Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) must have passed him somewhere on the long, long drop off the Colle dell'Agnello, but at the end of stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia, the Spaniard seemed unaware that maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) had crashed after three corners of the descent.
"I didn't know that he crashed, but it seemed a bit strange alright [that he lost time]," Valverde said as a soigneur pushed up the slope past the finish line at Risoul. It was that kind of day at the Giro: a brutal stage, where each man was left to wallow in his own sorrows.
Valverde began the day lying in third place overall and seemingly poised to take advantage if those in front of him fell by the wayside. Instead, the veteran was among the first to wilt, as he was distanced by Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) three kilometres from the summit of the Agnello.
As on the tappone in the Dolomites last weekend, Valverde seemed to struggle with when the road climbed above 2,000 metres on stage 19. The Agnello was the highest point of the entire Giro, some 2,744 metres above sea level, and Valverde must have approached the lengthy pass with a deep sense of foreboding.
"It was the altitude," Valverde said by way of explanation. He had teammate José Herrada for company on the long descent from the top of the Agnello and at one point they closed to within touching distance of Chaves and Nibali, but never succeeded in bridging the gap.
"They got to within 12 seconds of the Nibali and Chaves group so they were very, very close to catching them. However, the race circumstances and the amount of motorbikes at the Giro made that impossible," directeur sportif Vicente Garcia Acosta told Eurosport pointedly.
Though Valverde had by then passed the stricken Kruijswijk, he reached the base of the climb to Risoul a minute down on Nibali and Chaves. The Spaniard had Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) for company on the way up Risoul, and though he battled gamely to limit the damage, he continued to leak time to Nibali all the way to the summit.
The deficit was already 1:30 when Nibali launched his winning attack five kilometres from home, and Valverde ultimately placed 6th on the stage, 2:14 down on the Sicilian. "I struggled a bit on the Agnello but I climbed quite well here at Risoul and I'm relatively happy because I gave everything," said Valverde.
Valverde drops a place in the general classification to fourth, but draws closer on time to the maglia rosa. It's been that kind of Giro, and who knows what the penultimate stage back over the Franco-Italian border to Sant'Anna di Vinadio will bring. With Saturday's short but demanding leg over the Vars, Bonette and Lombarda still to come, Valverde lies 1:48 off new leader Esteban Chaves, and 43 seconds off third place, which is now occupied by the unfortunate Kruijswijk.
"Kruijswijk isn't the kind of guy to give up," Valverde said. "I'm just happy that I'm still fighting for the podium after such a tough stage."