It wasn't so much a question as an instruction. "You have to leave a mark," the television reporter said past the finish line in Cogne on Sunday, and Vincenzo Nibali's first instinct was to laugh.
Even in the final days of his Giro d'Italia career, home expectations show few signs of receding.
"I'll try, I'll try," Nibali smiled. "Obviously, I want to try to leave a mark, but I'm high up on GC so that won't be easy. Yesterday, as soon as I moved, [Jai] Hindley was straight on my wheel. He was ready straight away and he left me no space, which is normal."
In Valle d'Aosta on Sunday, the gruppo appeared almost punch drunk after the relentless slugging match in the hills around Turin 24 hours earlier, where Nibali had continued his striking resurgence with a fourth place finish, a performance that lifted him to eighth overall, 2:58 behind Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
On the first Alpine stage, there was instead something of a détente in the pink jersey group, with all of the overall contenders – save the enterprising Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) – arriving in Cogne together, almost eight minutes behind stage winner Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo).
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"It was a strange stage. I felt good after yesterday, but the climb to come up here to Cogne was so fast due to the tailwind, which meant it was straightforward to stay on the wheels," Nibali said. "Ineos controlled everything, and Bora had a lot of riders up there today. It was practically pointless to make an attack today."
When Nibali availed of the Giro's visit to Messina on stage 5 to announce his retirement at the end of this season, it initially seemed as though his race would double as a farewell event. Seemingly already erased from the general classification picture, it appeared that the two-time champion's contribution the race might be limited to cameos in the break as he looked for a valedictory win.
A sure-footed display on the Blockhaus on stage 9 began Nibali's rise in the overall standings, however, and it put an altogether different slant on his race. His pedigree and his relative proximity to the pink jersey meant that he would be granted no leeway to go on the attack from distance.
Even then, few could have expected that Nibali would go on to be among the strongest riders in the toughest stage of the Giro to date, but during Saturday's miniature epic in Turin, the 37-year-old somehow conjured up some of the vim of old to reach the finish in the company of Carapaz and Hindley, currently first and second in the overall standings.
Nibali's level of performance on this Giro is all the more surprising given his complicated build-up to the race. His spring campaign, originally due to include the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, was compromised by illness, and he arrived at the Giro ostensibly with a free role in the service of Astana Qazaqstan teammate Miguel Angel López. The Colombian's early abandon, however, saw Nibali revert to the familiar task of leading the line.
"I've noticed that something has changed since the first week, I feel better," said Nibali. "It's also true that my season started a bit late because of the problem I had with COVID, I had to stop and then re-start my preparation all over again in March. I've come to the Giro a bit behind the others. And – niente – let's see what happens."
As the Giro breaks for its third and final rest day, Nibali's hold on a top 10 finish looks firm, given his six-minute buffer on Alejandro Valverde, the man currently in 11th place. The Sicilian's thoughts might instead be directed towards rising further in the overall standings.
The third week of the modern Giro is something akin to the last six miles of a marathon, and Nibali's reputation at this race is built largely on his ability to stand the course better than most.
The Giro resumes with the tappone over the Mortirolo and Valico di Santa Cristina on Tuesday, and the weather forecast is for rain and low temperatures. Nibali couldn't help but smile when asked for his thoughts about the likely conditions. "Bad weather will certainly make things a bit more difficult," he said.
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.