More than 38 minutes had ticked by on the clock beneath the Arrivo banner when Simon Yates finally reached the final ramps of the Jafferau and inched grimly towards the finish of stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia. The dream had died three hours previously on the slopes of the Colle delle Finestre, and the final 80 kilometres of the stage must have felt akin to a nightmare from which he was trying to awake.
Yates crossed the line in 79th place on the stage in the company of his Mitchelton-Scott teammates Jack Haig, Roman Kreuziger and Mikel Nieve, some 38:51 after new race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) had passed the same point at the end of a most improbable 80-kilometre solo attack.
For two weeks, Yates had appeared resplendent in the maglia rosa, but now the garment on his shoulders was dulled by the dust of the Finestre. A scrum of television cameras enveloped the Briton at the finish, but his soigneur helped to guide him through the crowds to the tent that served as a makeshift changing room a little further along the road. Once inside, Yates stripped the maglia rosa from his shoulders for the final time on this Giro.
When Yates emerged a quarter of an hour or so later, his eyes were red, perhaps from fatigue as much as emotion, but before descending to his team bus at the foot of the mountain, he paused to put words on a most trying day.
Yates had already shown signs of fatigue when he was distanced on the final haul to Prato Nevoso on Thursday, and it was clear from the outset that he would be robustly tested by Froome, Tom Dumoulin et al. on the tappone of the Giro. The only surprise was that Yates was already in difficulty on the lower slopes of the Finestre, with 85 kilometres still to race.
"I was just really tired and extremely exhausted," Yates said. "That's bike racing, unfortunately. That's it."
Yates was already more than two minutes down on his rivals when Froome launched his startling, race-defining attack on the dirt roads further up the Finestre, and his deficit only yawned outwards from there. Come the summit, Yates trailed by seven minutes. By that point, Haig, Nieve and Kreuziger were no longer pacing him, but nursing him to the finish, still 75 kilometres and two mountain passes away.
"I tried to manage it, but then it was blowing out really quickly, and I had nothing to give. I'm just really, really exhausted and that's how it is," Yates said. "We just tried to ride as fast as possible but… There wasn't much discussion among us if I'm honest, it was just, 'Come on guys, let's get to the finish now.' That's it."
After dominating the Giro for two weeks, Yates reaches the final weekend of the race in 17th place overall, some 35:42 behind Froome. This Giro is a terrible business at times, though the ever-upbeat Haig looked to put the disappointment in context.
"On the Finestre, I was just trying to encourage him, and saying he'd done a bloody good job up to that point, and just trying to encourage him," Haig said. "There's not many people who can lead a Grand Tour for as long as he did and take as many stage wins. He shouldn't feel down on himself and feel like he should apologise to the team, because he's done an amazing job. There's another Giro next year."
The truism says that anything can happen in the final week of the Giro, and there seemed to be little rational explanation for much of what transpired on the road between Venaria Reale and Bardonecchia on Friday.
Of the day's many bizarre stories, Yates' collapse was among the most logical. After three stage wins in the Giro's opening two weeks, and a remarkable performance in Tuesday's time trial, he had seemed utterly unbeatable, but his efforts finally caught up with him. Come the Giro's denouement in the high Alps, Yates simply had nothing left to give.
"I was just exhausted. I was really tired," Yates said after descending from the summit in a cable car. "After the time trial, I've not recovered since then. There's been some poker face until today. I survived a little bit, but that's OK. That's OK."
On Thursday evening, Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White had predicted Froome and Sky's likely onslaught on the Finestre. Yates had more than an inkling of what was coming, and must already have realised, too, that his chances of repelling attacks of such ferocity were slim.
"I was expecting it 100%," Yates said of the Sky offensive. "I don't have any regrets. Like I said yesterday nobody would have betted on me to win the Giro at the start. I'm very proud of what I've done, of course I'm very disappointed to lose. But I'll be back. I'll be back. I hope to be back to try to win it one day."
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