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Early pace set by Simon Yates but Giro d’Italia remains a marathon

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - MAY 07: Simon Yates of United Kingdom and Team BikeExchange - Jayco celebrates winning the stage on the podium ceremony after the 105th Giro d'Italia 2022, Stage 2 a 9,2km individual time trial stage from Budapest to Budapest / ITT / #Giro / #WorldTour / on May 07, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange-Jayco) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Short, early time trials at the Giro d’Italia can be deceptive. The inclination to project towards the future is tempered by the knowledge that, historically, such explosive efforts have not always been reliable indicators of readiness for an endurance race of this magnitude.

“In the Danube’s waves, past, present and future are all embracing in a soft caress,” wrote the poet Attila Joszef, whose statue gazed out upon the mighty river and the time trial course from its perch outside Budapest’s neo-gothic parliament building.

For stage winner Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), the present here was a pleasant surprise, the future is filled with promise, but the past fussily insists on adding a note of caution. Three years ago, after all, the Briton finished second on a similar course in Bologna only to fall well short of his usual standards when the Giro reached the high mountains. He knows better than most that this race is a marathon rather than a sprint.

“I wouldn’t look too much into this,” Yates said when he took a seat in the press conference truck after the podium ceremony. “This was a 12-minute effort, and it will be an hour-long effort on Etna [on stage 4]. It’s a completely different race from here on out. I’m ecstatic, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Yet even with all caveats dutifully attached, this was, by any metric, a remarkably successful afternoon’s work for Yates. His career has been liberally punctuated by notable time trial displays – witness his robust defence of the maglia rosa in Rovereto in 2018 or his display at Paris-Nice this year – but he surely set out in Budapest looking to limit his losses on men like Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) and João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates).

Instead, Yates struck an early blow against the rouleurs, putting three seconds into Dumoulin and 18 into Almeida, and he also notched up some notable gains on the climbers in the 9.2km test. The old adage says the gaps will be counted in minutes rather than seconds come the third week, of course, but getting a 28-second head start on pre-race favourite Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) is a leg up towards the maglia rosa all the same.

Better yet, while Yates leads the virtual classification of pre-race favourites, the maglia rosa remains on the shoulders of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who delivered a thundering display to take second on the stage. Having carried the weight of the pink jersey for two whole weeks in 2018, Yates and BikeExchange-Jayco will be glad to pass up on that often onerous honour for the time being.

After the stage, it emerged that Yates had raced in a bespoke skinsuit that cost over €3,000. Technical innovation has always been a part of the game in professional cycling, though these days, it sometimes feels akin to an arms race. Even so, the cost of Yates’ attire should not distract from the expertise at his disposal. Marco Pinotti joined the GreenEdge set-up as performance director last year, and the Italian’s forensic, detail-oriented approach to the discipline is surely a hefty factor in Yates’ improvement against the watch this season.

Yates has endured more sorrow than delight at the Giro over the years, losing pink at the last in 2018 and firing only fleetingly en route to third place in 2021. Year after year, he and Directeur Sportif Matt White keep coming back, tweaking details here and there in the hope of finally landing their White Whale.

The latest recalibration saw Yates warm up for the Giro at the Vuelta Asturias, where he won two stages but lost 11 minutes on the other, making it difficult to draw too many firm conclusions. Or, as Cristiano Gatti of Tuttobici put it on the eve of the race: “He always arrives at the Giro as the Pope in waiting and he always leaves it still a cardinal, without every clarifying whether he really has it in him.”

Three weeks out from Verona, it’s far too soon for white smoke. Yates has made a most compelling early case, but the conclave is only getting started.

The chasers

Just about everything said about Yates can be applied to the men trailing in his wake. Barring accident or incident, no Giro is lost in 9.2km of time trialling on the opening weekend, and in a race with just 26km against the watch in total, it may be particularly unwise to read too much into the results sheet.

Even specialists like Dumoulin and Almeida have likely spent less time than usual on their time trial bikes this spring given that the Giro features its lowest quota of time trialling kilometres since 1962. At the 2015 Tour de France, after all, Chris Froome delivered a subdued display in the race’s lone individual time trial on the opening day in Utrecht, only to have the race effectively won after the first mountaintop finish at La Pierre Saint Martin.

That said, Dumoulin’s disappointment was palpable at the finish. The Dutchman had already won opening time trials at the Giro in 2016 and 2018, and one senses an early success here would have been all the more welcome as he makes his long-awaited return to Grand Tour racing. No matter, his Giro prospects were always likely to become altogether clearer at Mount Etna on Tuesday, and that remains the case.

Almeida, meanwhile, would surely have expected much more here given his pedigree against the watch. His fine display in Palermo two years ago, after all, teed him up to take pink on Mount Etna two days later.

It was a rather happier afternoon for Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious), who limited their losses to 22 seconds, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan), who didn’t hide his satisfaction at coming in 19 seconds behind Yates.

The time gaps were greater for Mikel Landa (32 seconds), Jai Hindley (34 seconds), Hugh Carthy (38 seconds) and Miguel Ángel López (42 seconds), but, given their respective pedigrees against the watch, such losses were far from calamitous.

Carapaz, meanwhile, quietly delivered a display roughly in line with expectations. The Ecuadorian was only Ineos’ fourth-best performer on Saturday, but it was still good enough for 19th on the stage. Ordinarily, conceding less than half a minute in a test like this would constitute success, but the identity of the surprise winner somewhat muddles the picture. So too does the fact that Carapaz faded so dramatically on the climb to the finish, where he lost 18 of his 28-second deficit on Yates.

No point in dwelling too deeply on the confluence of days past, present and future by the Danube, then. Or, as Nibali put it after he was asked to read the runes of his time trial display: “Look, you know you can never predict anything here.”

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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.