Midway up the Colle delle Finestre, as the tarmac gave way to dirt road, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) braced himself for the inevitable. Team Sky's startling forcing had already seen maglia rosa Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) jettisoned out the back of the leading group, and now Chris Froome was readying himself to attack.
Some 80 kilometres lay between this stretch of steep sterrato and the finish of stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia atop the Jafferau, but a seated Froome accelerated away as though the finish line were just around the corner, his legs spinning as though his bicycle had no chain.
Behind, the podium contenders were scattered across the mountainside, scrambling in search of allies of circumstance as Froome disappeared from sight up ahead. They would not see him again until the finish, where he claimed the stage victory by three minutes and moved into the maglia rosa of race leader.
Froome is riding this Giro despite testing positive for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España, and it is unclear whether his final result in Rome will last in the record books. Regardless of how the case pans out, however, this most absurd afternoon of racing will linger long in the memory.
Pinot, for his part, was simply glad to finish among the best of the mortals, placing third on the stage, some 3:07 down on Froome. Despite that hefty deficit, Pinot made substantial gains on Domenico Pozzovivo (11th at 8:29) and the exhausted Yates (79th at 38:51), and thus climbs to third overall, 4:17 behind Froome.
"I'm very happy with my day. I think today we've written a page of the history of the Giro, it was a crazy stage and it's something that marks your career, a stage like that," Pinot said after the finish.
On the upper reaches of the Finestre, Pinot found himself in the group chasing Froome, alongside Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Richard Carapaz (Movistar), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and his Groupama-FDJ teammate Sebastien Reichenbach.
"It was surprising. It was a completely crazy attack, and everybody was all over the place after it," Pinot said. "All of the leaders were without teammates, except for me with Seb. Obviously, when Froome attacked, it was every man for himself and I was glad to have Seb up there with me."
By the summit of the climb, Pinot et al were 45 seconds down on Froome, but with two mountains passes and so much distance left to run, logic said that the group of five riders ought to make inroads into that deficit.
Logic, however, was in short supply on the road to Bardonecchia. Froome's solo performance was otherworldly, while Carapaz and Lopez were reluctant to collaborate with Dumoulin, Pinot and Reichenbach. Come the top of Sestriere, the gap had yawned out to 2:45. On the long valley road that followed, Froome somehow extended his lead still further. Dumoulin later blamed Reichenbach's cautious descending for some of the deficit, adding that he regretted waiting for the Swiss when he was distanced atop the climb.
"I was happy to ride with Dumoulin, but unfortunately the others didn't ride. That's not the kind of racing I like, to be cagey. But at a certain point you have to think of the podium, and I rode like the others," said Pinot, who paid tribute to Reichenbach's efforts. "Seb today showed that without him my podium place would be impossible, and I can never thank him enough."
Froome continued his startling lone procession on the final haul up the Jafferau, where Pinot decided to test the waters in the chasing group with a brace of accelerations of his own. The Frenchman continued to ride aggressively as the climb progressed, and he was to the fore when the group fragmented on the approach to the summit. Carapaz leapt away to claim second on the stage, while Pinot gained 16 seconds – plus 4 in bonuses – on Dumoulin as he pressed on to finish third.
"I didn't calculate too much on the last climb. I did my race, the others did theirs. We'll see who's right tomorrow evening," Pinot said.
Pinot's podium challenge had appeared severely compromised by his lacklustre showing in Tuesday's time trial in Rovereto, and his concession of further ground on the summit finish at Prato Nevoso on Thursday hardly augured well for the final mammoth days in the Alps. The travails of Pozzovivo and Yates, however, have put an entirely different complexion on his Giro, and Pinot holds a buffer of 40 seconds over the 4th-placed Lopez ahead of stage 20 to Cervinia.
"Above all, I felt happy to be back at my level today, and I hope I can ride as well tomorrow and retain my place on the podium," Pinot said. "Above all I just want to conserve my podium place tomorrow, and if the chance for a stage win comes or not, so be it. I'm confident tonight, and I hope I have the same sensations tomorrow."
Pinot was under no illusions, however, about the prospect of challenging Froome for the maglia rosa on Saturday, or, for that matter, the defending champion Dumoulin, who lies second overall, 40 seconds down.
"Froome was much too strong for us today. There's no question about who was the strongest," Pinot said. "The three strongest riders today were Froome, Seb and Dumoulin. There's no doubt that the two strongest riders in the Giro are first and second overall."
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