After a series of steady steps comes an unexpected leap forward. Ever since the Giro d'Italia left Belfast, Cadel Evans has looked to be repeating the template that carried him to victory at the 2011 Tour de France, staying alert at the front of the peloton throughout in the hope of picking up seconds and here and there.
At Montecassino on Thursday, however, Evans' vigilance yielded an unforeseen dividend, as he moved up to second overall and now holds a lead of almost a minute over the next closest contender for final victory, Rigoberto Uran, and 1:50 over Nairo Quintana, while Joaquim Rodriguez slid out of contention altogether after a crash split the bunch in the finale.
On the approach to the final, 8km climb, where sheets of rain gave the impression that the road had been doused in olive oil, the BMC squad moved to the front of the race, mindful to keep their leader out of trouble. And what trouble. With just under 11 kilometres to go, as the pace ratcheted ever upwards, two crashes in rapid succession split the peloton. Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez and Giampaolo Caruso were among the most prominent fallers, but there were bikes and bodies strewn everywhere and amid the carnage, confusion reigned in the race convoy.
Out in front and - seemingly - oblivious to what happened behind, however, was an eight-man group driven by determined delegations from Evans' BMC squad and the Orica-GreenEdge team of pink jersey Michael Matthews. As the second category climb began in earnest, the eight had 40 seconds in hand on the chasers behind, as first Daniel Oss and later Steve Morabito hammered out the tempo in the service of Evans.
There will be inevitable debate as to whether the leaders ought to have sat up and waited for those caught up in the crashes, but BMC directeur sportif Valerio Piva dismissed the idea when he reached the team bus after the finish.
"I've already heard the polemics but what could we do? They were in front, they were already riding and they were up there in a favourable position," Piva told Cyclingnews. "Risks are part of the race. I'm sorry for the riders who fell but we weren't the only ones who were riding. There was Orica up there with three riders because they had the jersey and wanted to win the stage. I'm sorry but in these moments you can't do anything."
"The communication in the final isn't clear and to make rational decisions for such an unexpected situation isn't easy," Evans said later, in a statement released by the BMC team after the stage. "Our job is to race and to race to the finish. That's the first thing on our mind. What happened behind, I really have no idea. I haven't seen it. Unfortunately, it has been a very bad day for some of the riders."
Piva himself was at the roadside checking on BMC's own crash victims - Samuel Sanchez, Yannick Eijssen and Ben Hermans - and by the time he returned to the race convoy, Evans, Oss and Morabito were off the front. "There was chaos after that crash and it was hard to figure out how the race was at that point," he said. "It was only then that we saw there was this little group in front with Cadel, Morabito and Oss."
When Evans' teammates peeled off, he took up the baton himself within sight of the final kilometre. His surging effort was ultimately an extended lead-out for the stage winner Matthews, but it also meant that he crossed the line 49 seconds up on the group containing Uran and Quintana.
"We knew that it would be very dangerous, we knew that there was the roundabout coming up where a lot of riders would be braking and we were telling our riders every minute to stay in front and not to give up their positions," Piva said. "I'm sure the other teams were doing that too, but we just had that bit of luck. Joaquim Rodriguez didn't have it, Uran fell, a lot of leaders fell but that's the race. I can't say much more."
Evans began the Giro doubtless hoping to have some manner of buffer over the pure climbers ahead of the race's mountainous final week, but even he could hardly have anticipated that after just six days of racing, he would be almost two minutes clear of the pre-race favourite Quintana. With the Barolo time trial next week also set to favour Evans, the Australian is in a solid position.
"He has the advantage right now and he'll have to defend himself and sometimes it's easier to defend yourself rather than make up ground. That's what we've thought from the start of the race, to look to take time wherever we could in the stages more suited to Cadel," Piva said. "We'll try to get to the last week with the biggest advantage possible. There's also a time trial that should suit Cadel, and there are other stages too."
For another two days, at least, Evans has the additional benefit of holding a significant lead over his general classification rivals without having to carry the burden of the maglia rosa. He trails his fellow countryman Michael Matthews by 21 seconds and the Orica-GreenEdge team should remain an ally of circumstance until Saturday's first real mountaintop finish at Montecopiolo.
"Our objective is the final GC so having the jersey right now wouldn't be easy to manage, we knew that," Piva said. "We didn't race to take the jersey, we raced to gain ground on our rivals. Orica still have the jersey and tomorrow there's another stage that suits them. After that, we'll see because then we're into the real mountains."
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