The Giro d'Italia's 34.2km time trial stage from Rovereto to Trento saw Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) keep a firm grip on the maglia rosa as Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) managed to pull back just 1:15 of his 2:11 deficit in the overall standings. Yates will wear the race leader's pink jersey for an 11th day during Wednesday's flat stage to Iseo and now leads Dumoulin by a reassuring 56 seconds.
The Giro d'Italia appears to be a two-horse race between the Briton and the Dutchman, with Yates in the driving seat and Dumoulin now obliged to go on the attack in the Italian Alps.
"At the moment, if I attack, he'll attack me twice as hard, so I don't know what the plan is going to be," Dumoulin said somewhat dejectedly after the time trial. "Of course, I have no other option. I'm not giving up – of course not."
Yates also remains cautious as this is his first real shot at overall victory in a Grand Tour. He has dominated the race so far, winning three stages while wearing the maglia rosa for 10 days, but will keep all his rivals under control and hope he doesn't struggle in the final Alpine stages.
"Anybody within, say, 10 minutes is a danger," Yates said when asked if he considers Chris Froome (Team Sky) back in the fight after his excellent time trial.
"This is the Giro. A lot of strange things happen. You never really know. so we're all going to keep on our toes for everybody. I won't be safe until Rome, as anything can happen: bad luck, a bad day. I'm aware that can happen. I'm just praying it doesn't."
Lower down the overall classification, other battles are likely as riders fight for the final podium spot behind Yates and Dumoulin, and the best possible place in the top 10. UCI WorldTour points are also precious and the Giro d'Italia offers a significant haul that boosts contract value and their team's place in the WorldTour.
The different time trialling ability amongst the overall contenders sparked a game of snakes and ladders between fourth and 11th places.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) produced a surprisingly spirited fight-back in the time trial after a series of recent dire performances in the mountains. However, he remains 22nd overall and only made the headlines after he and two other teammates were penalised for drafting.
Domenico Pozzovivo is now Italy's only hope for success in this year's race, in third place overall. He lost 43 seconds to Yates, 1:58 to Dumoulin and 1:45 to Froome, who is now fourth overall only 39 seconds down on Pozzovivo.
Pozzovivo, or 'Mimmi' as he is known within Bahrain-Merida, is soft-spoken and avoids social media, and is studying for his second degree as he races professionally. Yet he expressed his frustration when Aru's struggles on the Zoncolan were given more space in the Italian media than his third place behind Froome and Yates. He is ready to stick out his chest in pride and fight off Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Froome for a spot on the final podium in Rome.
"I'm convinced I can have my say. Last year I was up there right until the final climbs, and so why shouldn't I be this year? I think I can again be a protagonist," Pozzovivo said.
"I'm convinced the Giro will be open until the stage to Cervinia on Saturday. We've still got three mountain finishes and two of them are tapponi – big, testing mountain stages with multiple climbs."
Froome and Dennis rise
When Chris Froome slid out the back of the pink jersey group on the road to Sappada on Sunday, it seemed that his Zoncolan victory would go down as an aberration in an otherwise nondescript Giro d'Italia showing. But a solid outing on the road to Rovereto has suddenly opened the prospect of a podium finish for the Briton.
Froome's 5th place on the stage, 35 seconds down on Rohan Dennis, saw him rise three places to fourth overall, 3:50 behind Yates and just 39 seconds off a podium place. What he achieves from here will depend upon which Froome shows up in the Alps – the leaden-legged figure of Gran Sasso d'Italia or Sapped, or the strikingly more agile rider who seemed almost to spin his way up the mighty Zoncolan.
Speaking in Rovereto on Tuesday, Froome downplayed the prospect of emulating Vincenzo Nibali's dramatic 2016 comeback.
"I think everyone's thinking about that and quietly hoping they can have a similar experience, but I think we've got to be realistic as well – it's a big ask at this point," said Froome. With a verdict still pending in his salbutamol case, it remains to be seen, of course, if Froome's result in Rome will survive in the record books.
The other big riser in Tuesday's time trial was stage winner Rohan Dennis, who leapt from 11th to sixth (5:04 behind Yates) after hurtling along the course at 51.3kph. The Australian's stated aim before this Giro was to finish in the top 10 overall, and he remains on course for that objective, even if he acknowledged that he could have done with a healthier buffer ahead of the three mammoth days to come in the Alps.
As things stand, Dennis is just 2:09 ahead of 11th-placed Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), and mindful that he will likely need to better his displays in the high mountains to this point if he is to hold onto a place in the top 10. "There are three big mountain stages and I have to get through them as best as possible and keep doing what I've done these last two weeks," Dennis said.
It was a most trying day, on the other hand, for Thibaut Pinot, who could only manage 66th on the stage, some 3:20 down on Dennis. Pinot has now dropped to fifth place overall, 4:19 behind Yates, and his goals have been recalibrated accordingly. On Monday, Pinot held out faint hopes of final overall victory; now, a podium finish in Rome seems to be the summit of his ambition.
Just about every other rider in Pinot's position would have ridden straight through the finish area and cloistered themselves aboard their team bus, but the Frenchman stopped to speak with reporters immediately after completing his effort and offered no excuses.
"I wasn't good. I just had no power – none," said Pinot – a rider who has never seemed to draw the same benefit from rest days as his rivals.
It must be noted that Pinot's best Grand Tour displays – third at the 2014 Tour de France and fourth in last year's Giro – had their ups and downs over the course of the three weeks, and he will hope that the stage 16 time trial will go down as his jour sans from the 2018 Giro. The terrain in the Alps later in the week seems well-suited to his talents, and, with little left to lose, he has vowed to go on the offensive.
"Finishing fourth, sixth or seventh – it's all the same," Pinot said. "If I have the legs this weekend, I'll try to go on the attack. We'll see."
Elsewhere, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) dropped two places to seventh (5:37 down on Yates), but he extended his lead in the white jersey competition over Movistar's Richard Carapaz (now ninth at 6:07). The two South American riders will continue their duel for the white jersey in the Alps and will expect to rise in the general classification to boot.
George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) suffered further mechanical problems in the time trial, having endured a slipped chain on the Zoncolan, and he drops two places to 10th overall, 7:01 off Yates as a consequence. From the outset of this Giro, however, the New Zealander has emphasised his readiness for the long efforts of the tapponi in the high Alps. The terrain is amenable to him from here on out; he will hope, too, that his luck turns.