Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) craned his neck for one look at the stalactites of rain outside before ducking back into the mixed zone to ride out the storm. "I'm not going anywhere with this rain," Nibali laughed, taking his seat once again amid a scrum of reporters. "We've had enough of it these last few days."
Seasoned Shark watchers don't always need to listen to his post-race comments to understand how his day has gone; the body language often says everything. "Those who know me know that when I'm tranquillo, I'll happily speak with anybody," Nibali explained. "And when I'm a bit nervous, sometimes I don't want to talk."
On Sunday afternoon in San Marino, Nibali was happy to talk, after a 4th-place finish in the Giro d'Italia's stage 9 time trial that saw him limit his losses on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) to 1:04. If that was broadly in line with his pre-stage hopes, then gaining 2:06 on a subdued Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was a wholly unexpected bonus. So too, was almost catching Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) for three minutes at the end of the 34km test.
"It was very good to gain something on Yates. Roglic is a specialist so losing a minute is alright," said Nibali, who now lies 11th overall on general classification, 3:34 behind maglia rosa Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) and 1:44 down on Roglic.
Nibali, like all of the later starters, set out just as a deluge began to douse the course, which brought them from Riccione on the Adriatic coast to the mountaintop republic of San Marino, back on the Giro route for the first time in 21 years.
At the first time check after 11km, Nibali was 26 seconds behind Roglic and 10 down on Yates. While he lost another 12 seconds to Roglic on the second segment, he picked up 20 on the Briton, and that trend continued on the gradual, 12km climb from Faetano towards the finish. Nibali conceded 26 more seconds to Roglic there but gained almost two minutes on a suddenly floundering Yates.
"It was a difficult time trial because when I set out it started raining a lot, though it was like that for the others too," Nibali said. "I didn't take any risks in the first part because there were a lot of pedestrian crossings. I just tried to make a very consistent effort and then I really started pushing when I got to the uphill part."
The heavy rain that buffeted the mountainside added to the difficulty of the day's stage. At one point, Nibali's vision became so impeded that he had to remove the visor from his helmet in order to see the road ahead, though the words crackling through his earpiece gave him a firm view of how his day was going. In the final kilometres, a struggling Lopez came into sight and offered himself as a target to chase down.
"I was being kept up to date on the times from my coach Paolo Slongo in the car behind me, and we knew I was going well," Nibali said. "I knew I had gained something on Lopez because he was there in front of me at the end."
Nibali versus Roglic
As the Giro breaks for its first rest day, Roglic lies atop the virtual classification of the pre-race favourites, but Nibali is the best-placed of their number to challenge the Slovenian, who has enjoyed such a startling run of form thus far in 2019.
Although the Giro has yet to climb above 1,000 metres in altitude, the Italian already has a buffer of 2:02 on Yates, 2:45 on Lopez and 3:08 on Mikel Landa (Movistar), though he downplayed the idea that the corsa rosa was already a duel with Roglic.
"No, it's not like that. It's too early to say that. There are still a lot of leaders. They still want to play their cards," said Nibali, a man who knows only too well how this race can take on a life of its own during its arduous final days. There are, after all, two weeks of distance still to run in this particular marathon.
"The Giro is still long and there are still important stages and mountains to come," Nibali said. "I'm still keeping the other GC riders like Landa, Yates and Lopez in consideration, the riders who have lost a bit more will have to attack and that will make the race more interesting."
Before taking his leave from the mixed zone as the rain abated slightly, Nibali would also smilingly reject the notion that his performance in San Marino – and his gains over Yates, in particular – had felt like something of a victory. "No," Nibali said. "A victory would be much nicer."
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