Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) showed a first sign of weakness at the 2018 Giro d'Italia on Thursday, losing time to Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and Chris Froome (Team Sky) on the fast finish to Prato Nevoso.
He tried hard to paper over cracks in his defence of the maglia rosa, insisting it was just a bad day and that the multiple mountain stages to Bardonecchia and Cervinia suit him much more. However, Dumoulin is just 28 seconds down on the Briton and he got a real taste of blood after two-and-a-half weeks of suffering.
"I feel really good. I was only bad for one kilometre, so that's OK. I'm still in the lead, I'm still in front. Dumoulin is 28 seconds behind, not 28 seconds ahead of me. For me that's OK," he said, perhaps to convince himself, his rivals and everyone else who feels the Giro d'Italia is suddenly wide open.
"Today is very different to the next few days," Yates said. "Today was one big effort in the final. Tomorrow there are many passes and longer climbs that suit me much more. This does not hurt my confidence. I'm much more confident about tomorrow and the next day than I was about today."
Asked specifically if this time loss was the first crack in what seemed to be an invincible armour, Yates gave a little more away but put the blame on the fast finish that facilitated the high-speed attacks from Dumoulin and Froome.
"For sure, today was not a super day for me, as in the parcours I mean. The next few days suit me much more. I am looking forward to them," he said.
"Everyone expects Tom to lose time to me on every climb because he is a time triallist, but he is a classy rider. I didn't have the legs to follow him. Was it a first crack? Good question. I don't know. I hope not."
Yates insisted that his aggressive race strategy so far had been the right one.
"It's what I needed to do to be in the lead," he said. "If I hadn't been so aggressive, I would be behind now. I have taken 40 seconds in time bonuses, and I am only 28 in front. If I hadn't been aggressive, I wouldn't be in the lead. For me, it's been necessary."
Yates responded to Dumoulin’s first surge with two kilometres to go and initially looked in control as he sat in the big Dutchman's slipstream. However, when Froome then kicked hard, too, he was not able to respond. Dumoulin and Pozzovivo did, and with help from perfectly placed Wout Poels (Team Sky), the trio put 28 seconds into Yates before the finish line.
Yates knew Dumoulin would attack and looked him in the eye after following the first surge. It was the second attack from Froome that put him on the ropes.
"I looked at him because I wanted to see how he was," Yates said. "He gave everything in one attack, but he still had some legs to go. It was a really good ride for him. After I couldn't close the gap. I was really tired and I couldn't respond to the attacks, that's OK. That's OK," Yates said.
Yates explained he focused on Dumoulin today but conceded that Froome is not out of the race, despite being 3:22 back, and perhaps focused on taking Pozzovivo's third place overall.
"I said from beginning he was never out of it. He said he was going to fight all the way to Rome, and that is what he's shown now. I never doubted him for one minute. For me, it's not a surprise," Yates said of his fellow Briton.
"Both he and Dumoulin are good. I said that from start. All my rivals are very strong. I have never underestimated anyone in the top 10. We need to be careful until we reach Rome, especially in the next two days."
Yates had promised to ride defensively in the final mountain stages but hinted he may return to riding aggressively as he did until the Trento time trial.
"Maybe I'll have to go on the offensive if it's not working," he said. "The offensive approach worked all race, so maybe we'll have to switch back."