Simon Yates answers questions with the air of a man who doesn't quite understand what all the fuss is about. At his rest-day press conference in the Adriatic resort of Montesilvano on Monday afternoon, for instance, a television reporter gravely asked the maglia rosa if he believed he could win the Giro d'Italia. Yates' response to the million-dollar question was disarmingly matter-of-fact. "Yes," he said. "Of course."
In a Giro billed beforehand as a duel between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, Yates has rather stolen the show over the opening nine stages. A stinging acceleration on Mount Etna on Thursday elevated him into the maglia rosa. A sharp sprint atop Gran Sasso d'Italia on Sunday extended his advantage. Neither success came as a surprise to the Mitchelton-Scott rider.
"No, I've been targeting the Giro since the beginning of the year," Yates said. "I've prepared perfectly and arrived in great form. The numbers are not massive; I'm not doing spectacular numbers. So for me, it's not a surprise to be here."
With two weeks of racing still to come, Yates holds a lead of 32 seconds over his teammate Esteban Chaves, while Dumoulin lies a further six seconds back in third. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) are the only other riders within a minute in the overall standings, and each man has impressed when the road has climbed.
"I think many of our rivals are still very strong. Yesterday, I was impressed with Pozzovivo, he was very good on the climbs, and Pinot was still there, too," Yates said. "Those two look the most dangerous going uphill, but Tom is really still close with the TT still to come. We still need some more time, I think, but those three have impressed me the most."
Since seizing the maglia rosa in Sicily last week, Yates has repeatedly highlighted the need to extend his buffer over the time triallists – Dumoulin, in particular – ahead of the stage 16 test in Trentino that kicks off the third week of racing. He returned to the mantra on Monday afternoon.
"I need a lot more time," Yates said. "I don't know how much. It could be two minutes or three minutes, but I'm going to need a lot. If I have the legs to attack, I'll try, because I need to before the time trial.
"It's normal that I'll lose a lot in the time trial. The big strong guys can put out 100 watts more than me, and I'm only a small guy, so it's difficult not to lose more time. It's hard to put a number on it, but I need more time."
The Giro being the Giro, of course, the conversation soon turned to the frenemy within, but Yates promptly defused any suggestion of an internecine rivalry with his teammate Chaves. The Colombian confirmed his Etna showing with a solid display on Gran Sasso d'Italia, and Yates stressed that the team's tilt at the maglia rosa was still a dual-pronged one.
"Look, we came here to win the Giro as a team, and we will continue that way, and we're first and second at the moment, which puts us in a very strong position to approach the race," Yates said.
"It's not my decision for the tactics, but for us, it's a really advantageous situation to have two riders up there. At the start of the day, we discuss the tactics on the bus, but cycling is a crazy sport, and sometimes things don't go to plan. Etna was not planned. Esteban was not supposed to be in the break, and I was not supposed to go across to him in the end, but sometimes it happens like that."
When Chaves took his seat to speak to the assembled press a short time later, he echoed those words, smiling broadly when asked if he or Yates was the team leader. "On this team, Mitchelton-Scott is the number one," Chaves said.
Before setting out to reconnoitre the potentially perilous opening 100 kilometres of stage 10 to Gualdo Tadino, directeur sportif Matt White confirmed that the Mitchelton-Scott hierarchy remained the same as it was at the beginning of the Giro. "You can't separate them at the moment," White said of his two leaders. "Simon's faster on these punchier finishes early on, which is an advantage with the time bonuses."
The second week of racing – and next Saturday's haul up the Zoncolan in particular – ought to present the Mitchelton-Scott duo with further opportunities. It should also shed further light on the prospects of Froome, who conceded on Monday morning that he was now in a "very challenging position".
"I would never count out anybody," Yates said when asked if Froome remained a threat. "I don't know what the exact time difference is but, like Tom, he can take a lot of time out of me in the time trial, and he will be strong in the third week."