Brendan Canty came to a stop next to Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) atop Green Mountain, both hunched over their handlebars heaving for breath.
One is a former world champion and the other a cycling newcomer that had foreign media asking, ‘who is that?’ at the end of stage four of the Tour of Oman, which Nibali won to assume race leadership.
The first-year professional Canty reached down to the ground as he dismounted his bike, retching from his eighth place effort that put him in the best young rider jersey and into top 10 overall.
On the final 7.5km long ascent that Richie Porte (BMC) compared in difficulty to the Zoncolan, the former triathlete had yo-yoed between some of the best climbers not only in the race but the sport.
“Physically that’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said alone past the finish.
“There was a lot of motivation for me to try and prove myself out there today and go as hard as I can.
“When I’m training at home I know my numbers are up there and I can do it but there are a lot of things throughout a race that plays into it.
“A lot of these guys have been racing since they were kids in nappies almost and this is my third year racing and first year professional. For me to be knocking bars against some of these guys it’s pretty unreal.”
Canty, following two trainee stints at Drapac and then Budget Forklifts, has reconnected with the former this year. Oman is his third race of the season following an 11th place at the national championships and a hit-out at the Tour de San Luis last month.
“You go into the red for a little bit too long and you pay for it but without too much racing experience sometimes it’s hard to tell what the limit is,” he said.
“It’s great for me to come out here and be able to test myself against these sorts of climbers.”
Canty was part of a select group that sparred on the final climb where Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) challenged Nibali before settling for second ahead of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
The moves and counter moves between the big contenders started with about 3km to go around where Porte, who has played it safe during the tour with Paris-Nice in mind, attacked but later dropped back.
“On the run in I got put off the road on the gravel, which wasn’t great, but then it’s one of those rides I think you’re better off riding by your power metre if you can,” Porte said.
“If don’t have the legs then it doesn’t matter. I got dropped and then came back a little bit like a yo-yo but I’m kind of happy how it went and that the guys still got around me today, which was nice.”
Canty came across Porte on the climb but there is no room for gestures in a fight between hardnosed competitors as he found out.
“I came up to Richie early and tried to knock him off the wheel and he said, ‘mate, I’m not giving you my wheel.’ I said, ‘come on, help an Aussie out!’ But he looked at me and laughed a little bit,” he said.
Nibali crossed the finish line with a clear nine second gap and in a post-race interview dedicated his victory to the late Franco Gini.
“Today was a hard stage but my team worked for me the whole day, which was fantastic,” the Italian said.
“The next objective is Tirreno-Adriatico and then the Giro d’Italia so I’m very happy for the good start.”
Nibali now leads the general classification by 15 seconds over Bardet and Fuglsang by 24 seconds.