A little under four kilometres from the top of Mount Etna on Monday, Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) looked around and realised that the first mountain-top finish of the 2020 Giro d'Italia might allow greater freedom of movement than most Grand Tours in recent memory.
With Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates both already distanced, neither Ineos nor Mitchelton-Scott were present to police the group of favourites, and no other team, it seemed, had the numbers or the inclination to set the tempo, either. Like the Do Lung bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, there was no one in command.
"I saw there was not really one team who could control on the climb," Kelderman said afterwards. "I decided to jump and see what was happening. There was no control at all, and that was a good decision, actually."
Kelderman's initiative was rewarded with fourth place on the stage, 39 seconds down on winner and early escapee Jonathan Caceido (EF Pro Cycling), which was enough to move him up to the same position overall, 42 seconds behind new maglia rosa João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Behind Kelderman, Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fulgsang (Astana) tested the waters with accelerations of their own, and they were joined by Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) as the group of favourites splintered further on the upper reaches of the haul towards Piano Provenzana.
At the finish line, Nibali et al were 12 seconds behind Kelderman and another dozen seconds clear of the dogged Almeida, with the rest of the field scattered down the mountainside behind them. The favourites who conceded ground in Saturday's opening time trial in Palermo – chiefly, Nibali, Fuglsang and Kruijswijk – recovered those losses in one fell swoop at Mount Etna, but the Giro has not been reset to zero; it's been blown wide open.
When stage 3 set off from Enna on Monday morning, Ineos and Mitchelton-Scott stood out as perhaps the two strongest teams in the race, or at least as the two squads most likely to take a controlling interest at the head of the peloton in the mountains. Ineos' overall challenge is already over after Thomas lost 12 minutes following a crash in the neutralised zone, while Mitchelton-Scott's strategy will be entirely different after Yates inexplicably lost over four minutes on the haul up Etna.
On the evidence of Monday's stage, no team seems obviously equipped to control the race in quite the same way in the mountains, particularly now that Fuglsang has already lost key Astana teammates Miguel Ángel López and Aleksander Vlasov to injury and illness. Kelderman's Sunweb squad appears built to chase stage wins as much as the podium. Kruijswijk doesn't have the Jumbo-Visma of the Tour de France to support him. Nibali's Trek-Segafredo guard is willing, but their depth uncertain.
This novel, October Giro d'Italia was always going to be unpredictable, but now it has the potential to be utterly anarchic: a battle between a wide cast of individuals rather than a narrow selection of teams. Anything could happen.
Thomas and Yates
On the approach to the final climb, the peloton was routed around Mount Etna's eastern base – a haunting, spare landscape formed by lava and sun. The terrain provided the backdrop to the writing of Giovanni Verga, the 19th-century Sicilian novelist who was an exponent of verismo, an attempt at showing life as it really was, free from subjectivity.
After an opening time trial where the differing wind conditions for the GC contenders made it impossible to draw any objective conclusions about the state of their form, the largely sheltered 18km haul up the side of the volcano provided a rather more dispassionate view of their prospects.
Even before the race had reached Linguaglossa at the base of the final climb, it was clear that at least one lofty name could be excised from the list of potential overall winners. Thomas looked a possible Giro champion when he cruised to fourth in Saturday's time trial, but the Welshman's race was ruined by a heavy crash in the neutralised zone, where an errant bidon strayed into his front wheel.
Thomas spent the bulk of the day positioned towards the head of the peloton, but he began to drift backwards once the race hit Verga country, and he was definitively distanced even before the climb to Etna had begun. By the summit, he had conceded 12 minutes. His overall challenge is over, and so too, perhaps, is his Giro.
While there was an obvious and baleful logic to Thomas' exit from the GC battle on Monday, Yates' travails on Mount Etna were altogether rather more baffling. The Mitchelton-Scott rider won Tirreno-Adriatico last month and, together with Thomas, he had been the other big winner among the overall contenders in the Palermo time trial. He outlined his intentions for Etna by delegating his Mitchelton-Scott team to ride in pursuit of the day's early breakaway but was then inexplicably distanced by the group of favourites midway up the final climb.
A subdued Yates lost 4:22 on the day and is now 3:46 behind maglia rosa Almeida. His challenge perhaps can't be written off entirely just yet – think of Chris Froome in 2018 or Nibali in 2016 – but then Yates found himself in a roughly similar position after the San Marino time trial last year and the anticipated Houdini act never materialised.
Yates' crisis on the Finestre at the 2018 Giro was understandable, given that he had led and illuminated the race for two weeks, but exhausted himself in the process. This setback, like that of 2019, is rather more inexplicable, not least because of his sparkling recent form, but directeur sportif Matt White insisted the situation wasn't irretrievable.
"We'll just be coming at it from a different angle now," he said, and Wednesday's tough finale over the Valico di Montescuro will be an early test of that thesis.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.