Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) had seen enough at the Vuelta a España to feel he might yet be able to discommode Chris Froome (Team Sky) at Sierra Nevada on Sunday. But after attacking on the long final haul towards the finish, his day ended in dispiriting fashion as he lost another six seconds to the red jersey. As the Vuelta breaks for its second rest day, Nibali finds himself second overall, 1:01 behind Froome.
Isolating Froome from his Team Sky teammates may be a logical plan of attack for a man trying to win the Vuelta but one that's proving easier said than done.
After watching stage winner Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) forge clear on the Alto del Purche, Nibali held his fire for the final climb towards the finish at Sierra Nevada, attacking from the red jersey group with a shade under 14 kilometres remaining.
Nibali opened a gap of around 50 metres over the group of podium contenders, but never disappeared out of sight as Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels set a brisk tempo on behalf of Froome. After a couple of kilometres, he relented and was reabsorbed by the group. He explained afterwards that he had been hoping for some company on the raid.
"I never really pushed flat out because I was hoping [Ilnur] Zakarin or [Wilco] Kelderman would come with me," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "The speed was high, Sky were still together, and I was caught a bit between a rock and a hard place. Continuing alone would have been a suicidal tactic because in this moment, Sky and Froome are unbeatable. For now, that's how it is, but nobody is ever unbeatable.
"This was a short stage, very fast and a bit strange. The climb didn't really have very steep gradients. But the Vuelta isn't finished. I'll fight on."
The 40km time trial
The Vuelta resumes with a 40-kilometre time trial in Logroño on Tuesday, when Froome will be expected to buttress his lead still further.
Nibali will aim to limit his losses and his recent record against the watch is underwhelming. His sixth place in the Montefalco time trial at May's Giro d'Italia is, remarkably, the only occasion he has finished in the top 10 of an individual time trial since the penultimate stage of his victorious 2014 Tour de France.
"It's more in Chris' favour but I've always defended myself well," Nibali said of Tuesday's test in Logroño.
The Sicilian was reluctant to assess his precise chances of overall victory, but acknowledged that the collective strength of Froome's Sky team, which has replicated its Tour de France dominance, albeit with a very different roster, only complicates the task.
"I don't know, there are a lot of variables so it's difficult to give a percentage," he said. "It was a 'Super Sky' that made the difference here. They had three men controlling everything on the last climb: Moscon, Nieve and Poels brought Froome to the last 500 metres."
Beyond the Vuelta, Sunday brought uncomfortable questions for the UCI about the effectiveness of its testing to combat mechanical doping in the form of reports by Il Corriere della Sera and the French sports programme Stade 2.
Their investigation, carried out in collaboration with German broadcaster ARD, suggested that the tablet device currently used by the UCI to test for hidden motors is not capable of finding the latest generation of technological fraud, and threw up so-called 'false positives' when looking for more rudimentary motors.
Although no hidden motors have yet been revealed in the professional peloton by the UCI's testing – under-23 cyclo-cross rider Femke Van Den Driessche is the only rider to have been formally sanctioned by the governing body to date – Nibali felt that testing for mechanical doping was justified. He also also welcomed journalistic investigations into the prevalence of mechanical doping in the peloton.
"If the controls are being carried out, it's because there are some doubts. I don't have the knowledge to say whether these testing systems work or not, but I'm in favour of testing," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"Indeed, I believe that you journalists with your inquiries can also play a very important part. You're very useful."
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