Vincenzo Nibali and Trek-Segafredo pushed as hard as they could on the final, toughest climb of stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia, but the terrain proved less favourable than they had hoped for, and their pressure had little effect.
For all its length, the slopes of the first category Valico Montescuro proved too gentle and steady for any attack or shedding-down process to gain traction, Nibali said, and this, despite setting his Trek-Segafredo teammates to the task for much of the second half of the 25-kilometre climb.
Halfway up the monster Calabrian climb, as soon as the road steepened outside the San Francisco Sanctuary to 12 per cent and even 18 for a brief segment, a delegation of Trek-Segafredo riders, headed by Giulio Ciccone and Gianluca Brambilla, upped the pace at the head of the pack.
But as the road's gradient eased again, notably on the long, steady, grind that followed to the summit, for all Trek-Segafredo's hard work, the peloton remained stubbornly around 30 to 40 riders in size almost to the top.
"It was a very special, fiddly stage, as we expected. It was not easy to interpret which made it demanding, especially in terms of concentration, more so in the final," Nibali, now fifth overall, 1:01 down on leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) said afterwards.
"As a team, we decided to try to set the pace on the last climb, but then we understood that there was no ground for a real selection."
Although a last-minute blast by Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT) over the summit did have some effect, with Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) among those falling behind, what splits there were in the main group were only momentary.
Switching their strategy from a collective move to an individual one, Nibali followed up Trek-Segafredo's work by delivering one of his trademark searingly fast and well-honed descents off the climb into Camigliatello Silano.
Despite his speed, the downhill was not technical enough for any gaps to open more than briefly. Indeed, some climbers, like Yates, managed to get back on before the front group roared into the finish town, less than a minute behind lone winner Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers).
Nibali said he had not planned to try to drop his rivals coming off the Valico Montescuro.
"On the descent, I preferred to take the lead as a precaution. I didn't know how dangerous the slippery asphalt might be and I wanted to avoid risks," he explained later.
Trek-Segafredo's attitude on the climb might be seen as some as an assumption, conscious or otherwise, of Nibali's status as the current top favourite for overall victory. But if that was a hypothetical step in the right direction for Nibali's team on a day with few tangible developments on GC, they also suffered the very real setback of a key teammate, Pieter Weening.
The former Giro leader and stage winner pulled out the stage suffering from 'light dizziness'. He had crashed the day after taking a bidon from a roadside soigneur and the team opted for him to abandon as a precaution.
"It's good to have put a potentially dangerous stage behind us without any problems, even if Weening's withdrawal is a tough loss," Nibali recognised. And as he said, although getting through a rain-soaked, unpleasantly long stage 5 has undoubted benefits for the Italian GC contender, Weening's absence will surely be felt, particularly when the Giro returns to the mountains, starting next Sunday in Rocarasso.
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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