Simon Yates stared into the middle distance as he sat into the back of the Mitchelton-Scott van, his legs splayed before him. He was, for those quiet moments at least, in a place beyond comprehension and consolation. A Giro d'Italia challenge that began with such promise in Bologna two weeks ago suffered a devastating blow on the first summit finish at Ceresole Reale on Friday.
After shipping time to Primoz Roglic and Vincenzo Nibali in the San Marino time trial last weekend, Yates had hoped stage 13 of the Giro might mark the beginning of his comeback. Instead, it put the maglia rosa further beyond his reach, as he conceded two more minutes to the Giro favourites after losing contact with the Roglic group with almost 15km still to race on the Colle del Nivolet.
In the overall standings, Yates now lies 12th, 8:14 behind maglia rosa Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), but almost six minutes behind Roglic and over four down on Nibali. Remarkable things have happened in the dying days of the Giro, as Yates knows only too well, but it will require something akin to a miracle if the Briton is to triumph in Verona now.
After a time, an exhausted Yates rose and climbed gingerly onto his bike to perform the daily ritual of warming down after the stage, albeit more out of habit than in belief. He turned his legs slowly with a towel over his head, alone in his disappointment.
"He really suffered in the last couple of kilometres on the climb today," Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White said, though he explained that Yates' collapse had appeared to come about suddenly.
"We were talking about 15-20k from the finish and things were good. It would be interesting to find out what happened because it went from very good to struggling in a very short period of time."
Mitchelton-Scott had delegated Mikel Nieve to enter the day's early break (he would eventually place second behind stage winner Ilnur Zakarin), while Yates had Lucas Hamilton for company in the select group of favourites that began the final climb together. "In a very short period of time, things turned upside down for us," White said.
In the San Marino time trial last Sunday, Yates had begun strongly only to struggle unexpectedly on the final, 12km haul towards the finish line. White had yet to hold a debrief with his rider when he spoke to reporters at Ceresole Reale, and felt it was too soon to speculate about the similarity of the two setbacks.
"I'm not sure," he said. "They were two very different efforts. One was a 25-minute effort at 11 degrees and the other was the first big mountain stage of the Giro at high altitude."
Yates finished the stage in 17th place, five minutes behind Zakarin, losing time to all of his overall rivals, including Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), who caught and passed him after suffered a mechanical incident on the lower slopes of the Nivolet.
In the overall standings, Yates may yet hope to find an ally of circumstance in Lopez, who has similar ground to recoup on Roglic, Nibali et al, though so much depends on how the Briton recovers from his ordeal on Friday.
"It's not lost yet, but it's not ideal," White said. "He was really struggling in the last kilometres to the line. It's not the situation what we planned on being in, but it is what it is, so we will change our tactics accordingly."
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