Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) looked more pleased than he sounded at the summit of Los Machucos following stage 17 at the Vuelta a Espana, speaking as he regained his strength after an impressive ride on the difficult ascent, second only in steepness to the Angliru.
On a climb where he was at best expected to match Chris Froome (Team Sky), given their performances on the previous ascents of La Vuelta, Nibali attacked, dropped Froome and then clawed back 42 seconds on the Briton. In the process, he both buttressed his second place overall and breathed some life back into a GC competition that was increasingly looking as if it had been settled in favour of the Team Sky rider.
Fourth at the finish line following a mid-stage acceleration with a small group of overall contenders, Nibali seemed as surprised as anyone that Froome had not carried out his usual strategy of letting his rivals gain a small margin, and then launching a spectacular counter-attack.
Talking in the back of a rented minibus - the team buses unable to reach the summit of the Machucos because the roads were too narrow and steep - Nibali smiled when it was put to him that the GC fight was still on.
"It's difficult. Look, every day [in the Vuelta] I re-evaluate things and we have to see what happens. Even today was very hard," Nibali, now just 1:16 behind the Briton, told a small group of reporters.
"In the last climb I had slightly unusual feelings after yesterday's time trial stage, but then I found my own pace and I went up the climb very well. I collaborated well with [Ilnur] Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), because we both wanted to take back time in the overall, and that was a good thing."
Memories of NIbali's third week spectacular comeback in the 2016 Giro d'Italia against Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) are still relatively fresh, but whereas Chaves was visibly struggling on the last two days of the Italian Grand Tour, the 2010 Vuelta winner said he had seen no chinks in Froome's armour, or indeed his team's, before the climb.
"Froome didn't show any signs of weaknesses at all during the stage, not at all, and he had seven riders with him all the way to the last climb," Nibali said. "Sky was looking very solid."
Yet the final ascent of Los Machucos proved that Froome could be defeated in the Vuelta on what Nibali recognised had been an extraordinarily difficult ascent.
"I tackled this climb as hard as I could, and it's a climb that I won't forget in a hurry," he said. "It's a bit like the Zoncolan or the Angliru or the Bola del Mundo, a real climb."
Overall, then, Nibali's best, and last, opportunity to attack Froome will now come on the Angliru, a race where, curiously enough, both he and the Briton have lost previous editions of the Vuelta - Froome in 2011 against Juan Jose Cobo and Nibali against Chris Horner in 2013. This time, GC-wise the boot may well be on the other foot, but only for one of the two.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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