The great mountain passes tend to catch the eye when the route of the Giro d'Italia is presented each autumn, but come May, some less heralded finales inevitably end up shedding important light on the general classification battle.
It certainly felt that way in Osimo on Wednesday afternoon, where maglia rosa Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) notched up his second stage win of the Giro and defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) seemed the only man capable of operating at something approaching the same rarefied level as the Briton.
While it would be extremely premature to extrapolate too much from the skirmish in the final 1,500 metres or so of stage 11, it would also be remiss to dismiss its relevance for the harsher tests still to come, not least because the afternoon also appeared to confirm the downward trajectory of some of the pre-race favourites, with Chris Froome (Team Sky) conceding another 40 seconds.
Thursday morning's headlines will belong inevitably to Yates, who accelerated with notable facility on the 16% gradient of the Via Olimpia, and barely relented from there to the finish. The overall leader has been the Giro's outstanding climber thus far, pedalling with remarkable agility and seemingly able to open gaps at will. He served up more of the same in the Marche, adding another handful of seconds to a lead that he maintains will need to stretch to minutes if he is to keep the maglia rosa beyond next Tuesday's time trial in Trentino.
The terrain on stage 11 meant that the gaps were never going to be sizeable, but Yates' satisfaction at another sparkling display might be tempered slightly by the identity of the rider closest to him. Dumoulin has been consistent but unspectacular when the road has climbed to this point, but his fierce pursuit of Yates at Osimo suggested that his condition is in crescendo as the Giro reaches its midway point.
Come the finish line on Piazza Municipio, Dumoulin trailed Yates by just two seconds, though the Briton also picked up an additional four seconds in time bonuses. In the overall standings, Dumoulin remains in second place, now 47 seconds behind Yates.
The weight of that gap is very much in the eye of the beholder – "47 seconds is not a lot, but it's already quite much," Dumoulin mused – but the Dutchman would surely sign now for a similar deficit going into next Tuesday's time trial.
There is, of course, the small matter of a brutal weekend doubleheader in Friuli to negotiate first. "If I lose more time on the Zoncolan or the day afterwards, then it would be very difficult," Dumoulin said.
Yates, for his part, seems to be mentally totting up the seconds per kilometres he can afford to lose on stage 16. "The time trial – I'm afraid of it, let's not dodge that question," Yates said. "I could lose a lot of time."
Their grim pursuit match on the haul to Osimo on Wednesday could be repeated on a grander scale at the weekend.
Froome goes backwards
It already seems eons since race director Mauro Vegni sat in a conference room in the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem and insisted that he had received assurances from UCI president David Lappartient that Chris Froome's results on the Giro would stand even if he is eventually sanctioned for his positive test for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España.
As things stand, the point seems moot.
Froome has been haemorrhaging time ever since he crashed while reconnoitering the opening day time trial, and the bleeding has yet to show any sign of stopping. At the precise time that Yates was bounding clear of the leading group on Wednesday afternoon, Froome was grimly sliding out the back, shifting uncomfortably from side to side.
The Sky rider reached the finish line in 23rd place on the stage, all of 40 seconds behind Yates, and in the general classification, he drops to 12th overall, already some 3:20 off the maglia rosa. Even at this early juncture, a Froome comeback already seems altogether more improbable than Vincenzo Nibali's dramatic late turnaround at the 2016 Giro, not least because the Briton appears to be struggling with the effects of his crashes in Jerusalem and at Montevergine.
"In this game, if you're not at your absolute best you've got nowhere to hide. You can only hide it for so long," said Froome. The resolution of salbutamol case notwithstanding, Froome will surely have to give serious thought to pulling out and preparing for the Tour de France if he cannot arrest the downward trend at the weekend.
Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates) fared only marginally better. The Italian champion, like Froome, conceded more than a minute at Gran Sasso d'Italia on Sunday, though he limited the damage to 21 seconds here. Aru was caught up behind a crash on the run-in to the final kick to the line, but that was perhaps a consequence of how far back he was positioned in the pink jersey group.
The Sardinian evinced optimism after the stage, preferring to focus on how well he had managed to curtail his losses on the final kick to the line. No matter, he is now in 10th place overall, some 3:10 off Yates and 2:23 behind a Dumoulin who will be expected to beat him convincingly in next week's time trial. Like Froome, he needs to do more than simply tread water in Friuli this weekend.
There was ample mitigation for the day's other faller in the standings, Michael Woods (EF-Drapac), who dropped out of the top ten to 16th overall 3:43 after he crashed in the finale. He remounted and gave chase, coming home 1:05 down on Yates. Missing out on the chance to contest the stage win on that he might well be more of a frustration for Woods than the concession of ground in the overall standings.
Pinot and Pozzovivo ever-present
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) have been prominent at every major rendezvous to this point, and the trend continued as Osimo, where they placed 5th and 7th, 8 seconds down on Yates. In the overall standings, they lie 3rd and 4th respectively, with Pinot trailing Yates by 1:04 and Pozzovivo a further 14 seconds back.
"I needed to limit the damage because I wasn't on a great day," Pinot said afterwards. "We used up a lot of energy to stay in position because it was dangerous, and that was the most important thing."
On Monday's rest day, Pinot had already warned of the dangers of the Giro's traversal of Umbria and the Marche, and suggested that he was already expecting to lose ground to more explosive riders like Yates. "So far, the efforts have been more for puncheurs, but from next weekend, that will be different," Pinot said.
George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), had similar expectations ahead of the second week, even if 23 seconds is a bigger gap than he would have liked here. The New Zealander (6th overall at 2:09) finished with Richard Carapaz (5th overall at 1:56), while Rohan Dennis (7th overall at 2:36) limited his losses to 18 seconds.
You can only read so much from a short, steep hill in the Marche, of course. The longer mountain passes of the third week will be the ultimate arbiter of how their races pan out. Some truths at the Giro are inalienable.
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