Vincenzo Nibali's every move has been followed closely by a sizeable platoon of journalists on this Giro d'Italia, and they were always going to keep their appointment after the Italian champion lost 2:10 in the space of 10.8 ill-starred kilometres during Sunday's mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi.
An ashen-faced Nibali declined to speak directly after the finish, however, and so for 45 minutes the reporters stood in line outside the anti-doping caravan near the finish line, patiently waiting for him to emerge.
Much like the first day of a Papal conclave, there false alarms aplenty, but no white smoke. At one point, Astana's press officer was even delegated to fetch a couple of bottles of water and can of Coke to expedite the process, but still the wait continued. Nothing to be done.
Once Nibali eventually did emerge, he caught the television crews and reporters flat-footed by hopping straight onto his bike and pedalling off to his waiting team car 400 metres down the road. More out of duty than in hope, they jogged after him, but by that point Nibali had already settled into the passenger seat and shook his head apologetically when asked to roll down his window.
Directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli sat in alongside him and was already turning the key in the ignition when the scrum tried another tack, approaching Nibali via the driver's side window. "We'll think it over and then we'll talk about it tomorrow," Martinelli said quietly, but Nibali agreed to make a brief comment.
"Today I paid. Yesterday Valverde paid, maybe the day after tomorrow Kruijswijk could pay, I don't know. You have to accept results like that," Nibali said of his 25th place finish in the day's time trial, which now leaves him 2:51 behind Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) on general classification. "There was a bit of irritation at the finish, but it's normal that after the race you have to catch your breath and it's hard to think about responding to questions straight away."
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Nibali had begun the day second overall, 41 seconds behind Kruijswijk, and eager to strike back at the Dutchman after being distanced near the summit of the Valparola during Saturday's tappone in the Dolomites. The early auguries were not promising, and within four kilometres of the start in Castelrotto, Nibali was already some 30 seconds behind Kruijswijk.
That gap yawned out towards the minute mark soon afterwards, before Nibali began a fightback of sorts, clawing his deficit to a more manageable 40 seconds. A disappointing day became a disastrous one, however, when Nibali slipped his chain while shifting into the big ring two kilometres from the summit.
"The chain slipped out, and then the derailleur broke while I was trying to put it back on," Nibali said simply. Nothing to be done.
Nibali allowed the bike drop on the roadside and quickly hopped aboard a replacement, setting off again with the help of two long pushes, but his rhythm was broken. The crowds were thicker towards the top, with tifosi jumping aside at the last second and running behind him. One drew too close for comfort. Like Pantani on Alpe d'Huez, Nibali struck out to fend him off, but that was where the comparisons ended.
"The tifosi were very close all the way up the climb and I'm happy about that too because there was great support and that's always pleasant," Nibali said diplomatically. "Obviously the tifosi always want victory, but we're people and there are moments when things don't go very well."
Speaking to reporters immediately after the finish, Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov flatly insisted that Giro "doesn't finish until we're in Turin" but the road to Piedmont has become a rather more tortuous one for Nibali, who trails both Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves (Orcia-GreenEdge), and is only 37 seconds up on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
"Look, I haven't even seen the classification," Nibali said, the radio already playing on low volume in the car, the engine idling.
"You're 2:51 behind Kruijswijk," someone interjected.
"There's a nice gap," Nibali admitted. "But va bene così."
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