For two weeks, Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and the Giro d'Italia gruppo had laboured under the growing impression that Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) simply could not be defeated when the road climbed. For two weeks, on every manner of mountain and hill that Italy has to offer, the maglia rosa was impassive of face and light of foot, his lead seemingly impregnable.
In the space of two kilometres near the summit of Prato Nevoso, however, Dumoulin put an altogether different complexion on the race by halving his deficit to the Briton in the overall standings. The Dutchman's two accelerations, first alone and then in pursuit of Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), placed Yates in difficulty for the first time in this Giro. All of a sudden, the margins have drawn tighter.
With two mammoth mountain stages still to come before the race leaves the Alps, Dumoulin now trails Yates by just 28 seconds. Perhaps as importantly, for the first time since Yates seized the maglia rosa in Sicily, there has been a shift in the momentum of the race. Small wonder that Dumoulin couldn't stop repeating the same word when he was swarmed by the sizeable contingent of Dutch reporters just past the finish line. "Mooi," he kept saying. 'Nice.'
"It is his first weak moment in this race, and that is nice," Dumoulin said. "I thought I would just try to accelerate. Then I had to sit down, and Froome came past me. But I felt that I had enough in the tank to follow him and Pozzovivo."
Stage 18 was the first of three in the Piedmontese Alps, and ever since setting out from Israel, Dumoulin likely had the page marked off in his Garibaldi, as the Giro roadbook is known. A year ago, after all, he scored a stage victory in this same corner of the world on a markedly similar stage to Oropa by accelerating clear near the summit.
"Today I was better, and that is nice, but I am also well aware that this stage suited me very well," Dumoulin said. "It was super slow and flat all day, and then there was a maximum effort on the climb to the finish.
"I was a bit tired, but that's the same for everybody. I felt really well at first, but then I sort of fell asleep. It was a boring stage, but luckily in the final I could lift myself up again. It was a good day."
The 13.9km haul to the Prato Nevoso features smooth roads and regular gradients, and few anticipated that it would be difficult enough to separate the men vying for the top positions in Rome. On the upper reaches of the ascent, however, the road snakes around the mountainside in a series of hairpins, and it was here that Dumoulin opted to unleash his effort and see if the hitherto immovable Yates could be shaken.
Though rasping in its intensity, Dumoulin's initial attack was perhaps made more in hope than in expectation, and Yates was swiftly onto his wheel. Just when it looked as though Dumoulin would relent, however, Froome tacked on an acceleration of his own. Pozzovivo promptly scrambled across and then Dumoulin bridged up in his deceptively languid style. Yates, for the first time in this Giro, was unable to follow.
"I was waiting until the moment, and with two kilometres to go, I tried to see what was possible. He responded to my first attack. Then Froome attacked, and I tried to follow Pozzovivo and Froome," Dumoulin said.
"I looked back and saw that I had a big gap. I did not expect that. I thought, 'That's nice, finally a moment of weakness.'"
After those breathless final two kilometres, Dumoulin reached the finish in 13th place on the stage, alongside Froome and Pozzovivo, and 11:03 behind the day's winner Max Schachmann (Quick-Step Floors). The crucial time gap, of course, was to the struggling Yates, who was unable even to follow Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe).
As he waited atop the climb, Dumoulin stood with his head bowed over his handlebars, while his soigneur squinted for a sight of Yates and then glanced at the clock by the finish line when the maglia rosa finally did come in, 11:31 down on Schachmann.
"Finally, I have gained time uphill on Yates," Dumoulin smiled. "That's the first time in two-and-a-half weeks."
Dumoulin faces into the Giro's final two mountain stages buoyed by the rather more manageable deficit of 28 seconds and encouraged by Yates' unexpected travails on what was, at least on paper, the most straightforward of this Alpine triptych.
Pozzovivo is now third at 2:43, while Froome lies fourth at 3:22. It remains to be seen whether that pair will prove to be allies of circumstance on the road to Bardonecchia on Friday, but it is equally unclear whether Yates will struggle still further on a day that sees the gruppo tackle the mighty Colle delle Finestre and Sestriere before the summit finish on the Jafferau.
"Of course, it's a good day, but the coming two days are going to be different and much harder than today, so we'll have to see," Dumoulin said. "The next two days will show whether this was a one-time setback for Yates, or whether it is still possible for me to win, but the race is not over yet."