Things can change quickly in the third week of the Giro d'Italia. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) began Thursday's miniature epic through the Dolomites nursing concerns that his fourth place on general classification might be in danger. He ended the day within touching distance of the final podium in Milan after clawing back a minute on the men directly ahead of him in the overall standings.
Pinot had maintained a watching brief as Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) tried and failed to unsettle maglia rosa Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) on the day's third ascent, the Passo Gardena, but he unsheathed a smart attack of his own towards the top of the final climb of Pontives.
Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) came with him, and the duo had established a gap over the fragmented pink jersey group as they crested the summit with a shade over four kilometres to race. The road continued to climb, albeit more gently, thereafter, and as Dumoulin, Quintana and Nibali marked one another, Pinot and Pozzovivo stretched out their advantage.
Pinot came close to catching stage winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Mikel Landa (Sky), the final two survivors of the early break, on the final approach to the line, but he had to settle for third on the stage, 8 seconds down. He had the considerable consolation of putting 58 seconds into Dumoulin, Quintana and Nibali, and picked up a four-second time bonus to boot.
"It was a good day and I felt good too. I'm happy to have been able to enjoy myself today and the Giro isn't over yet," Pinot said as he propped himself against a barrier just past the finish line. "I'm happy with how it went. It's a shame that I didn't manage to win the stage too, but I'm pleased apart from that.
"I thought they might watch each other a bit more in front. I think we needed another kilometre to get back on, but that's the way it goes."
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Pinot remains in fourth place overall, but he is now just 1:36 behind Dumoulin, and only 24 seconds off a spot on the podium. A defiant showing on the Blockhaus on stage 9 apart, Pinot has not truly sparkled on this Giro to date, but he has also managed to avoid a true jour sans, even if he struggled to limit his losses on Tuesday's tappone to Bormio. He approached Thursday's Dolomite leg with a degree of trepidation, but coped well with the demands of the day.
"If you'd told me yesterday evening that I'd finish third today, I wouldn't have believed you," Pinot admitted. "Today I was a bit better. I slept well last night and recovered. The sensations I had on the last climb today were good."
Pinot paid tribute to the efforts of teammate Sebastien Reichenbach, who helped to steady the ship when Nibali and Quintana attacked on the Passo Gardena, and remained by his leader's side as far as the final climb. "I did most of the stage with Seb by my side, and the whole team rode very well," Pinot said. "Having teammates like that is very reassuring."
As Pinot spoke, he was unaware that a polemic was brewing between Dumoulin and Nibali over their collective failure to claw back the Frenchman's late attack. While they and Quintana indulged in a game of bluff and counter-bluff, Pinot moved closer to his stated goal for this Giro, a place in the top three in Milan.
Friday's summit finish at Piancavallo provides Pinot with an opportunity to further his case, and he will hardly be daunted by the prospect of Sunday's final time trial, even if he downplayed the prospect of a late, late run at the maglia rosa.
"I'm going to fight for the podium. That was my objective from the start," Pinot said. "Dumoulin is very strong, but my objective is the podium."