MESSINA (AFP) - Days after a denial, defending Giro d'Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali conceded relations with pink jersey favourite Nairo Quintana are frosty.
"It's true, we don't like each other," Bahrain team leader Nibali said on Wednesday after a fifth stage into his home town of Messina that saw Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria (Quick Step) claim his second win on the race.
A two-time champion who is hoping to claim his third 'maglia rosa' when the race ends in Milan on May 28, Nibali isn't considered the race favourite on what is its 100th edition.
Thanks to a climb-heavy final week, Movistar team leader Quintana has been given that honour.
A two-time runner-up at the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, the diminutive Colombian, who used to ride through the eastern ranges of the Andes mountains just to get to school, is the reigning Vuelta a Espana champion.
Ahead of Thursday's sixth stage, a 217km race from Reggio Calabria to Terme Luigiane that is designed for a sprint finish, both Nibali and Quintana sit 10secs behind Luxembourg's overall race leader, Bob Jungels of Quick Step.
Having claimed the pink jersey on the summit of Mount Etna on Tuesday, the 24-year-old hopes to keep the 'maglia rosa' until at least the next summit finish, at Blockhaus, on Sunday's ninth stage.
"I will try to keep the maglia rosa at least until Sunday. It'll be an important day for the climbers at the Blockhaus," said Jungels.
Although the overall contenders are keen to keep as much powder dry as possible for a potentially explosive third week in the high mountains, Nibali has been keen to get the race started.
A brief attack on the slopes of Mount Etna on Tuesday, however, brought no response from Quintana, who instead sent Costa Rican teammate Adrey Amador on the counter to check the 32-year-old Italian.
"I attacked just to see who would try to respond, but no-one had the courage to make a real counter-attack," added Nibali.
"We were all just controlling each other. I think on Blockhaus, we'll see a bit more action. It's a much harder climb (than Etna)."