Four years after he held the lead in the Giro d’Italia for one day, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) is back in the maglia rosa after keeping his rivals firmly under control in the race’s first full high mountain stage.
With Nairo Quintana (Movistar) or any other contenders failing to produce some much expected fireworks on the ascent to the Montecopiolo, and the previous leader Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) falling back at the foot of the first big climb, the Cippo di Carpegna, the pink jersey was effectively Evans's for the taking. And take the maglia rosa Evans duly did, after BMC Racing teammate Steve Morabito had maintained a relentlessly steady pace on the Montecopiolo at the head of a group of some two dozen favourites. The Australian proved more than capable of handling the few cautious challenges to BMC’s control by the other contenders on the final climb.
Even if the pack shattered slightly at the top of the Montecopiolo, Evans's steady riding, as well as pulling back a couple of brief digs by GC contenders Rafa Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana), reaped a rich reward for the 37-year-old. Quintana squeaked ahead at the summit to pull back a couple of seconds, but Evans fifth place on the stage was more than enough to clinch Evans his first Grand Tour lead since winning the Tour de France in 2011.
Third in the Giro last year, Evans is currently 57 seconds ahead of his closest rival Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and 1:10 seconds ahead of Tinkoff-Saxo’s Rafal Majka.
“There’s still a long way to go, but I got some seconds today [on my rivals] and I’m very pleased to have the lead,” said Evans, whose first ever Grand Tour lead was in the Giro d’Italia way back in 2002. “I’ve managed to get where I am thanks to my teammates and I’m happy to be able to pay them back for such a great effort on their part.”
As for his rivals, he claimed “It seems like everybody is paying a bit for the events of the last few days” - such as the mass crash on Thursday, where a hefty percentage of the favourites suffered various injuries.
“I’ve got an advantage at the top of the classification, but there’s a lot of climbing to come so the gaps between all the favourites will probably get much bigger. Stages like Monte Grappa [the uphill time trial on stage 19 -Ed] and the Zoncolan [stage 20] are for the pure climbers, so the bigger the gap I can get, the better.”
As was the case with the 41-year-old Chris Horner (Lampre) when he was battling for the win last year’s Vuelta a España, Evans was asked in his press conference whether a veteran like him - at 37, a year younger than the Giro’s oldest ever leader, Andrea Noe in 2007 - could have difficulties holding his form throughout the race.
“This year I started building for the season early, aiming for good form in the Tour Down Under and the Australian Nationals,” Evans pointed out. “Then I started working towards here in May.”
“I’m not scared I’m in good form too early, I went to the GIro di Trentino [which he won - Ed.] with the aim of progressing towards a peak of form in the third week. If I want to win the Giro I’m going to have be in good form then.”
As for rivals to watch in the group of 20 favourites that finished alongside Evans, the Australian pointed to Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman as two riders who were “going very well at the moment, I’m sure they’re younger than me” - he said with a smile - “and they’re potential future winners for the GIro.”
Evans said he had expected Quintana to attack “because it was a high mountain stage and he’s a climber,” but in fact the Colombian’s gains were limited to just two seconds in a flurry of minor accelerations and counter-attacks within sight of the line, whilst in fact the Australian’s teammate Steve Morabito (BMC Racing) was probably the strongest rider on the climb. “I’m very proud of the work he did,” Evans recognised.
Asked to comment on the issue of whether BMC Racing’s decision not to wait for their rivals after the big crash on the Monte Cassino stage on Thursday had been the right one, Evans said he had not sensed any animosity towards him in the bunch as a result of what happened. “Anybody who did criticise us the next day then came to apologize for those comments,” he claimed.
The more important question from hereon, in any case, is whether Evans feels he can defend the jersey for the next two weeks. “The leader that goes down in history is the one that has it on the last day,” he reasoned, “[but] this week, we saw that the race could be won or lost in the first week, too.”
“We’ve been racing cautiously, minimizing the risks. We’ve ridden really defensively so far. But it’s been a good tactic.”
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