Last week, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) described stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia as the Mount Everest standing between him and final overall victory. On Tuesday, the Briton made the 34km time trial from Trento to Rovereto seem rather more like a training ride up Cragg Vale than an assault on a forbidding summit. As if it wasn't abundantly clear already, the Giro is his to lose.
Yates has already climbed with disarming facility to claim three stage victories during his tenure in pink, but this latest display, on supposedly hostile terrain, was perhaps the most remarkable of his race to date. He began the day with a lead of 2:11 over world time trial champion Tom Dumoulin and, his team maintained privately, more than a fighting chance of retaining a few seconds of that lead.
In the end, Yates exceeded even their giddiest expectations by placing 20th on the stage, 1:37 behind winner Rohan Dennis and just 1:15 behind Dumoulin. In the overall standings, Yates has a buffer of 56 seconds over Dumoulin, with everybody else now more than three minutes back. It was, by some distance, the best time trial of his professional career.
"I think definitely for the longer time trials," Yates said. "I've had some good prologues and short time trials before, which were probably a little bit better, but for the long ones, this is definitely the best."
The pan flat course from Trento to Rovereto ought to have suited the power of Dumoulin, but from the first time check after 12 kilometres, it was clear that the Dutchman would not divest Yates of the maglia rosa. Yates was just 21 seconds back at that point, and he maintained a similar tempo to the second check after 25 kilometres, where the gap edged out to 48 seconds.
"I'm very satisfied. The first 25 kilometres were really good, I had a really good rhythm, I felt good, but then the final 10 were horrific, I was really dying a thousand deaths. But I managed to hold it together, and I am still here in the jersey, so I'm extremely happy," Yates said. "On a course like that, it's one pace, there was no area where you needed to squeeze or hold back. It was a drag race, really."
Yates has at times appeared in a race of his own at this Giro, seemingly able to drop his rivals at will every time the road climbs. Such dominant performances at the highest level of cycling inevitably draw scrutiny and scepticism, and Yates knows, too, that his 2016 ban for 'non-intentional doping' will always follow him.
At Paris-Nice in 2016, Yates returned a positive test for the substance terbutaline, which he said was contained in an asthma inhaler. His team doctor had not applied for the required Therapeutic Use Exemption, and Yates was eventually handed a four-month ban, missing that year's Tour de France.
"Well, I'm always going to get this, regardless of what my performances say because obviously of what happened in the past with me," Yates said. "That was an innocent mistake by an innocent person that I will have to deal with for the rest of my career, and I knew that at the time. Yeah, there's not really much else to say. I don't really follow social media all that much."
On the road, meanwhile, it is difficult to see quite where questions will be asked of Yates over the final five days of the Giro, three of which take place in the high Alps. The terrain is more amenable to Yates than any of his rivals between here and Rome, and, with no more time trials to come, the onus is no longer upon him to gain ground on Dumoulin.
"I don't feel very fresh, I feel extremely tired," Yates insisted. "I know there are very difficult stages to come. But now I'm not looking for time anymore. I can be, unfortunately for the fans, quite defensive."
Dumoulin is the only rider within three minutes of Yates on the overall standings, with Domenico Pozzovivo 3rd at 3:11 and Chris Froome – competing in the Giro despite his ongoing salbutamol case – now up to 4th overall at 3:50. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), meanwhile, endured a disastrous time trial and is now 4:19 down in 5th.
"Anybody within, pfff, 10 minutes is a danger," Yates said when asked if Froome might summon a late challenge. "This is the Giro, a lot of strange things happen. You never really know. We're all going to keep on our toes for everybody. Hopefully I'll have no bad luck until we get to Rome."
In truth, it seems that Yates' biggest foe from here to Rome will be circumstance. This time two years ago, after all, Steven Kruijswijk looked almost as impregnable in pink only for his race to unravel when he crashed on the descent of Colle dell'Agnello, 48 hours from the finish in Turin. Yates was sanguine when asked about the prospect of enduring has in the Netherlands been dubbed a Kruijswijkje.
"I think one of the main differences is the team. We have a fantastic team whereas in that situation, Steven was alone, I believe," Yates said. "But I won't be safe until Rome. Anything can happen, bad luck, a bad day. I'm aware that can happen. I'm just praying it doesn't."
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