Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana team were lodged in the grimly-titled Hotel Hell in Ortisei for the Giro d'Italia's final rest day, and he awoke on Monday morning to find that his calamitous showing on Alpe di Siusi the previous afternoon had been neither a nightmare nor a vision, but a simple matter of fact. Abandon all hope ye who enter here?
The verdict doled out by the stage 15 mountain time trial was certainly a sobering one for the pre-race favourite, as Nibali conceded 2:10 to maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and slipped to third overall, some 2:51 behind the Dutchman.
The podium in Turin felt a long way off as a thunderstorm rattled across South Tyrol during Nibali's rest day press conference on Monday afternoon, and it is clear that the straight path to Giro victory has been lost. Even so, Nibali attempted to sound an optimistic note. The deficit to Kruijswijk is daunting, but the situation, he said, is not irretrievable.
"The gap itself is important but in terms of the classification, we're all in a position to attack – me, [Alejandro] Valverde and Esteban Chaves, provided he's not happy to ride for second place," Nibali said.
"There are lots of twists in a Giro d'Italia and especially in this one. In the first week people were talking about Tom Dumoulin as a probable winner and then he abandoned. Then people were talking about Mikel Landa after his good time trial, but he paid a lot the day after. This definitely a Giro with a lot of twists, and I think that something could happen right to the end."
There were few twists for Nibali during Sunday's mountain time trial, where Alpe di Siusi doubled as one long Via Dolorosa. Already 30 seconds behind Kruijswijk by the four-kilometre mark, Nibali continued to ship time thereafter. A mini-revival towards the summit was halted abruptly when he slipped his chain with a little over two kilometres to go and had to change his bike.
"When I saw that the bike was broken, you have the desire to smash everything… but there are moments like that, there's no point going back over it," Nibali said, who refused to cite the mechanical incident as an excuse. "Maybe I wouldn't have lost quite so much time without it, but I would have lost 1:30 for sure."
At the beginning of his press conference, Nibali had apologised for declining to stop for reporters immediately on crossing the finish line on Sunday, even though he later spoke briefly as he left anti-doping. "I could have said a couple of lines of bullshit, if you'll pardon my French, and so I preferred not to say anything to avoid a cock-up," Nibali said. "You talk better when you're more relaxed and calm."
A man alone
In light of the ongoing questions over Nibali's future – he seems destined to leave Astana at the end of the season and is heavily linked with a new Bahraini-backed team – it was perhaps telling that neither team manager Alexandre Vinokourov nor directeurs sportifs Giuseppe Martinelli and Alexandre Shefer were in attendance at his rest day press conference.
Only coach Paolo Slongo watched on while Nibali, flanked by press officer Geoffrey Pizzorni, fielded questions for more than half an hour. His responses seemed to oscillate between the details of the race itself and the more abstract pressure incumbent with being Vincenzo Nibali.
"Too many people expected too much from me, but sometimes we don't manage to give everything. We're not robots," Nibali said at one point. "Honestly, I feel this big weight on me, as though everybody expected something from me as an inevitability."
Nibali has five stages left in which to turn his Giro around, starting with Tuesday's short, sharp leg to Andalo, which includes the Passo della Mendola and Fai della Paganella. Though he affected confidence – "I'm confident because I feel good," he insisted – Nibali is well aware that his fate is no longer entirely in his own hands.
"If Kruijswijk doesn't crack, there's not much to do," Nibali admitted. Few chinks have been apparent in the Dutchman's armour to date. "He's going stronger than everyone else. His weaknesses? Maybe a little bit on descents."
With that in mind, the Giro's finale in the Alps includes tortuous drops off Pramartino, the Colle dell'Agnello and the Col de la Bonette, though Nibali warned that the weather conditions in the closing days will affect his thinking. "It's possible to attack on the descents, why not, but we'll have to see what the weather is. We'll have to see if the conditions are right because I've heard there's a bit of snow."
Nibali could find an unlikely ally of circumstance in the shape of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who lies just behind him in fourth place overall, and each man will surely have noted relatively paucity of Kruijswijk's support from his LottoNL-Jumbo team in the mountains.
"Maybe an alliance [with Valverde] could form, but we'd have to see how. It's not simple," Nibali said. After Astana controlled the race early on, Nibali would doubtless welcome a dash of chaos in the final days. "If we end up with a crazy race, it will be difficult for one man to manage by himself."