His travails at Roccaraso, the Passo Valparola and Alpe di Siusi already told their own doleful story, but like a presidential candidate who keeps losing primaries, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) still continued to cling to the possibility of a dramatic swing in the polls at this Giro d'Italia.
Nibali spoke optimistically on the rest day of the many twists yet to come in this race, and he pinned his hopes on reversing the trend as the Giro resumed with the short, fast and exceedingly tough stage 16 to Andalo – a sort of Super Tuesday, so to speak.
Despite a game attack over the Passo della Mendola, however, the grim prognosis of the previous two weeks was simply confirmed as Nibali conceded a further 1:47 on the stage and now slips to fourth overall, some 4:43 behind maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Nibali had dispatched running mate Tanel Kangert up the road at the base of the Mendola, and then launched a determined attack 500 metres from the summit in a bid to bridge across to the Estonian. Kruijswijk, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) managed to come with him, and the quartet merged with the earlier escapees on the long descent.
At that point, as Nibali and Kangert contributed to the efforts on the front of the leading group, there was still reason to believe that the Sicilian might be about to put a different slant on his Giro, but the long haul of Fai della Paganella issued a withering assessment of his current capabilities.
When Valverde accelerated four kilometres from the summit, Kruijswijk and Zakarin followed instantly, but Nibali was distanced. His pedalling was leaden and his mouth agape as he tackled the steep, 15% section near the summit, where he was caught and then dropped by the chasing Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
The short and shallow final climb to Andalo only prolonged the agony. A dejected Nibali came home in 11th place, 1:47 down on the stage winner Valverde. A group of reporters jogged slowly after the Sicilian as he rolled past, like a presidential guard, but his exit strategy was already prepared.
A soigneur ushered Nibali in the direction of the team hotel near the finish, and he rode there directly, without saying a word. A brief statement was later issued on his behalf via his Astana team.
"I'm not myself," Nibali said. "I seemed to me that I was feeling well but I found myself empty. At the moment, I don't have an explanation, but I need to find the reasons for the fluctuating performance."
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In the absence of a fuller explanation from Nibali, Astana team doctor Emilio Magni found himself surrounded by reporters outside the hotel, though he had no explanation for the Sicilian's series of off-colour displays.
"We've had a few surprises ourselves in the last few days because it seemed that his condition was optimal, and that he was ready for the tough days coming up," Magni said. "On Sunday [in the Alpe di Siusi time trial – ed.], he was already below what we expected and that surprised us a bit.
"We already examined him yesterday and to find a more convincing answer, we'll have some laboratory tests done tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Right now, I don't feel like I can make a hypothesis."
Now fourth on general classification, Nibali's hopes of a second Giro victory seem to have evaporated, given his seemingly unsurmountable deficit to Kruijswijk and the distinct lack of momentum about his race.
Even the prospect of finishing the race with a flourish – as he did during a similar ill-starred Tour de France last July – seems a dim one at this juncture. Nibali lies some 1:20 off Valverde's third place, and is mere 7 seconds clear of a resurgent Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha).
It remains to be seen whether Nibali is tempted to suspend his campaign altogether in order to focus on preparing for the Rio 2016 Olympics, though his coach Paolo Slongo did not shy away from floating the hypothesis of an abandon on Tuesday evening in Andalo.
"Vincenzo has always honoured the race, like the Tour last year," Slongo told Gazzetta dello Sport. "If he wasn't well, making him continue the Giro would do him harm."
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