Around two kilometres from the finish of the final summit finish of the Giro d'Italia, Simon Yates' bid for a second stage win in two days and possible gains in the overall battle finally crumpled as the Briton was gapped by race leader Egan Bernal.
As Bernal’s Ineos Grenadiers teammate Daniel Martínez laid down a relentlessly high pace at the front of the tiny pink jersey group, Yates initially wobbled briefly but then moved back up to Bernal’s wheel. But a few hundred metres later, as Martínez continued to sear his way uphill at eye-watering speed, the BikeExchange rider finally gave way, and he ended up settling for sixth place on the stage.
On the plus side, barring absolute disaster in Sunday’s time trial, Yates will end the Giro in third place overall, his second Grand Tour podium finish after his 2018 Vuelta a España victory.
"We wanted to give Simon every opportunity to win another stage, and to try to put pressure on our rivals," head sports director Matt White told Cyclingnews.
"And the boys did a good job there. We had some help from Deceuninck-QuickStep, and even on the final climb I thought Yatesy was looking really good. But he just faded in the last couple of kilometres.
"He did all he could but he made a very big effort yesterday [Friday] with his stage win and he’s obviously paid for it today."
Team BikeExchange had indeed grasped the bull by the horns as soon as the breakaway of the day went away, with Michael Hepburn and Chris Juul-Jensen keeping the gap down on the long approach to the San Bernadino pass.
However, the race then changed drastically as Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) attacked on the descent, keeping ahead by 40 seconds all the way to the foot of the final Alpe Motta climb.
"We tried to do something again, the boys did a fantastic job again, as always," Yates said in a press release later.
"The plan was to try something on the second to last climb, but we arrived there and I didn’t have the legs, a bit of fatigue from yesterday maybe, a bit of fatigue from three weeks all coming together."
White added: "We left it all out there but a three week Tour is always a rollercoaster. "You have good days and bad days and Simon had an incredibly good day on Friday and he didn’t have the same feelings today."
Although altitude can affect some riders - and stage 20 went twice above 2,000 metres - Yates spends a lot of time at altitude in Andorra so that wasn’t an issue, White said. He also pointed out that while the rain and cold that briefly hit the race mid-stage had affected Yates on a couple of occasions negatively in the Giro, the biggest difference was the variation of temperatures experienced at this year's Giro.
"We've had sometimes borderline freezing conditions and sometimes almost 30 degrees, nearly in the same day. And some guys are affected differently by that."
With a four-minute advantage over Alexandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) ahead of the 30km final time trial, even bearing in mind the Russian’s undoubted time trial skills, a top three-finish is, White says, "definitely" there for Yates to enjoy on Sunday.
"Obviously the race doesn’t finish until tomorrow, but it’s been a nice Giro, a 100 per cent effort from the team and we can leave the race with our heads high with a podium place and a stage win."
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