Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) paused a beat before answering. The opening gambit from the television reporter had been enthusiastic – “Simon, now you can win the Giro.” – but Yates’ response was, typically, rather more restrained. “No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement,” he said softly.
Yet the statement was hardly outlandish either, given the timbre of Yates’ performance on the summit finish at Sega di Ala. He began stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia fifth overall, some 4:20 off Egan Bernal’s (Ineos Grenadiers) lead. He ended it third at 3:23 after dropping the maglia rosa on the steepest section of, arguably, the race’s toughest climb.
Yates began his offensive with 4km to go, just as the road stiffened towards its maximum gradients. This rasping stretch of road burnt out at least one clutch in the race convoy and it also saw Bernal lose his biting point for the first time on this Giro. After trying to match Yates’ initial onslaught, the Colombian could follow no further as the road tilted to 17 per cent.
Suddenly, a Giro that was out of reach for Yates was now at least within view. Only the resurgent João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) could match Yates’ tempo on the steepest section, and he later clipped away when the road levelled off in the final two kilometres to take second on the stage. Undeterred, Yates finished strongly to take third, 30 seconds behind winner Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and, crucially, 53 seconds ahead of the struggling Bernal.
“I was already going full gas and I didn't even realize he was dropped until a bit later,” said Yates. “I was going full gas, it's not like I was accelerating trying to increase the gap. That's about it.”
Let the sun shine
The climb of Sega di Ala had never previously featured on the Giro, and its lone appearance in professional cycling before Wednesday came at the Giro del Trentino in 2013, when Vincenzo Nibali soloed to victory. After winning that same race (now rebranded as the Tour of the Alps) last month, Yates availed of the opportunity to sample the narrow but wickedly-steep road along the border between the Veneto and Trentino regions. Bernal, on the other hand, had never tackled the climb before.
“We came here to do the recon after the Tour of the Alps,” Yates said. “I knew it was a really hard climb: for me, probably the hardest climb of the race. I don’t know the climbs coming up but for sure it was the hardest climb up until this point, so I tried to make the difference and I was able to take some time.”
Team BikeExchange had been prominent on the front of the bunch ahead of the preceding Passo San Valentino, though he downplayed the idea that they had been seeking to soften up the peloton – and Bernal – ahead of the vicious denouement. “We actually missed the breakaway and I wanted to have a go for the stage,” Yates said.
At that point, just minutes after the stage finish, Yates was still unaware of precisely how much time he had taken, and on whom. Informed of his reduced deficit on Bernal, he continued to play a straight bat, preferring to focus on Damiano Caruso (second at 2:21) rather than the maglia rosa.
“I mean look, it’s still over a minute to Caruso there. I’ll keep trying if I have legs but we’ll see from there,” said Yates.
On the second rest day, Yates had suggested that a podium place was now the summit of his ambition on this Giro, but he might yet warm to a loftier goal in the dying days of the race.
Wednesday was the warmest day of this Giro to date, and the clement conditions are expected to endure for the summit finishes at Alpe di Mera and Alpe Motta. But it isn’t known for its balmy climate, but it seems that Yates, like Miguel Indurain before him, runs at least partly on solar energy.
“I think it's quite obvious: every day there's rain I'm not having a good day, so hopefully the forecast stays the same,” said Yates. “I’ve not been feeling great in the rain so hopefully it stays like this.”
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