It wasn't supposed to end like this. Richie Porte's Giro d'Italia challenge had been built around the stage 14 time trial to Valdobbiadene, his every pedal stroke in the opening week seemingly measured with this 59.4-kilometre test in mind.
Those plans, however, began to fray when Porte accepted that fateful wheel change from Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) on the road to Forlì on Tuesday, and they unravelled further when he crashed just shy of the 3km to go banner on Friday.
The Australian began Saturday's time trial more than five minutes behind on general classification, and set off more in hope than in expectation. Within 10 kilometres, it was apparent that this would be an exercise in damage limitation rather than the beginning of a comeback for the ages.
By the first time check after 17 kilometres, Porte was almost two minutes down on his Sky teammate Vasil Kiryienka, who would go on to win the stage. At the midway point, his deficit was 3:23, and he crossed the finish line forlornly, some 4:20 behind.
A scrum of camera crews swarmed around Porte as soon as he finished, but a Sky soigneur helped him beat a safe retreat to a tent behind the podium area. As he sat inside and changed, he would have been able to watch on television as the late starters completed their time trials. He would have seen Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in the process of putting his seal on this Giro by finishing third in the time trial to move back into the overall lead. By day's end, Porte would be in 17th place on general classification, 8:52 off the maglia rosa.
Some of the reporters waiting for Porte arrested his teammate Leopold König when he crossed the line after his effort. The Czech is now Sky's best-placed rider overall, 10th at 5:35, but all the question were about Porte.
"You would have to ask him," König said. "I don't know what's happened, if there was some problem. I don't really know. Maybe he lost motivation. I don't know, it's hard to say after such disappointing last days. It could be a problem in the head and he could be just so disappointed. Maybe the legs were there but the mind was just not there."
Shortly afterwards, Porte, now changed into a Team Sky polo shirt, and quietly intimated that he did not wish to answer reporters' questions. His soigneur walked half a step ahead of him in order to part the crowds waiting for the podium ceremonies, and Porte slipped away to a hotel further up the hill past the finish line before Contador, Fabio Aru et al arrived.
After watching the end of the stage – and confirmation of Kiryienka's victory – in the company of some of his teammates, Porte began the post-mortem into his afternoon, explaining that he had been feeling the effects of the previous day's crash.
"I know where my form's at. I'm in a little bit of pain and I couldn't really push on the flat. I didn't really have it. It's bittersweet with Kiryienkya doing so well there," Porte told the Sydney Morning Herald. "In 'recon', it was a time trial that I liked, it suited me. I'm not sure what' s going to happen now. I'm in a fair amount of pain. I landed on my hip and knee [on stage 13.]
"I'll just take it as it come and go see the physio. It's massively disappointing, so have the last few days. I know the form I came into this race with. I had a bit of bad luck, but it wasn't bad luck today, I just didn't have it.”
Almost nine minutes down on Contador and more than five minutes off a podium place, Porte must now deliberate on whether he completes the Giro at all, given that he is pencilled in to Sky's Tour de France squad in a familiar supporting role for Chris Froome. This Giro was supposed to be Porte's chance to lead a team of his own over three weeks and he was unsure if he would stay in the race simply to chase stage victories in the mountainous final week.
"In theory yes, but the way my knee and hip felt today I'm just not sure. I think it may be making up numbers to be honest," he said.
"I'll have a talk with the team physio, Dave [Brailsford] and Tim [Kerrison], but in some ways it might make sense and get out of here and look forward to the Tour. It's massively disappointing, but after Friday, I was gutted. I was on the massage table, things just sinking in. I don't think I did anything wrong, I've just been unlucky."
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