It was a day of détente among the general classification contenders and the plain of Emilia was bathed in warm sunshine, but there was a cloud on the horizon of stage 10 of the Giro d'Italia for maglia rosa Cadel Evans and his BMC team as they lost Yannick Eijssen to a crash in the final hour of racing.
With a shade over 25 kilometres remaining, just as the sprinters' teams began to lengthen their reach and claw away at the early break's advantage, Eijssen was involved in an crash that also saw Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff-Saxo) hit the ground. As the young Belgian was stretched out on the tarmac and awaited treatment from the race doctor, it was immediately apparent that his Giro was at an end, and he was later helped into an ambulance.
"We only hear those things on the radio and we don't know what happened but I only saw the images on TV after the race had finished," Evans said. "To see the neck brace on anyone is scary but they say it's only a precautionary measure."
Eijssen was already a faller in the mass crash beneath Montecassino during the opening week and, still suffering from his injuries, was unable to carry out his duties in the finale of the Giro's opening mountain stage to Montecopiolo at the weekend. Along with the impressive Steve Morabito and Samuel Sanchez, however, the 24-year-old was expected to be one of Evans' key lieutenants in the final week in the high mountains.
"I even complimented him on the road today about how well he was going and how much progression he had made in the last few weeks," Evans said. "It's a big blow to him and to us as a team."
Stage 10 to Salsomaggiore Terme, in theory at least, ought to have been one of the least complicated for BMC to negotiate - with the sprinters' teams keen to control affairs, Evans' men had allies of circumstance at the head of the bunch for much of the afternoon. Nothing is ever straightforward at the Giro, however, and not least at this Giro. The finale was laced with potential pitfalls, and there was a seemingly inevitable crash inside the final kilometre of the stage, just as the sprint began.
"On paper it already looked a little bit intimidating to me," Evans said in the mixed zone afterwards, having excused himself from attending the post-stage press conference. "I think we had fresher riders, a bigger group coming into the finish and of course the sprinters were seeing it as one of their last opportunities, so they're possibly taking more risks. In the final, with all the corners, there's only so much space for so many riders who all want to be in front."
Evans, of course, is rarely away from the leading positions himself, demanding that his team ride shotgun with him towards the front of the peloton. Such vigilance helped him to avoid crashes during the opening week of the race, and then make an unexpectedly large gain on the road to Montecassino on stage 6.
"We were looking to avoid problems in the first week, we haven't attacked or anything yet," Evans said, a statement that might raise wry smiles from those left behind at Montecassino. "We had to stay in front today anyway because the finish was difficult, but guys on my team love being on the front and they don't mind expending a bit of energy."
On Wednesday, the peloton makes the long trek into Liguria, with a sinuous stage to Savona, where Eddy Merckx's 1969 Giro infamously came to an end. Positioning will be crucial on the twisting roads of the Riviera and, in particular, on the plunging descent from the final climb, the Naso di Gatto, to the finish.
"These kinds of finish are characteristic of the Giro, with small roads. Of course, it's another day where we'll search to be positioned well and pass without problems hopefully," said Evans, who leads Rigoberto Uran by 57 seconds and knows that he can buttress his overall lead still further in the Barolo time trial the following day.
"First of all, we'll pass tomorrow. Hopefully the time trial on paper looks more suited to me than to some of my competitors, but the race of truth, we'll see when we get there."