Simon Yates is not one to crack jokes in press conferences, but even the Giro d'Italia stage 11 winner could not avoid a smile when faced with a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary trainer of the Manchester United football club, and asked if it could be applied to him.
As a United fan, Yates had probably heard Ferguson's quote that "when a player is at his peak, he feels as though he can climb Everest in his slippers" before. But he probably didn't expect a journalist to ask him, after leading the Giro d'Italia for six days and winning his second stage, if his morale was so good he felt like one of Ferguson's top players, ready to tackle the world's highest peak.
Yates responded with his typical caution, saying that, "I'm happy with how I'm going and I'm relaxed. But I understand how difficult this is going to be, I know that it's going to be hard all the way, I'm praying don't have a bad day or bad luck.
"You saw what happened with Esteban [Chaves, Mitchelton-Scott team-mate, who lost 25 minutes on Tuesday - Ed.] Your race is over."
'So is Zoncolan your Everest?' the journalist persisted. "No, it's the [stage 16] TT. The time trial - I'm afraid of it, let's not dodge that question," Yates replied. "I could lose a lot of time."
For now Yates remains on the rise in this year's Giro d'Italia, with a stunning late attack on stage 11 netting the race leader even more of an advantage over his GC rivals as well as his second stage victory in this year's race.
True, stage 11's gaps were measured in seconds, not minutes, with - to name a few of his rivals- Dumoulin losing two seconds, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-Groupama) ceding eight seconds, Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) 21 and Chris Froome (Team Sky) 40. But to gain that kind of a margin in an ascent a little over a kilometre long speaks volumes about Yates ability on the climbs, and also underlines his iron-clad determination to gain as much time as possible before the boot is on Tom Dumoulin's foot in next week's TT.
"The plan from the beginning of the stage was not to target the win, because normally guys like Tim Wellens (Lotto Fix All) and [Enrico] Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo) are much faster on these ascents," Yates said.
"So their teams were the ones that chased. But in the final [Mitchelton-Scott] teammate Jack Haig did a fantastic job working on the front, then when the climb was steep, I could gain seconds and try to win the stage."
Dumoulin, he said, did not surprise him with such a tenacious pursuit on the climb, given he had won the Giro d'Italia last year. But he added he had not expected the Dutchman to be so close to him at the finish.
"At first I wasn't sure who was chasing and after I heard from my director it was Tom, and I could see how he was going, he did a really fantastic job there," Yates observed.
"It was a drag race, almost, to the finish. I had been hoping he would crack a little bit, but I was already on the limit, I couldn't give any more, I managed to just survive there."
The gaps were small, but Yates' advantage overall has now yawned open a little further to 47 seconds on Dumoulin, with third-placed Thibaut Pinot now pushed a little beyond the psychological barrier of being a minute adrift.
Just as when he was asked about Everest, Yates rejected any over-simplification of the race's current GC battle, saying that it was still by no means coming down to a two-way duel.
"It's not just a battle between the two of us," Yates argued. "My rivals are extremely strong and there are many difficult and much longer climbs to come. There are four to five guys who are still close."
But Yates rejected the notion that he was over-playing his hand too soon in the 2018 Giro game by racing so hard, so early. Instead, the Briton pointed out that if he was going into the red on the mountain stages and the climbs, then so too was the rest of the field.
"Everybody behind me is having to race equally hard. Dumoulin was also on the limit today, so I'm not expending more energy than anybody else. Everybody is fighting not to lose time. And maybe I will explode but I need that time." And with each second gained, his own 'Everest' challenge next week must feel a little less difficult to climb.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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