What a difference a day makes. For two weeks, Alejandro Valverde was quietly living up to his pre-race billing as Vincenzo Nibali's antagonist-in-chief at the Giro d'Italia, but after shipping three minutes in the Dolomites on stage 14, the Spaniard faces into Sunday's mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi desperately looking to resuscitate a flagging overall challenge.
Both Valverde and overnight leader Andrey Amador were unable to follow when Nibali attacked midway up the Passo Valparola on Saturday, and struggled to limit their losses thereafter.
By the top of the climb, Valverde was making only cursory turns on the front, and he crossed the finish exactly three minutes down on stage winner Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and he now lies fourth overall, 3:06 behind new leader Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo). Amador finished in the same group and lies fifth overall, a further nine seconds back.
"It wasn't the day we wanted," Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue said afterwards, with considerable understatement. "Andrey has had a cold for the last two days. He was going well, but he felt a bit blocked all day.
"Alejandro was very good all day, but then on the last climb, the change of pace – unexpectedly and strangely – didn't suit him. Nothing before that last climb indicated that was going to happen."
Valverde and Amador declined to talk to reporters gathered on the finish line in Corvara, though the Spaniard later spoke to the Onda Cero radio station from his hotel room and complained that he had struggled due to the effects of altitude. "Alejandro told me that he was uncomfortable with the altitude, racing at 1,800 metres above sea level," Unzue said.
- Giro d'Italia stage 14 race report
- Giro d'Italia stage 14 highlights - Video
- Giro d'Italia: A three-way tussle between Kruijswijk, Nibali and Chaves?
There had been precious little to separate the Giro's podium contenders through the opening two weeks, though Unzue had suggested beforehand that this weekend's trio of mountain stages would bring some definition to the overall standings. He could hardly have anticipated then that his charges would struggle so much in the Dolomites, and he hinted that final overall victory was now beyond Valverde.
"If Alejandro does a good time trial, we can go for the podium. The maglia rosa is very hard now. Alejandro is at three minutes now and I think it's very difficult, very complicated," Unzue said.
Sunday's stiff 10.8-kilometre time trial to Alpe di Siusi could provoke further, important time gaps among the general classification contenders, though it remains to be seen if it will reinforce or subvert the hierarchy that seemed to emerge on the Valparola, where Chaves and Kruijswijk were the strongest, and Nibali was – by some margin – the best of the rest.
"Kruijswijk and Chaves emerged today [Saturday]. They had the opportunity to show that they are really strong and on Sunday in the time trial, we'll have a really clear idea of who will be on the final podium," Unzue said. "My favourite for pink? That'll be Chaves, maybe Kruiswijk."