Fifty-six seconds, three mountain stages and more than 11,000 metres of climbing, but no matter how Tom Dumoulin and Sunweb crunch the numbers, the path to victory on this Giro d'Italia is beginning to have the feel of an unsolvable equation. Maglia rosa Simon Yates has not shown the merest sign of weakness to this point, and the terrain in the final days is decidedly in his favour.
Tuesday's time trial to Rovereto offered Dumoulin his biggest opportunity to overturn Yates' advantage, but the Dutchman could only claw back 1:15 of his deficit over the 34.2 kilometres. His disappointment at the finish was palpable, though Sunweb directeur sportif Marc Reef maintained in Riva del Garda on Wednesday that Dumoulin had exceeded his own downbeat prognostications.
"When we did the recon with Tom, we noticed already it was a course where we would not take big time on Yates, especially if Yates produced the same power that he had done in the stages before," Reef told Cyclingnews. "We were expecting to gain between 40 seconds and a minute in the best possible scenario, but Tom took a bit more than we expected, so that's only good."
After Wednesday's rain-soaked finale in Iseo, Dumoulin was a guest on RAI's post-stage analysis show Processo alla Tappa, and though he wore a broad smile as he fielded questions in the mobile broadcast unit, he was sober when asked to assess his chances of overhauling Yates. "It's possible to gain time on any day, but in this moment, he is too strong," Dumoulin admitted. "In the days to come, I'll have to have legs twice as good as him if I'm going to win."
Of the forthcoming triptych in the Piedmontese Alps, stage 18 to Prato Nevoso seems the best suited to Dumoulin's strengths. The haul to the finish (13.9km at 6.9%) is the only major climb on the menu, and the terrain is markedly similar to last year's stage to Oropa, where Dumoulin dropped no less a figure than Nairo Quintana to claim stage victory.
"It looks like a good stage for me, because it's a bit like Oropa last year. There's a flat start and then one big effort on a climb that's quite regular. I can go well in that kind of a stage," Dumoulin said. "I've never done it, but I can see from the profile it suits me. We'll see if I can do something good, but it all depends on the legs."
A different race to 2017
The problem, as Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) has already noted, is that a year ago, nobody on the Giro was climbing with quite the same effervescence as Yates. Neither Quintana nor Vincenzo Nibali, for all their gifts, were pedalling with the intimidating fluidity that Yates has exhibited these past two weeks.
"Of course, the climb is a little bit similar to Oropa, but last year, there were guys who were on quite a similar level in the mountains. Here you have one guy who is stronger than all of the rest," Reef said. "Tom is still good, he's still looking good, and he's in a good position, but it all depends on how Yates is going to be."
Pinot – currently fifth at 4:19 – intimated on the rest day that his performance data was roughly in line with what he had produced en route to fourth overall at last year's Giro. Reef, for his part, maintains that Dumoulin's condition on this Giro has been even higher than it was en route to overall victory a year ago. He also dismissed the idea that Dumoulin had prepared for this Giro with one eye to the Tour de France.
"There's one guy who is outstanding. If you took him away, Tom would be in the lead, with less time trial kilometres than last year, and with more mountaintop finishes, tougher stages and more travelling," Reef said. "I think that shows he's in better shape than last year."
No matter, it is clear that Dumoulin cannot win this Giro unless Yates suffers an off-day in the high Alps, or a dose of misfortune of the kind endured by Steven Kruijswijk on the Colle dell'Agnello two years ago. Yates is in a position to ride defensively from here to Rome, while his sharp acceleration means he can hope to pick off bonus seconds as and when opportunities arise.
Dumoulin, on the other hand, might draw heart from his display on the Stelvio tappone on last year's Giro, where his best athletic display of the race almost went unheralded amid the furore over his impromptu toilet break. The mighty stages 19 and 20 to Bardonecchia and Cervinia will not intimidate Dumoulin, though Yates, of course, will hardly be daunted either.
It remains to be seen, too, whether Domenico Pozzovivo (third at 3:11), Chris Froome (fourth at 3:50) and Pinot race conservatively with an eye to finishing on the podium, or launch an all-out offensive in a bit to unseat Yates. There are variables aplenty, but they will count for nothing if Yates' condition remains a constant.
"We just have to see how it goes in the race," Dumoulin said before taking his leave on Wednesday evening. "The Giro only finishes in Rome, not before."