A four-stage spell in pink for Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) at the Giro d'Italia ended on Thursday as the Australian fought hard to keep pace with his rivals, but finally ceded time on the upper slopes of Mount Etna.
Dennis' defeat was far from decisive, however, as the rider bearing the maglia rosa since Tel Aviv in Israel on stage 2 crossed the line a relatively minor 1:04 behind stage winner Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott).
It puts Dennis in sixth place on the general classification, 53 seconds behind Chaves' teammate and new race leader Simon Yates. Dennis' climbing ability is clearly close to that of the other favourites, and the Australian remains in the GC game.
Dennis has repeatedly said that he is using the 2018 Giro to test his limits in terms of being competitive in the overall classification of Grand Tours, and, although no longer in the lead, given his all-round performance on Thursday, he was upbeat about continuing to do that long-term.
"I still have some work to do, but I was actually pretty happy with my climb today," Dennis said later. "There were points when I was in trouble, but I stayed calm and I actually rode back onto the guys that were the winners in the end. So I got confidence from the fact that they can go a little bit deeper than me with their spikes of power, but that they can't sustain it, and I have to keep reminding myself of that."
Dennis said that BMC had performed well on stage 6, despite the intense pressure of having a huge break with some key GC challengers up the road after just 50km.
Reviewing the start of the stage, he said: "It was a bit crazy, and there was no control. We tried our best to set a tempo but no one really wanted to respect that. We were all at the front and they all wanted to be in the breakaway today.
"So we decided we'd sit back and let it work itself out, and unfortunately 28 guys went up the road," Dennis said. "But you win some, you lose some. The guys then did an awesome job just to keep the break within three minutes, and finally we got some help from other teams."
Whatever happens as this year's race unfolds, Dennis has already had the honour of leading the Giro d'Italia, as well as showing – on stage 2, in particular – that he has the wherewithal to fight for the top spot on the GC after the disappointment of an agonising near-miss in the opening time trial in Jerusalem on stage 1.
He's also now been the leader of all three Grand Tours: one of just three Australians, after Bradley McGee and Cadel Evans, to have pulled off the achievement. Last, but not least, compared with his tough Giro start last year, when he abandoned after crashing in the first week, his 2018 race is on another, much better, level altogether.
"It was amazing to wear the pink jersey – something I was hoping for, but you never really expect it. Despite being the third leader's jersey I’ve had from the three Grand Tours, it was as special as if it had been my first one," he said.
As for where he goes from here, Dennis said that his long-term goals in the Giro remain intact.
"Nothing changes from today. Obviously I don't have the pink jersey, but that’s not an issue. I knew it was going to happen eventually, but I was hoping that it maybe wouldn't happen today – just to get a little bit more confidence from the race.
"There's still time," he said. "I'm not that far behind the leaders, and what I'm thinking is that if I can stay somewhat within reach, then hopefully I can still perform quite well, and the [stage 16] time trial will help me out as well."