Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) continued his psychological and physical battle with Primoz Roglic on the first mountain finish of the Giro d'Italia, calling the Slovenian's bluff when other riders attacked and again criticizing the Jumbo-Visma rider for failing to help set the pace and lead the chase on the ascent of the Col del Nivolet.
Nibali sat on Roglic's wheel when other riders kicked away in the final kilometres, with the two locked in a standoff as Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) powered to victory and moved up to third overall, now only 31 seconds behind Roglic. Nibali is fifth overall, 4:09 down on race leader Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) and still 1:44 down on Roglic.
"He let the gap go to Carapaz and Majka and wanted me to close it and I said: 'Basta! No more!' I told him that if he wants to win the Giro he had to ride," Nibali explained a few minutes after reaching the spectacular finish in the shadow of the Lago Serru dam, surrounded by the snow-covered peaks.
"Roglic is well placed overall but if he continues to ride like that he won't win this Giro. I won't win it too but neither will he."
Tired of the Sphinx
Nibali clearly has had enough of Roglic playing the Sphinx, sitting in the wheels and refusing to take control of the race, despite being the virtual race leader on the road to Verona. Nibali revealed that Roglic never speaks to him but follows him throughout the race.
"I said to him: 'If you also want to come and do a photo at my house, I'll show you my collection of trophies whenever you want…" Nibali said with a strong dose of sarcasm mixed with anger.
"That's not the way he should ride if he wants to win the Giro. He put himself on my wheel to be dragged around all day. I don't know if that's the right way to race. In the end, it might be very efficient. I can understand it but I don't agree with it. In contrast, we showed that we're up there, we did some great work with the team. Pozzovivo was really magnificent and gave his all. That's how I prefer to race."
Roglic tried to distance Nibali with one long surge in the final kilometres but the Italian responded, using a bigger gear as Roglic spun sitting firmly in the saddle.
"When I accelerated and he accelerated, we were more or less the same, there wasn't much between us," Nibali suggested.
"Physically and psychologically I can say our strengths are more or less equal. There wasn't a big difference between us."
Nibali insinuated that the Jumbo-Visma team have never forgiven him for winning the 2016 Giro d'Italia after Steven Kruijswijk crashed hard while wearing the maglia rosa.
"They have some problems with me because of what's happened in the past. They're a bit scared of me," he said, continuing to bait his rivals.
"The psychological and tactical aspect is important right now but the race was also very hard," Nibali pointed out.
Changes in the general classification
Nibali preferred to focus on Roglic than chase after Zakarin, Mikel Landa and Richard Carapaz (Movistar) but he was keen to study the new overall classification before speaking. Zakarin and even Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) jumped ahead of him after being in the breakaway of the day but Nibali is confident they will pay for their efforts, just as Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) did following his puncture on the climb.
"The GC underwent some changes but the riders who were in front today used up a lot of energy because it was a very difficult stage from start to finish" Nibali predicted.
"The stage wasn't easy. The finish was over 2,000 metres. You feel it in your legs. The gap to Roglic stayed as it was, this was the first summit finish, now we'll see what happens. Tomorrow is another hard day."
When one of the journalists crowded around the Bahrain-Merida van near the finish area suggested Saturday's stage to Courmayeur was relatively short at 131km, Nibali gave the same short shrift as he gave to Roglic.
"There are five climbs, five very hard climbs," he concluded.