Atop the Blockhaus last Sunday, Simon Yates looked to have reached the end of the road. His hopes of Giro d'Italia victory evaporated when he lost almost eleven minutes on the final climb, and he was non-committal when asked if he would continue in the race after the rest day in Pescara.
Yates was nursing a knee injury sustained in a crash on stage 4 to Mount Etna, and it seemed almost logical that the Bury native would beat a quiet retreat from the Giro and turn his attention to leading the line for BikeExchange-Jayco at the Tour de France. And yet, day after day, he kept turning up to sign on and kept completing the course.
After winning stage 14 in Turin on Saturday afternoon, however, Yates admitted that he had spent much of the second week contemplating the idea of abandoning the Giro. He had, after all, come here with rather higher aspirations than adding to his collection of stage wins.
"Even the last few days I've been thinking about it, just because I was still having problems with my knee," Yates said after taking a seat in the press conference truck.
Giro d'Italia: Simon Yates captures solo win on stage 14 in Turin
Giro d'Italia rider of the day: Kelderman helps Bora-Hansgrohe blow stage 14 apart
Yates: Not to put a downer on the day, but I came here to win the Giro d'Italia
Carapaz in leader's maglia rosa starts a new Giro d'Italia for Ineos Grenadiers
"The mental aspect… I was not really there. Like I said, I came here to fight for the overall and I was just doing nothing, I was at the back. But today has given me a lot of morale and maybe I can fight for more stages now."
Yates' star-crossed relationship with the Giro has been well documented. He carried the maglia rosa for two weeks in 2018, peeling off three, almost nonchalant stage victories in the process, only for his challenge to collapse on the Colle delle Finestre, two days from the finish in Rome.
In 2020, he set out from Palermo as the favourite only to fall ill with COVID-19. A year ago, beset by hamstring issues, he never quite sparkled, but won a stage en route to third overall in Milan.
This time out, Yates gave the impression that this might finally be his year when he claimed a surprise victory in the short Budapest time trial on stage 2, but his crash en route to Mount Etna would compromise his race. He masked that injury for most of the first week, but the vicious ascent of the Blockhaus revealed the arid truth. He was in no condition to win this race.
"I've had a lot of problems with the knee, and it's still not 100%," Yates said. "At least I'm able to stand out of the saddle now, but before I was in a lot of discomfort when I stood out of the saddle. I don't know if you guys watch me ride a bike, but it's 90% out of the saddle so I had a lot of problems with that.
"I won't go into too much detail, but I feel like I'm finally arriving back where I want to be. There's a little bit of frustration that I'm not fighting for the overall, but that's how it goes. You have to be good for three weeks."
Yates had also cited the heat as a factor in his travails in Abruzzo last weekend, so it seemed somewhat counter-intuitive that he would emerge the victor on the warmest day of the Giro to date. The circumstances, he suggested, were slightly different.
"This is going to be excuse book 101, but today was a dry heat, whereas last week was more of a humid heat and I couldn't really cool the body," Yates said.
"Today I maybe threw 10 or 12 bidons of water over my body to cool down and also we were doing a circuit, so I could get more and more water. That was one of the main reasons I was able to stay cool and to have a good ride. On the Blockhaus, I did my best. I tried to do the best I could, but the body said no. That's how it goes."
On Saturday's breathless stage in the hinterland of Turin, Yates was among the dozen riders who withstood Bora-Hansgrohe's show of force with 80km to go, and he cut his cloth carefully as the front group splintered and reformed on the final lap of the finishing circuit over Superga and the Colle della Maddalena.
Yates summoned up the strength to bridge across to Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) as the gradient eased towards the top of the Maddalena, and he then had the smarts to escape them on the unclassified ascent of Parco del Nobile to win by 15 seconds.
"I mean the situation there was really a fight for the overall. I was almost a passenger, I was only looking for the stage," said Yates. "I had to play to my advantage. For sure the three guys with me were stronger on the climb so I had to choose my moment to attack and really take it with both hands so that's what I did."
Earlier, Yates had been asked if the sixth Giro stage victory of his career offset the disappointment of the premature end to his pink jersey aspirations.
"Not really," he said. "I mean, not to put a downer on the day, but I came here to win the race. For me it's another stage. I have five already and it's number six."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.