For a third successive crunch stage of the 2021 Giro d'Italia, Remco Evenepoel's general classification hopes took another hit as the young Belgian was dropped by his rivals on the steep slopes two kilometres from the summit of Monte Zoncolan.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep leader eventually finished 19th on the stage, exactly 90 seconds down on race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and sliding from seventh to eighth overall, 3:52 down on the Colombian.
Evenepoel was on the back foot on the Campo Felice on stage 9 where Bernal took the lead, then in difficulty again on the sterrato stage through Tuscany three days ago. Midway through stage 14, Evenepoel first looked to be in trouble when he was briefly gapped by Bernal, Astana-Premier Tech leader Alexandre Vlasov, several teammates, and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) on the last part of a technical descent off the second category Forcella Monte Rest.
Although he regained contact quite quickly, and then held his own on the first 12 kilometres of the final 14-kilometre ascent of the brutal Zoncolan, but the Belgian suddenly cracked on the steepest final section, just as he had on the toughest sections of the Giro's first climb, the Coller Passerino, on stage 4.
But if on stage 4 Evenepoel's time loss was only 11 seconds on Bernal, this time it widened to a much greater margin, one which now leaves him on the outermost rim of the GC battle.
"When we got to that hardest part, I felt my legs weren't able to respond," Evenepoel said afterwards in a press huddle outside the team bus further down the climb. "Things are getting tougher for me. When the power's no longer there, it's no longer there."
Evenepoel's pessimistic outlook sparked instant analysis of possible reasons for his weakening in the race, with the rider advancing two theories himself. One was that he is maybe paying the price for a long break from racing, with the Giro his first race since the Lombardia crash last year. Then in the short-term, he pointed out the colder temperatures on the Zoncolan.
"It was also quite cold at the top, so that was a big change in temperature. Maybe my body is not 100 per cent ready for that," he said.
"I'm still in the top 10, even if I have lost time and I'll try to stay up there. But if my teammates like João [Almeida] want to go in a break, that's fine."
On the sterrato stage to Montalcino, Evenepoel had ripped his earpiece out in frustration after Almeida had briefly failed to stay with him to support him when he cracked, sparking a media storm over the Portuguese rider's willingness to help his teammate.
But following his Zoncolan defeat, where Almeida stayed with the Belgian, Evenepoel's subsequent green light for his teammates to go in moves on their own account speaks volumes about how he is lowering expectations about what he can achieve in the race, especially with the Dolomites and Alps still to come.
So where does he go from here? Evenepoel confirmed that stage wins could become an option, even though he has not wholly ruled out the GC battle just yet. He also felt more optimistic about his chances of stages like Monday's mammoth trek through the Dolomites, because the climbs, he pointed out, "are not so steep as the Zoncolan, so it should be possible to ride tempo more.
"I lost a minute and a half, but that's not a disaster when you see how well Bernal is going."
However, even while his Giro GC battle looks to be increasingly one for placings rather than the podium, Evenepoel warned that he expects Simon Yates (BikeExchange), the only GC attacker barring Bernal himself on the Zoncolan, to challenge more in the days to come.
"Yates has structured his Giro differently," Evenepoel pointed out, referring to 2018 when Yates started strongly but then went off the boil close to the finish, "and he got through today OK."
However, for the Belgian, rather than taking on Bernal, the rest of the Giro looks increasingly like a test of his own strength on his own terms in what is, after all, his first-ever Grand Tour, and his first race in over nine months.
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