As Chris Froome crossed the finish line atop the Jafferau at the end of stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia after an 80-kilometre solo effort, the race speaker provided a breathless running commentary from the podium. "Una fuga d’altri tempi," he cried enthusiastically - "A break from another era."
The speaker was undoubtedly thinking of Fausto Coppi’s exploits during the Giro’s sepia-tinted editions in the immediate post-war period, but Froome’s disquieting show of strength seemed to have just as much in common with more recent lone attacks from a rather more garishly-coloured age.
Friday’s stage, after all, saw Froome climb Sestriere, where Claudio Chiappucci claimed a startling solo victory on the 1992 Tour de France after spending most of the day alone off the front. The dramatic turnaround in his fortunes – Froome began the day 3:22 off the overall lead and finished it in the pink jersey – put one in mind of Floyd Landis’ outsized lone effort on the road to Morzine at the 2006 Tour.
Froome is riding this Giro despite testing positive for salbutamol at last year’s Vuelta a España (a verdict has yet to be reached, meaning he is entitled to compete), and even as he pulled away from Tom Dumoulin, Thibaut Pinot et al on the upper slopes of the Colle delle Finestre, there was no getting away from the fact. As if any reminder were needed, two men on the side of the road wielded a large, mock-up inhaler as Froome rode past.
The speaker, of course, made no mention of Froome’s uncertain status as the tifosi cheered the Sky rider’s arrival, but although he was lauding what he felt to be an exploit for the ages by the man he called 'his majesty Chris Froome', it is still altogether unclear whether the victory will remain in the record books once the salbutamol case has been resolved.
In the here and now, of course, Froome wears the maglia rosa of race leader, and he was guided immediately to the podium on crossing the line. Some three minutes passed before Richard Carapaz (Movistar) came home in second place, just ahead of Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). Dumoulin, the only man who could deny Froome pink, reached the finish 3:23 down, meaning that the Dutchman faces into the final mountain stage on Saturday in second place overall, 40 seconds down.
The top finishers on the stage were all shepherded towards the anti-doping tent after the stage, and Pinot wore a broad smile when he emerged shortly afterwards. On a day that defied all logic, he had managed to put a different sense on his Giro and move up to third overall.
"I think today we've written a page of the history of the Giro, it was a crazy stage,” said Pinot, who didn’t dream of trying to match Froome’s disarmingly brisk pace on the Finestre. "He was much too strong for us today."
After Froome and the disjointed chasing group came the deluge, with riders trickling across the finish line in ones and twos, their gaunt, haunted faces illustrating the severity of the day’s racing. Domenico Pozzovivo had begun the day with an outside chance of claiming the maglia rosa. He finished it 8:29 down on Froome, but that was still good enough for 11th place on a most curious afternoon of racing.
The Italian drops to 6th overall, however, 8:03 behind Froome, and his dejection was palpable as he came to a halt. He wordlessly took a bottle of water from a soigneur and then wrapped himself in a long-sleeved jersey. A television crew proffered a microphone more in hope than expectation. Pozzovivo didn’t even shake his head, he simply turned and rode back down the mountain. There was too much to say and yet there was nothing to say.
While Froome was being feted atop the podium, the previous race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was only beginning his ascent of the Jafferau, the final part of a day-long ordeal that had begun when he was dropped on the Finestre with 85km to go. The speaker kept spectators updated on his progress and signalled his arrival in the final kilometre: "Ladies and gentleman, please guide the maglia rosa to the line."
By that point, many of the earlier finishers were already descending the climb to their team buses, and some of them had been supplied with whistles to advertise their presence as they negotiated blind turns on the road down. Now as Yates pedalled grimly towards the summit, he was met at each bend by the whistling of riders freewheeling in the opposite direction.
There was generous applause for Yates as he finished 38:51 behind Froome, surrounded by Jack Haig, Roman Kreuziger and Mikel Nieve. Yates was immediately ushered into the makeshift changing room past the finish line, while his teammates spoke to reporters on his behalf. Haig has been Yates’ roommate and strongest domestique on this Giro, and on the long and lonesome road over the Finestre, Sestriere and Jafferau, he took it upon himself to encourage his friend as best he could.
"I was just saying he’d done a bloody good job up to that point," Haig said. "He shouldn’t feel down in himself and feel like he should apologise to the team, because he’s done an amazing job."
Yates sat for a quarter of an hour or so in the changing tent, joined in time by riders who had laboured even further down the road than he. Seven riders abandoned the Giro on stage 19, including Fabio Aru, while many of those who survived the 185km haul were broken men.
"All you can hear in there is guys coughing their lungs out," said one team official on emerging from the tent.
Froome was the first rider to the summit of the Jafferau, but the last to leave, detained by his media obligations as stage winner and overall leader.
While Froome spoke to reporters in the mixed zone, a group of rowdy tifosi dressed as cows began to serenade him in song. Their bidons contained something more potent than water. "Chris Froome, uno di noi," they sang. "Chris Froome, one of us."
One of their number was draped in a Sardinian flag and had presumably come to Bardonecchia to cheer on Aru. Now, as a camera crew turned its focus upon him, he was gladly hamming up his admiration for Froome, the new maglia rosa.
Sometimes cycling is a sport with a very short memory.