Mark Cavendish's chances of holding on to the red jersey as points leader in the Giro d'Italia received a setback when late on the 28-year-old sprinter was dropped on a short but painfully steep climb and lost any chance of gaining points in any bunch sprint finale.
His face twisted with pain, Cavendish survived in the pack until halfway up the final six- kilometre climb of the Crosara – which itself came at the end of an interminable five-hour stage of more than 200 kilometres – before cracking.
Although Omega Pharma-Quick Step had done their utmost both to control four breakaways before the climb and then tried to chase down a group of favourites that formed on the descent, the steepness of the climb and twisting downhill course effectively prevented the Briton from contending for his fifth stage win. Instead Giovanni Visconti took his second solo victory after a gutsy late attack.
Despite the disappointment and three mountain stages now looming, Cavendish's squad say the Manx rider's priority is victory in the final stage on the flat run to Brescia on Sunday – but that they do not completely rule out the points jersey, either.
"He's staying in the race for now," the team's sports director, Brian Holm, told The Independent, "and he won't abandon unless the weather turns completely crazy."
"Cavendish loves this race, he's happy here, the team and he are doing really well [with four stages and a day in the lead already in the bag and a fifth possible victory on Sunday's flat stage] and he wants to go through all the way to Brescia if he can.
"If we don't get the points jersey, well hey, nobody can criticise us or him for not trying his absolute hardest to win it."
Cavendish has been strongly playing down his chances, saying the points classification is all but impossible to win, despite currently having a four-point lead on Australia's Cadel Evans, the 2011 Tour de France winner who is expected to pick up points on the three Dolomite stages which start today with a 20-kilometre uphill time trial.
However, the risk of bad weather, which has already seen climbs on two stages cancelled or shortened in the Alps last weekend, becomes a factor, and not just because it might cause Cavendish to abandon.
At the moment, with temperatures forecast to fall as low as -15 on Friday and Saturday in the Dolomites, four of the Giro's five major ascents – the Giau, the Gavia, the Stelvio and the Tre Cime summit finish – are under threat of being cancelled.
Holm played down their importance and said: "The stages may be shortened but we'll still be in the mountains." However, with fewer climbs, the points classification might become more unpredictable.
One thing, either way, cannot be doubted. With four stage wins already in the bag – the most Cavendish has ever taken in a single Giro and including one taken in exceptionally challenging terrain on stage 13 into Cherasco – the Briton's level of performance continues to hit new heights.
Overall standings after stage 17
1 V Nibali (It) Astana, 73:11:29
2 C Evans (Aus) BMC +1:26"
3 R Uran (Col) Sky +2:46"Reuse content