It was a turn on the front of perhaps a few kilometres at most but, after his bad first-week crash, this sighting of Mikel Nieve at the head of the peloton during stage 11 in the Vuelta a España provided the clearest sign yet that the well-known domestique was back on the recovery path.
There were fears that the 37-year-old from Team BikeExchange might have to abandon after being one of the main victims of the stage 5 mass pile-up into Albacete, together with Romain Bardet (Team DSM).
Six stages on, Nieve is battling on, and after working hard on the Puerto de Locubín climb on the stage through eastern Andalucia to Valdepeñas de Jaén on stage 11, Nieve was in the mix for BikeExchange again during stage 12 on Thursday. The 2010 Vuelta stage winner formed part of the Australian team's collective bid to chase down a late four-rider break on Cordoba's broad boulevards.
"I have stitches in my cheek, chin and elbow," Nieve, with white plasters all over one side of his face, told Cyclingnews earlier this week. "Hopefully it'll get better and the rest day has benefited me as well. The team wants to try to win a stage and I want to help them."
Nieve says he has previous experience with difficult situations like these and, given this is his 22nd Grand Tour, that's perhaps not surprising. Even a battle-hardened domestique like the Navarran climber, however, describes the stages following the crash as "complicated."
"I don't really remember how the crash happened, I only know that after the fall I had some very tough days. I suffered a lot, but now I think I'm beginning to advance again."
What is much more of a voyage in the dark for Nieve is next season and beyond. Out of contract with Team BikeExchange, where he's been for the last four seasons, Nieve is not willing to discuss his future options in any kind of detail. All he will say is "at the moment I don't know what I am doing next year."
His mid-term, too, is unclear with no idea of what races he will be doing after the Vuelta. For now, his target remains to get through the Grand Tour and do what he can for the squad.
"I was in good shape, really motivated before I started the Vuelta," Nieve concluded. "But the crash was a big setback. I just hope I recover well and can do something here."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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