Mikel Nieve was only drafted into Team Sky's Giro d'Italia squad after illness, injury and a potential biological passport case ruled out three of the men who were originally slated to serve as Mikel Landa's Praetorian Guard in the high mountains.
When Landa abruptly abandoned the race on Tuesday after falling ill following the rest day, Nieve's plans changed all over again. Having been one two riders to linger far behind the peloton with the stricken Landa, Nieve's first task was to make it to the ski station at Sestola inside the time limit.
That feat accomplished, Nieve was then charged with leading Sky's hunt for stage wins in the high mountains, the team's new strategy in the wake of Landa's surprise withdrawal. The Basque duly infiltrated the day's early break in the Julian Alps on Friday, then soloed clear on the Cima Porzus to claim stage victory in Cividale del Friuli.
Nieve could only smile in the press room afterwards when he was asked if he would have enjoyed the same freedom had his leader Landa not taken his leave from the race so suddenly.
"Hombre, definitely not," Nieve said. "I would have been working for him on the stage as his gregario, and I certainly wouldn't have been in the break."
Landa's withdrawal from the Giro has stoked no little intrigue, particularly given that he had made such bullish declarations about his long-term intentions during Monday's rest day, buoyed by his startlingly strong showing in the Chianti time trial.
It later emerged that most of the Sky team were not aware that their leader was ill with viral gastroenteritis ahead of Tuesday's stage, while Landa himself even sounded an optimistic note about his chances when speaking to reporters at the signing-on podium in Campi Bisenzio.
"We didn't think he'd been that badly hit [by illness]," Nieve said. "I knew he'd had a bad night on Monday but he seemed ok at breakfast. But in the end, it affected him very badly. He had a fever and when you're ill, there's nothing you can do."
For Nieve and teammate David Lopez, meanwhile, the road to Sestola became a whole lot more arduous after dropping some seven minutes off the pace as they vainly attempted to coax Landa back to the rear of the main peloton. "It was a very hard day and after Mikel abandoned, I spent all day in the gruppetto," he said. "Psychologically it was very hard, but physically, I've been feeling very good."
Nieve's victory was his second at the Giro d'Italia following his win on the tappone to Gardeccia in 2011. The last man to withstand his forcing on the Porzus was former Sky teammate Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale), with Nieve eventually forging clear and soloing 35 kilometres to victory.
The win puts a different complexion on Team Sky's Giro, but though team manager Dave Brailsford stood at the finish to embrace Nieve after he crossed the line, he continued his self-imposed silenzio stampa by once again refusing to speak to reporters on the race. Instead, it was left to Nieve to describe the significance of the win for his team.
"It was important for morale to get a win after Landa's withdrawal. It gives us more tranquillity," Nieve said. "And personally I'm very happy because I don't win a lot. To win another Giro stage after being called up at the last minute make me very pleased."
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