It was hard to tell where the mountain ended and the sky began atop the Valico di Monte Scuro on Wednesday afternoon, where the low cloud merged with the canopy of trees to shroud the Giro d'Italia in gloom.
Somewhere in that mist, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was riding at the rear of the maglia rosa group and he was even distanced by several bike lengths on the final haul towards the summit. For a moment, his Giro challenge looked as nebulous as the conditions, but he chased back on over the other side to finish safely on stage 5 with the overall favourites.
Following his setback on Mount Etna on Monday, Yates' view of the maglia rosa is still decidedly hazy – after stage 6, he stood in 21st place, 3:52 behind João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – but his Mitchelton-Scott team insists that he remains in the hunt for final overall victory on October 25, still more than 2,600 kilometres and so many mountain passes away.
"It obviously wasn't the plan for Simon to lose time on the Etna stage, but I think we managed to settle him and limit the amount of time he lost there," Jack Haig, who crossed the finish on stage 6 2:46 behind his team leader, told Cyclingnews in Castrovillari on Thursday.
"In the end, the Giro this year is sort of very back-heavy in terms of the climbing stages and the length of the stages. I imagine it's going to be quite unpredictable with the weather this year also, which is another aspect we need to add in there. He's lost some time, but in the end, I think it's not going to be too much time."
Haig's words echo those of Directeur Sportif Matt White in the immediate aftermath of Yates' disappointment on Etna. White's comments initially seemed fanciful in light of the Briton's travails on the volcano, but the deficit is not insurmountable. Yates is almost four minutes off the inexperienced Almeida, but he trails Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) by less than three.
In a race without a dominant team and where a multitude of variables are waiting to cascade into the paths of the contenders between now and Milan, Yates is not yet out of the running, but it all hinges, of course, on whether his struggles on Etna were simply a blip.
"Exactly, we just need to hope it was a one-off day and Simon comes better," Haig said. "If Simon has the same condition that he had in Tirreno [Adriatico], then anything is possible. It's not a typical Grand Tour where you have one key team that's really strong and can control the race. I think here the race is much more open and the time gaps between the top 10 will be much bigger than the Tour de France this year."
Yates arrived at the Giro fresh from a sparkling overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and backed by one of the strongest collectives in the race, and Mitchelton-Scott were prominent in setting the pace at the head of the peloton on the approach to Etna on Monday.
With Yates now seeking to recoup minutes in the general classification, his team will look to become a disruptive force rather than a controlling one. It's a marked difference from Mitchelton-Scott's strategy in 2018, when Yates led the race for two weeks and Haig played such a key role in keeping the maglia rosa group in check for his leader.
"This year, I'll have a bit more of an opportunity to get into the breakaways, now that I've lost a bit of time on GC, and with Simon a little further back, it's a much more open race," said Haig. "It could lead to waiting for the right opportunity and then really trying to capitalise on that opportunity when it comes."
Mitchelton-Scott suffered a significant blow on Thursday when Brent Bookwalter was forced to abandon the race after suffering a suspected lumbar vertebral fracture in a heavy crash on stage 2.
"I came down really hard and I pretty much landed on my back and my radio whacked into my back," he told Cyclingnews earlier this week.
The American's experience will be a loss in the weeks ahead, but before leaving the race, he had expressed confidence that the condition that carried Yates to victory at Tirreno-Adriatico hadn't simply ebbed away in two weeks.
"The form is there: he's been healthy, he's done all the right things," Bookwalter said. "We've seen already that it's been a strange year. A number of guys in different races have sort of had one-off weird days or one-off really good days, so maybe it could be that.
"Traditionally in a Grand Tour – maybe not in the Giro so much, but certainly in the Tour de France – if you lose a few minutes, you're sort of out of the hunt for the win. But here, I think there's going to be some big time swings."
Two years ago, Yates was the victim of such a late turnaround just two days from the finish, losing the maglia rosa on the Colle delle Finestre on a delirious afternoon of racing that seemed to defy all logic. Last year, Yates' challenge never recovered from a subdued showing in the San Marino time trial in the first week, though he had enough consistency to place eighth overall in Verona.
This time out, Yates will hope to resuscitate his challenge as the race draws on, but he will face an important preliminary challenge this weekend, when the gruppo faces a summit finish at Roccaraso on Sunday.
"I'm feeling better, just taking day by day," Yates said. "Hopefully in the next days and weeks I can get to the level I expect to be at."
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