Midway up the climb of Costalissoio, 18 kilometres from the finish of stage 15 of the Giro d'Italia, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) watched maglia rosa Simon Yates move to the front of the leading group, lift himself from the saddle and glance over his shoulder. Dumoulin knew precisely what was coming, and he also knew there was nothing to be done.
Within moments, Yates opened a lead of 50 metres and disappeared around the next right-hand bend, dancing away from Dumoulin and the elite chasing group. They would not see him again until the finish in Sappada, where they sprinted for the minor placings, some 41 seconds down.
"When he went, it was so fast, extraordinary really," Dumoulin said afterwards as he warmed down on the turbo trainer outside his team bus. "Not for a fraction of a second did I consider going with him."
On another day, Dumoulin's third-place finish would have been cause for a quiet celebration. The Dutchman had been distanced by the chasing group on the final haul towards the finish, but he clawed his way back on as the road levelled out and even picked up four bonus seconds by squeezing ahead of Domenico Pozzovivo at the death. He also gained the bones of a minute on Chris Froome, who rolled home 1:32 behind.
Yates' startling dominance, however, puts a rather different complexion on Dumoulin's afternoon. On a day when everybody, it seemed, was paying some sort of a price for their efforts on the Zoncolan 24 hours previously, Yates appeared impervious to the residual fatigue of this Giro.
The Briton left Dumoulin, Pozzovivo, Thibaut Pinot, Miguel Angel Lopez and Richard Carapaz behind seemingly at will to claim his third stage win of the Giro, all achieved uphill and in the maglia rosa, like Marco Pantani in 1999 or Gilberto Simoni in 2003. Like the Italian climbers, Yates seems to be almost in a race of his own when the road climbs. He leads Dumoulin by 2:11 in the overall standings, with Pozzovivo third at 2:28. Froome is now 4:52 back in seventh.
"It was super, super hard. The whole day was a big fight and at the end, I had nothing left anymore, but being third after a day like that, feeling like that, I think I can be very proud," Dumoulin said. "Simon Yates is just too strong for me at the moment."
When Dumoulin arrived at his team bus from a post-stage anti-doping control, his first thought was not for Yates' disarming strength, but for the distinct lack of cooperation among the five-man group that ought to have found common cause over the final 15 kilometres of the stage.
Pinot was the most generous in his efforts, but the competition between Carapaz and Lopez for the white jersey seemed to have a most deleterious impact on the group's cohesion, much to Dumoulin's frustration. The climbers' accelerations even saw Dumoulin jettisoned out the back with 3km to go on the final haul towards Sappada, but the defending champion summoned the strength to regain contact and maintain second place in the overall standings.
"I don't give a damn at this point. I'm totally fucked now," Dumoulin said as he soft-pedalled on the turbo trainer. "I had to dig so deep to stay with those five other riders after Yates' attack, and in the end, it didn't even matter because everybody there was just taking the piss. If I had immediately started riding by myself, I would have lost a lot less time on Yates. Because of them taking the piss I lost a lot more. Anyway, I did the best I could today. Yates was just way too strong.
"Pinot worked a little bit with me. Pozzovivo did some short pulls. But, ah, I can understand them, obviously. That's cycling. That's what makes the sport so beautiful. But I had to adjust my tactics. Which I did. I thought, if I just time trial, then I'll be faster at the finish than if I stay here, fooling around with those other guys."
As the Giro breaks for its third and final rest day, Dumoulin lies in second place overall, and might well be able to wrest the maglia rosa from Yates' shoulders in Tuesday's 34km time trial. Yates, for one, maintains that Dumoulin can make up his deficit of 2:11 in the solitary test from Trento to Rovereto.
The problem for Dumoulin is that there are still three tough legs in the high Alps to follow, and no further time trials. The lie of the land from here to Rome lends itself to the man who appears to be climbing as though unfettered by gravity.
"He's in such great shape maybe he can also do a really, really good time trial," Dumoulin said of Yates. "We just have to see. I will give everything on Tuesday and then I will see. But even if I have an excellent TT and he doesn't, and even if I take the lead, he's just riding away from us whenever he wants [in the mountains] so it's going to be very difficult.
"I'm very happy and satisfied with my shape and where I'm at now. I'll probably not win this Giro d'Italia, but I've still proved every day that I belong in this select company of GC riders. I hope I can keep fighting until Rome and we'll see what it gives."
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