After Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) secured his first-ever Giro d’Italia podium last year, it was hard, rightly or wrongly, to avoid a sense of completion of unfinished or overdue business.
The Giro had been where Yates had come agonisingly close to winning a Grand Tour in 2018, after all, before it all fell apart for the British climber in the last few days. After an uneven follow-up performance in 2019 and then a premature exit the subsequent year, the 2021 Giro was where it all came right at last for the BikeExchange leader.
Which begs the question: where does Yates go from here? Particularly, as it was not at all certain - at least until the routes of the Tour and Giro were published - that he would be targeting the Giro this time around.
"We’re aiming for the podium and if he can win it, that’d be sensational," BikeExchange-Jayco sports director Matt White told Cyclingnews shortly after Simon Yates took two stages in the Vuelta Asturias last weekend.
"I think he’s going to be around the mark, he’s going to be competitive. We’ve run this template before and he knows the Giro well and how much he can get out of the Giro and himself. I’m very confident he can arrive on the podium."
As for the team’s biggest rivals, White points at Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) as their top competition. "You’d have to put [Romain] Bardet and Mikel Landa up there, too," he said.
“But Carapaz scares me the most, because he’s been there before on many a Grand Tour, he’s won the Giro, and he’s quite unpredictable. He is the key favourite of the race."
As for Yates, he comes to the Giro fresh off two stage wins in the Vuelta Asturias, although they were separated by a rough day on what was the critical mountain stage. White says, though, that there was a reason for that uneven performance in the three-day Spanish stage race, and he’s not overly troubled by it.
"It is pretty simple for us. He’s been up at 2,000 metres pretty much since he pulled out of the Volta a Catalunya and I don’t think it’s got above 10 degrees up there in all that time.
"So winter has dragged on in Andorra and the guys have been training like that for three weeks. We had a mild first day in Asturias and then on day two on the coast, it was 16 degrees but when we went inland, the fog lifted and suddenly it jumped to 27. And you know how humid it gets in northern Spain when it gets hot."
As White says, both Yates brothers, Adam and Simon can race in the heat, with Simon’s victory in the 2018 Vuelta a España near-conclusive proof of that. And far better this happen in Asturias than, say, on the slopes of Mount Etna, the Giro’s first crucial climb, in a week’s time.
"What they [both Yates brothers] don’t like is that shock of that first experience in that hotter weather," White explains. "If they get that in training then they’re OK in racing, but with the race schedule and where he’s been in the last month, Asturias was just a shock to the system. It was a tough day of climbing - 4,500 metres - so Simon shut it down and rode to the finish and the next day we won again."
The Etna ascent on stage 4 will be taken by many as a key pointer towards Yates’ overall form, considering he took the lead there after a similar scenario of a foreign Grande Partenza and long transfer to Italy on an early rest day back in 2018.
White is logically cautious about showing his hand regarding what Yates could do on the same climb four years on, but he confidently predicts that Etna will be a "showdown" for the overall contenders.
"It’s a very long climb, it’s going up a side we haven’t used before, it’s tough, and there will be a degree of selection. Plus, it comes after a rest day; that can unsettle some racers. Although if anything, Simon comes out of rest days very well. It’s definitely not an issue for him."
Further down the line, the route itself, White says, holds few surprises this year, noting that "the Giro is always back-end heavy".
He cites stage 7 to Potenza and stage 14 to Turin as two stages that could prove treacherous. "They are brutal and will catch a few people out."
He also said that the possible key difference compared to other years is that "there’s no mid-race time trial, which could have created a minute or two between the main favourites."
For BikeExchange-Jayco, in any case, the Giro mission remains the same no matter what kind of terrain the organisers decided to throw at them, with the whole squad all-in for Yates.
"If chances of stage wins arrive, they arrive, but when you are riding for GC you have to channel your energies, and when you start getting greedy and going for stage wins, putting guys in the break, you’re taking vital energy away," White reasons.
Next year, though, the team could be looking at stage wins in the Giro as White confirmed this could be Yates’ last Giro for a few years, with the Briton set to head back to the Tour de France in 2023. There is some significant small print to that idea, though, as White also revealed that originally the Tour GC was the plan for 2022, whereas now if Yates does go to France this summer, it’ll be just for stage wins.
"Going into the end of last season, we probably had the mindset to go for the Tour de France this year," White recounts. "Just because he had done four Giros in the past, he hasn’t been back to the Tour for a while, he wants to wear the yellow jersey and get on the Tour podium and it's too hard to do them both.
"But then seeing the routes of two races, we put it on the table with our sponsors and stakeholders and asked them what they wanted. With 60 kilometres of individual time trialling the Tour, it was going to be very hard to win. We obviously know Simon is not as good a time triallist as the two Slovenians [Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar], so realistically you’re scrapping for a podium spot.
"But with not so many TT kilometres in the Giro, we know they are not going to be there… of the three Grand Tours, this is the one we’ve got the best and most realistic chance of winning. So we made that final decision."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.
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