Squeezing all of the television crews into the cramped back room of the Hotel Migliorati in Castione della Presolana for Nairo Quintana's press conference on the final rest day of the Giro d'Italia was a conundrum rather like trying to put a ship in a bottle.
For the bones of an hour, cameramen from Colombia, Italy and the Netherlands staked out their patches of real estate, eventually happening upon a feng shui arrangement that allowed everybody a clear shot of the man himself. The downtrodden written press, meanwhile, tiptoed carefully past their furrowed brows and slotted in where they could.
Quintana arrived punctually at 1.30, squeezed his way politely between the tripods and equipment, and took a seat at the top table, flanked by Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue, who has returned to the Giro d'Italia for its denouement in the high mountains.
Speaking in tones that scarcely reached the front row – far less the back of the small room – Quintana calmly held court on how he might go about solving a rather more pressing conundrum, namely how to divest Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) of the maglia rosa.
Although Quintana dropped Dumoulin on the Blockhaus on stage 9, he was soundly beaten by the Dutchman in the Montefalco time trial. That, at least, was only to be expected. More surprising was Dumoulin's defeat of Quintana on the mountaintop finish at Oropa on Saturday. Six days from the finish in Milan, Quintana's deficit stands at 2:41.
"It's quite complicated," Quintana conceded on Monday. "On one climb it went like we hoped, and on another it didn't, but we're still here fighting. We'll do our best to try to win. Now we have five days that are in theory favourable for us. Dumoulin has been good so far, but we'll see how he is in the rest of the race."
With four tough mountain stages to come, beginning with Tuesday's arduous tappone over the Mortirolo and twin ascents of the Stelvio, Quintana is at least entering his preferred terrain, but his task is complicated by the flat, 30-kilometre time trial in Milan on the final day. Simply put, Quintana needs to claw back rather more than three minutes on Dumoulin in the coming days.
"We need to take back what we're down now and add on some more ahead of the final time trial. I don't know exactly how much that needs to be, but we'd need at least 40 seconds," Quintana said, rather optimistically.
"Dumoulin has been very good on the climbs so far. Up to now, the surprise for me is that he's going better than we expected. He's clearly on very good form. We'll see if he's as regular on the longer climbs that are coming, but for now, he's going very well."
At the Blockhaus and again on Oropa, Quintana's Movistar team seemed to race in the manner of Chris Froome's Sky guard, setting a searing but steady tempo on the lower slopes to set up their leader's offensive. Dumoulin's unflustered response to that line of attack thus far suggests that Movistar might need to take a more varied approach in the third week, though Quintana pointed out that the terrain, too, will be very different.
"When the pace is regular on the climbs, he has defended himself very well," Quintana said. "But we have to take into account that up to now, the mountain stages have only had one climb. In the stages to come, there's a much bigger total altitude gain and there are climbs over 2,000 metres."
Allies and descents
At least in theory, Quintana ought to have natural allies in the shape of Thibaut Pinot (3rd overall at 3:21), Vincenzo Nibali (4th at 3:40) and perhaps Ilnur Zakarin (5th at 4:24), though he was reluctant to dwell at length on the topic. "That will all depend on the circumstances of the race, the intentions of each team and the possible benefits," he said.
Quintana reported no lingering effects from his crash on the descent of Miragolo di San Salvatore on Sunday and again praised Dumoulin for ordering the pink jersey group to slow and wait for him. "He's a real gentleman," said Quintana, who defended his decision to sprint for the bonus seconds at the finish in Bergamo. "I was trying to win the stage, and you don't think about that when you're trying to win."
Three years ago, Quintana resuscitated his flagging Giro d'Italia by joining an attack on the snowbound descent of the Stelvio, at a point when the race had been, at least notionally, neutralised by the commissaires. The weather conditions will be mercifully more clement this time around, but, as Steven Kruijswijk's crash on the Colle dell'Agnello showed a year ago, descents could be as pivotal as climbs.
"If there's a chance to attack on the descents, then certainly we'll try to attack," Quintana said. "We'll try to attack on any terrain, but I think the differences are more likely to come on the climbs."
Unzue compares Dumoulin to Indurain
Eusebio Unzue wore his usual, permanent smile throughout Quintana's press conference, though it curled slightly when the Colombian was asked about those bonus seconds in Bergamo. Unzue, a part of Banesto's 'Holy Family' of the Miguel Indurain era, reached for the loftiest praise when asked to find a comparison for Dumoulin.
"The truth is that, in terms of profile, he would remind you of Miguel," Unzue said. "Maybe he's lacked a bit of consistency over three weeks in the past. He didn't emerge the winner of the 2015 Vuelta [a Espańa], but his defeat was maybe more a case of strategy than of strength. We're not up against a rider who's come from nowhere. He's been developing and improving and he's a real rival. Tomorrow is the big exam of this Giro, and we'll see how he goes.
"Up to now, Dumoulin has been impeccable on all terrains. When he's been in difficulty, he's defended himself in a very intelligent way. He's defended himself very well on the mountains so far. But while we've done two-thirds of the Giro, we've only done about a third of the mountains of this Giro. So we're facing into a very different week."
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