idea that Nibali's morale would have suffered unduly.
"A rider like Nibali won't suffer a psychological blow, he's overcome a lot of difficult moments and he always knows how to respond. He was pedalling well all day, maybe he just didn't have good sensations in the finale," Pozzovivo said, though he also admitted that he had not anticipated gaps between the podium contenders on the short climb to the line. "The hard part was 2.5km-long. We didn't think it would make this difference."
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