A little over 20 minutes or so after the finish of stage 10 of the Giro d'Italia, the leaders of the team classification were called to the podium in Gualdo Tadino to accept the day's honours. As maglia rosa Simon Yates, Mikel Nieve and Jack Haig climbed rather self-consciously onto the dais, the finish area beneath them was milling with television crews awaiting the arrival of a conspicuous absentee from the subdued Mitchelton-Scott party.
Esteban Chaves had begun the day in second place overall, and he betrayed no signs of unease at the start in Penne, smiling serenely for the cameras as he warmed up on the rollers in preparation for the day's early opening climb, the stiff Fonte della Creta.
Within moments of the flag dropping, however, Chaves was in considerable discomfort, and he was distanced definitively when the bunch ruptured midway up the climb. For the bones of 100 kilometres or so, his group's deficit oscillated between one and two minutes, before it opened brutally and inexorably towards the midpoint of the Giro's longest day.
By the time Chaves grimly hit the climb of Annifo in the finale, he already trailed the bunch by more than a quarter of an hour. On the rain-spattered roads on the run-in, his disadvantage crept up still further, and it briefly looked as though he would cross the finish line at the precise moment his teammates were being feted on the podium.
In the end, Chaves could be grateful for small mercies. His final deficit of 25 minutes on stage winner Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) meant that the podium ceremonies had already wound down by the time he eventually reached the finish in a group of 30 or so riders, beneath darkening skies.
Anxious television crews edged into the centre of the road as they scanned the haunted, grimy faces of the back-markers that ghosted past, straining for the first glimpse of Chaves. Once his blue jersey was sighted, Chaves was encircled by a net of cameras and microphones, but a soigneur helped to cut him loose and guide him into open waters. The Colombian soft-pedalled gently out of the finish area and towards his team bus, a troupe of reporters jogging after him.
A crowd of Colombian supporters were already waiting at the Mitchelton-Scott team bus when he arrived, and on spotting Chaves, one woman called out: “We will love you forever.” A reporter from RAI television was less maudlin. He managed to hail Chaves down before he reached the door of the bus, thrusting a microphone in his direction.
"That's the Giro…" Chaves said, his voice low. "I've got a difficult relationship with Italy, it’s love and hate. Just a few days ago I enjoyed one of the best days of my career and now it's hard for my morale. But that's life, we can only do our best. The important thing is that we've still got the leader's jersey. Our plans won't change."
Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White had made use of Monday's rest day to reconnoitre the treacherous opening 100 kilometres of stage 10, but simply as a routine precaution. There had been, it appears, no indication beforehand that Chaves would struggle so severely as the Giro resumed hostilities.
"We've still got to understand my problems. I just didn't have the strength and couldn't stay with the best on the first climb. We tried to chase with the team and got to within one minute but it didn't work out," said Chaves, who drops to 39th overall, 25:26 behind his teammate and overall leader Yates. "Our goal doesn't change as a team. We started with the idea to win the Giro and we'll continue with that plan."
The South American television crews that had followed Chaves from the finish line were only arriving at the Mitchelton-Scott bus as he was climbing aboard, and they quietly stood in vigil outside in the perhaps forlorn hope that he would re-emerge and speak in greater detail.
General manager Shayne Bannan, meanwhile, spoke briefly with a dejected Chaves aboard the bus, but said that it was too soon to pinpoint a precise explanation for his rider's performance.
"Obviously he was really disappointed. It's sort of bitter sweet. We still have the lead but obviously Esteban's ride today is quite disappointing. We don't know what the situation was," Bannan said. "We have to sit down and analyse it all. You don't ask a rider what happened when he comes in. He has to shower first, sit down and then we analyse it in a rational way.
Bannan confirmed that Chaves had not complained of any problems during the rest day or ahead of Tuesday’s stage. "No, everything seemed as normal as it can be in a Grand Tour. But as we know, in critical moments, you just have to be one per cent off and that's all it takes."
Chaves had teammates Sam Bewley, Roman Kreuziger and Chris Juul-Jensen for company in his chasing group, but once the deficit became insurmountable, the decision was taken to call off the pursuit. Up ahead, meanwhile, Yates managed to extend his overall lead to 41 seconds on Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) by claiming the time bonus in the intermediate sprint at Sarnano.
"There's only so much you can do with a small group off the back with the big teams going for the race in the front. It wasn't really calling off the chase, just a natural progression," Bannan said. "On the other hand, Simon got those three seconds in bonuses at the intermediate sprint, and we still have the lead, so we still have a lot to look forward to."
Ever since Mount Etna last week, when Chaves claimed stage victory and Yates moved into the maglia rosa, the precise hierarchy of the Mitchelton-Scott team has been a matter of some discussion. Not for the first time in Giro history, any debate has been resolved by the arid truth of the road.
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