Przemyslaw Niemiec's strong showing has gone largely unnoticed at the Giro d'Italia but after another solid outing in the stage 18 time trial to Polsa, Lampre-Merida is on the brink of placing two riders in the top five overall in Brescia.
Although team leader Michele Scarponi faded over the second half of the time trial course and conceded further ground to maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), he did enough to edge closer to the podium and now lies 1:08 behind Rigoberto Uran (Sky). For his part, Niemiec took 12th place on the stage, and he retains his 5th position overall, 6:09 behind Nibali.
"The route was pretty hard especially because you needed to push a pretty big gear and I'm happy with how I did because I've managed to hold on to fifth place in general classification," Niemiec told Cyclingnews after the rain-soaked time trial. "But from tomorrow we've got two very hard stages even if we don't know exactly what climbs we'll have."
It seems unfair to say that Niemiec has crept into fifth place overall given the prominent role he has played in working for Scarponi in the mountains, but there is no arguing that his progress has been overshadowed by that of his high-profile leader, who last winter served a three-month ban for frequenting Dr. Michele Ferrari.
Indeed, their places in the hierarchy were reflected starkly by the scenes in the Hotel La Betulla, shortly past the finish of Thursday's stage, where the riders were able to shower and change before descending the mountain. While a camera crew waited anxiously by the elevator for Scarponi to emerge with his thoughts on the afternoon's action, Niemiec was able to slip into the lobby completely unnoticed and sit on a couch to eat an impromptu recovery meal as he spoke to Cyclingnews.
"The principal objective for the team is to put Scarponi on the podium given that he's quite close but it would obviously be good for us if I finish in the top 5 as well, so we'll see how that plays out during the stages to come," Niemiec said of his status in the team.
The 33-year-old Niemiec was a late, late arrival at the highest level. After turning professional with Amore & Vita in 2002, he spent seven seasons at Miche before joining Lampre in 2011.
15th in last year's Vuelta a España, the Pole has enjoyed a rich vein of form this spring, finishing 6th in the Giro del Trentino, 7th in the Volta a Catalunya and 9th in Tirreno-Adriatico, but he admitted that he had not expected to perform so strongly at the Giro.
"Absolutely not, I didn't expect this at all," Niemiec said. "I didn't think the Giro would go as well as this for me personally. I did some good results before the Giro but I really didn't think I'd be 5th after 18 stages. I just hope now I can hang tough over the next two stages and then we'll see where I land on Sunday."
The risk of ice on the descents meant that the Stelvio and Gavia have been cut from stage 19 and will be replaced by the Passo del Tonale and Passo Castrin, while Saturday's tappone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo may also be at risk. With Lampre-Merida's duo still hoping to make up time on a flagging Cadel Evans (BMC), Niemiec admitted that he would have preferred the stages to have been run off as planned. He was confident, however, that Scarponi could cope with the expected conditions in spite of his travails in the frigid temperatures of the Alps last weekend.
"Michele had two stages of minor crisis in the cold but he managed to get over it and now we can all see that he's going well, and he's back in the game for a place on the podium," Niemiec said.