Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) survived another day as race leader at the Giro d'Italia and knows he can now ride defensively in the final three mountain stages that begin with Thursday's stage 18 to Prato Nevoso, putting the onus on his rivals to attack him and perhaps then reveal their weaknesses.
The triumvirate of mountain stages will see the final moves of a three-week chess match and such is Yates control and composure, he is close to declaring checkmate.
Yates finished safely in the peloton at the conclusion of stage 17 in Iseo. He got soaked by heavy rain in the final kilometres, but his Mitchelton-Scott team again protected him during the fast stage, helping close down several attacks before the sprint finish won by Elia Viviani.
Yates remains 56 seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), with Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) third at 3:11 and Chris Froome (Team Sky) fourth at 3:50. Yates has now worn the maglia rosa for 11 stages. His and Mitchelton-Scott's control of the race has been so complete that Yates is third in the list of current riders in the number of days spent in the pink jersey. Only Vincenzo Nibali (21 days in pink) and 2017 Giro d'Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (17 days) have worn the jersey longer.
Yates has won three stages in the maglia rosa and would move past Eddy Merckx, Marco Pantani and Gilberto Simoni if he wins a fourth, perhaps on the easier finish of Prato Nevoso. However, Yates has his eye on overall victory, even if stage wins or placing would give him further time bonuses.
"It'd be a great achievement but I think it's difficult to achieve and especially tomorrow, I expected a breakaway to stay away."
First of three days in the mountains
The 196km stage 18 from Abbiategrasso, west of Milan, to the Piemonte ski resort is perhaps the antipasto to the decisive and far tougher stages in the Alps to Bardonecchia and Cervinia. They include multiple climbs; stage 18 is flat as it crosses the Lombardy and Piemonte plains before a final ramp up to the finish. The 13.9km climb starts after 183km of flat roads.
The change of terrain can cause riders problems, but the valley road and hairpins up to Prato Nevoso climb at a steady average of 6.9 per cent.
Mitchelton-Scott will no doubt let a breakaway go clear, only controlling it so that no dangerous riders sneak into an attack. Svein Tuft, Chris Juul-Jensen, and Sam Bewley will do the heavy lifting early on before Roman Kreuziger, Mikel Nieve and perhaps even a revitalised Esteban Chaves and Jack Haig escort Yates on the climb to the finish.
Dumoulin or Froome will have to produce something special, and Yates will have to suffer for significant time gaps to open. Yates also has the advantage of knowing the climb.
"Tomorrow is the only climb I know, I've reconned this climb," he said, laying out his stage strategy in a clear challenge to his rivals.
"It's going to be difficult, but I don't need to do anything now. I've got almost a minute's advantage, so it's not up to me to attack and be aggressive. I'll ride defensively and try to be as careful as possible."
In 2017, Dumoulin won a similar stage to Oropa, gaining time on all his rivals thanks to his huge power output after a steady ride to the only climb of the day. Yates expects a similar scenario but does not appear to be worried. He is counting down the days to Saturday afternoon when the final climb of the 2018 Giro d'Italia leads to the stage finish in Cervinia.
"I'm getting closer to the end, and as the days tick down, I feel I'm getting closer," he said. "But we have some difficult days ahead, so I'll be careful all the way."
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