Stage 19 winner Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) has recognised that second overall is currently his most realistic target in the final days of the Giro d’italia, but has promised to continue pushing for the overall victory if at all possible.
In the last two mountain stages, Yates has regained nearly a minute and a half on overall leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and the Colombian recognised on Friday that the Briton is currently the stronger of the two.
However, with only one high mountain stage remaining, and a 2:49 overall advantage for Bernal, Yates said after his solo victory that “it’s still a massive gap “ on the general classification.
“I only gained 30 seconds today and I still need nearly three minutes,” Yates added, “It’s going to be difficult. Is he unbeatable? I don’t know, you tell me. But if I have the legs I’ll try again.”
The Team BikeExchange leader put in a double attack with six kilometres to go, first shaking off Bernal and then a cluster of other GC contenders, including Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), on the second.
Behind, Bernal was able to count on critical, direct support from teammates Jonathan Castroviejo and Dani Martinez, cutting through the GC chasers himself. Then he profited indirectly from a turn on the front by João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) as the Portuguese rider, who had bridged across to the Colombian and was clearly looking for a stage win, sought to close the gap on Yates.
But Bernal flailed a little, too, when Almeida dropped him, and as Yates said, Saturday’s final mountain stage is a much tougher affair, with three first-category climbs rather than Friday’s one, and nearly 1,000 metres more of vertical climbing.
“It’s a very different day, it’s a much more demanding stage from a long way out, there are longer climbs in the beginning and we go back to high altitude as well,” Yates point out. “It all depends on how the race goes, I’ll see what I can do but no promises.”
Yates pointed out that while he is lacking two key support riders for the high mountains - Nick Shultz, had to abandon after he broke his hand in a crash, and Mikel Nieve, who is not feeling so good - Ineos Grenadiers are, in his words, “the strongest team in the race.”
But he praised his BikeExchange teammates for “doing a fantastic job, they were the ones geeing me up this morning, they wanted to chase for the stage, they controlled the start and rode hard for most of it, and I’m just happy I could finish it off for them.”
Yates also benefited from Deceuninck-QuickStep’s collaboration with BikeExchange in chasing down the break. Among of the many ‘what ifs’ of Friday’s stage are what would have happened if Martinez had not been able to regain contact after the race split apart with 50 kiloemetres ago and the Belgian team paced hard in front.
However, once on the ascent of the Alpe di Mera, Ineos Grenadiers stuck to their game plan as outlined by Bernal the day before on the climb of keeping him in contention by limiting the gaps, Yates said, and in his words, “They managed it well.”
Giving praise where praise is due, he added, “I had read before the stage that they would try to give me some room and control me from behind, and that was what happened. So I just tried to do the best from there. I made a small gain, but I had to take what I could get.”
Yates has improved dramatically in the final third of the Giro d'Italia, something that in part was due, he said, to having some small problems in the first week. It emerged on Friday that the British racer had suffered in the cold, rainy weather that battered the Giro up until Monday, and he also had problems with his hamstring muscles and, to cap it all, a small head cold.
“Those problems are finally fixed and I feel great now,” he said, “but it’s still going to be difficult to win. The gap is very big, it’s closer to Caruso, but I will need a buffer in the time trial as he’s much in time trials than me.”
With just 20 seconds separating Yates and the Italian, the battle between the two for second place in Milan is all but guaranteed. Whether his rising form will sufficient to beat Bernal is, as he says, “anyone’s guess.”
But to judge from the last two days, there can be no doubt that after his serious setbacks, for the most varied of reasons, in the last three editions in Italian Grand Tour, the Briton is currently finishing off the Giro in better shape than ever before. And who knows where that rising curve of form and performances will finally take him in the Giro’s last 48 hours.
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