Simon Yates knew it was unlikely to work, but that didn't mean he wasn't thinking about it. As his Mitchelton-Scott teammates laid down a brisk tempo on the ascent of Montevergine di Mercogliano on stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia, the maglia rosa periodically climbed out of the saddle and tilted his head to the side to peer through the rain at the terrain ahead.
The basilica of Montevergine marks the site of the hermitage established by Saint William of Vercelli in the 12th century, but the regular gradients of the category 2 ascent meant that Yates was never likely to be alone on the mountainside. Only stage winner Richard Carapaz (Movistar) escaped the clutches of the front group on the final approach to the summit, while Yates came home in 5th place, 7 seconds down, alongside all of his rivals for final overall victory.
"I thought about attacking, but I think it's very hard to make a difference on this climb," Yates said afterwards as he sheltered from the icy downpour in the television tent near the finish line. "I've watched the videos from past years they've been there, and there's never really a big selection, which you saw today as well. So maybe we'll try tomorrow."
Yates holds a lead of 16 seconds over defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and 26 over teammate Esteban Chaves ahead of the second, more demanding mountain stage of the weekend's doubleheader, which brings the gruppo above 2,000 metres with a finish at Gran Sasso d'Italia.
With a lengthy time trial still to come in Trento at the beginning of the third week, Yates is mindful that he needs to seize every available opportunity to augment his buffer over men like Dumoulin and Chris Froome (Team Sky), who survived a crash on Montevergine to remain 1:10 off the pink jersey.
Yates delivered a disarmingly crisp acceleration to put 26 seconds into Froome, Dumoulin et al in the space of just 1,500 metres on Thursday's summit finish at Mount Etna, and, on the evidence of that startling display, it would be a surprise if the Briton did not seek to test the waters from further out on the long haul to Gran Sasso d'Italia. Indeed, he effectively signalled his intentions to do so as reporters huddled around him after stage 8.
"If I have good legs, I will try," Yates said. "It depends a lot on the racing before, and on the tactics of other teams, but if I have good legs, I will. I need to gain time, you know. I only have 16 seconds on Dumoulin. Maybe I could lose two minutes or three minutes in the time trial, so for me, it's quite simple."
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Froome and Dumoulin
Yates' pursuit of Chaves in the finale at Etna has drawn repeated comparisons in the Italian press with internecine struggles at Giri past, such as the duel between Stephen Roche and Roberto Visentini at Carrera in 1987, or Gilberto Simoni's bitter clash with his Saeco teammate Damiano Cunego in 2004, but the principal headlines on this race continue to be generated by the pre-race favourites Froome and Dumoulin.
Froome, whose very presence on this Giro was already a contentious one due to his ongoing salbutamol case, continued his ill-starred beginning to the race when he crashed a little over 5 kilometres from the summit after his wheels slipped from under him on the rain-soaked roads. The Briton quickly remounted and rejoined the pink jersey group, placing 22nd in the same time as Yates. The maglia rosa admitted that he had only been vaguely aware of Froome's travails as they pressed on towards the summit.
"No, I heard about it, but that's it," Yates said. "I heard something, but I didn't realise it was Froome. Afterwards on the radio, the director told me it was Froome, but he looked OK in the final there.
"It was really slippery on the climb. It always the same on these roads here, there's that shine on the roads and you never know how much grip you have. That's one of the reasons why we took the front on that climb, just to be safe."
Yates seemed rather more surprised when asked his thoughts on a rumour, reported in La Gazzetta dello Sport during the week, that Dumoulin might yet consider abandoning the Giro to concentrate on his preparations for the Tour de France. "I don't know, I'm expecting him to the race to the finish," Yates said. "That's the way I'd look at it."
Perhaps the only conjecture Yates is willing to countenance at this point is the time Dumoulin is likely to gain on him in the stage 16 time trial. Eating into that hypothetical deficit is the byword for the next week, and Gran Sasso d'Italia presents a significant opportunity.
"My condition is really good, and I hope I have good legs tomorrow," Yates said. "It's a much more difficult climb than today. I think there'll be a selection, how big I don't know."