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No looking back as Simon Yates chases pink in final days of Giro d'Italia

Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) attacking on the Sega di Ala on stage 17
Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) attacking on the Sega di Ala on stage 17 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Momentum counts for a lot in the third week of the Giro d'Italia and it was priceless with a little under four kilometres remaining at Sega di Ala, where the narrow road up the mountainside knotted itself into a pair of tight hairpins and harshened to its steepest gradient.

After dancing out of the pink jersey group just as that section began, Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) was able to keep his gear rolling over as smoothly as the ramps allowed. Behind him, maglia rosa Egan Bernal's pedalling looked leaden for the first time on this Giro and he was distanced shortly afterwards.

By the top of the mountain, Yates had clawed back 53 seconds of his deficit on Bernal, and, all of a sudden, the Giro felt like a bike race again rather than a procession. Yates is still 3:23 down in third place overall, but after a trying day on the Passo Giau on Monday, his race has a little impetus again, and just as Bernal's had stalled for the very first time. 

With summit finishes at Alpe di Mera and Alpe Motta in the next two days, Yates and Team BikeExchange have the terrain to test Bernal still further.

"We're in a good place. There's still a lot of climbing to come and that starts tomorrow," BikeExchange directeur sportif Matt White said in Stradella on Thursday evening.

"There's a pretty tough final climb to the line tomorrow [at Alpe di Mera]. Then we've got long climbs the day after, not as steep, but there's a lot of metres of climbing on Saturday. It will be an interesting couple of days. And we're in a better place than we were five days ago."

After his dominance on the Passo Giau on Monday, it appeared that Bernal had already put the Giro beyond the reach of his rivals. His struggles on Sega di Ala will encourage Yates to press again on the climbs ahead, even if White was reluctant to extrapolate too much from Bernal's losses on stage 17.

"I think all we saw yesterday is that he is human," White said. "He is the best climber here, nobody has been able to challenge him on any climb so far in the race. Yesterday was the first time he showed any kind of weakness at all. 

"It was one day, and anyone can have a good day or a bad day. It wasn't his best but he's had 16 days before that going pretty good. He's got to manage the next couple of days, just as we do."

2018 Giro

Neither Yates nor White is much given to looking backwards and they will be understandably weary of repeated references to the Briton's collapse in the final days of the 2018 Giro, which he had dominated for the bones of two weeks. It is notable, however, that Yates' current deficit to Bernal closely mirrors the 3:22 advantage he held over Chris Froome at this precise juncture three years ago.

On the eve of that fateful stage over the Finestre, Yates had lost a handful of seconds to Froome, et al, on the climb to Pratonevoso, the first sign that his hitherto sparkling Giro was beginning to fall flat. This time out, Yates is the man looking to expose previously unseen weaknesses in the maglia rosa.

"I think we're just riding our race, and obviously if we want to move up we have to put pressure on the guys in front of us, it's as simple as that," White said. "Where that happens, we'll have to see over the next 24 hours. And maybe they've got a plan to put us under pressure again and see if that was a one-off. It's going to be very interesting how it plays out over the next 48 hours."

Team BikeExchange were prominent at the head of the peloton during stage 17, but Yates has since lost a key supporting rider for the grand finale in the Alps. Nick Schultz, so impressive on this race, was forced out after fracturing his hand in a crash on the Passo San Valentino, though Mikel Nieve and Tanel Kangert remain by Yates' side.

During Tuesday's rest day, Yates had suggested that a podium place was the height of his ambition in the final week and even atop Sega di Ala, he tried to brush off the notion that he was now capable of winning the Giro. In private, he will surely be keen to see just how far this momentum can now carry him.

"We're not settled on anything until Sunday," said White. "We're not looking backwards, we're looking forwards."