Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) is a few seconds further off the pink jersey, yet several steps closer to where he needs to be on this Giro d'Italia. Time can feel distorted when the race slows to walking pace of Monte Zoncolan, but the interminable final three kilometres of stage 14 still presented a clear picture of the current situation.
If Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) remains the strongest rider at this Giro, then Yates gives the impression of a man warming to his task after a subdued opening to the race. The Briton lost 11 seconds to Bernal within sight of the line, but he made gains on the rest of his podium rivals to move up to second overall, 1:33 away from the maglia rosa.
For two weeks, Yates had followed in places, limited his losses in others, but steadily shipped time in the overall standings. Amid low cloud and banks of snow on the upper reaches of the Zoncolan on Saturday, he hit the front for the first time, splintering the pink jersey group as the gradient hit 15 per cent with a shade over a kilometre to race.
On the Zoncolan, a rider doesn't so much accelerate as decelerate more gradually than everyone else. Only Bernal could match Yates' rhythm in the finale, while riders like Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) slowed dramatically.
Bernal pressed on past in the final 300 metres to buttress his lead, but Yates maintained his own momentum to come home sixth on the stage and move up three places in the overall standings.
After grinding to a halt past the finish line, Yates sat on the roadside and put on a jacket to protect himself for the descent to his team car. On taking to his feet, he swallowed a handful of Haribo for sustenance before pausing briefly to speak with reporters over the other side of the barriers.
"Bernal showed he's the man to beat. It will be difficult to beat him but we'll keep trying," said Yates, who hinted at an underlying reason for his travails in the opening part of this Giro.
"I mean, I won't go into detail but it wasn't the best of first weeks. But now I'm feeling much better. Onwards and upwards."
With that Yates pedalled off into the mist, though not before teammate Nick Schultz had playfully poked fun at his leader's guarded interview demeanour. "Day by day! Day by day!" Schultz called out as Yates drew away from the media scrum.
The far side of the Zoncolan
The hardest days of this Giro are still to come, as directeur sportif Matt White pointed out three kilometres further down the mountainside outside the BikeExchange bus.
Sunday's hilly stage around Gorizia shouldn't trigger aggression from the GC men but it will weigh on their legs. Monday's tappone through the Dolomites, by contrast, is a brute.
"We took time on our rivals, and we've moved up from fifth place to second place," said White. We were sitting in 10th place three days ago, so we're going in the right direction."
On Yates' last visit to the Zoncolan on the corresponding stage in 2018, he stalked Chris Froome all the way to the summit to place second on the stage and extend his own advantage in the overall standings. This time out, the Giro tackled the Zoncolan from its mildly gentler Sutrio approach, with the most demanding gradients all concentrated in the final 3km.
Despite Astana's attempt to split the race on the descent of the preceding Forcella di Monte Rest, there was no aggression in the pink jersey group on the lower slopes of the Zoncolan, with Ineos policing affairs until Yates' effort on that arduous, mist-shrouded finale.
"This side of the Zoncolan is nowhere near as difficult as the other side, so we knew there'd be fireworks only inside the last three kilometres and that's what it delivered," said White, who downplayed the suggestion that the third week might see Bernal might pay for his early aggression on this Giro, just as Yates did three years ago.
"We're riding our race. People love harping on about the 2018 Giro, but people forget that he won the Vuelta three months later riding in the same way as he is here, riding conservatively and picking and choosing his moments," White said. "A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the 2018 Giro and now."
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