Five days from the finish in Rome and with three mountain stages remaining, Simon Yates is within grasping distance of becoming the first Briton to win the Giro d’Italia after he defended his pink leader’s jersey in the three-week race’s longest and toughest time trial, holding the defending champion Tom Dumoulin to a more than respectable margin over the 34km between Trento and Rovereto.
To have any hope of overall victory, the Dutchman needed to wrestle the pink jersey from Yates’s slender shoulders even if only by a few seconds, but instead the world champion fared slightly worse than might have been predicted – finishing only third on the stage behind the Australian Rohan Dennis – which meant that Yates had only to improve slightly on what was expected in order to take a significant stride towards final victory.
Dumoulin closed from 2min 11sec behind Yates to 52sec, but he faces an uphill task to repeat his victory of 2017. While Thursday’s uphill finish is the kind of nagging climb that suits him Friday and Saturday have repeated climbs that will favour Yates’s climbing strength. Moreover, Dumoulin’s Sunweb team do not seem to have enough climbing strength to put Yates’s Mitchelton-Scott team under pressure.
Amid his obvious pleasure at retaining the pink jersey for the tenth day, Yates said his tactical plan would change. Having focused on attacking to gain time to create a cushion for this stage, he can now ride more conservatively. “It changes my tactics for the next few days. Unfortunately for the fans it means I can be a lot more defensive, all the way to Rome. Sorry guys.” As he noted, his stage win on Sunday, where he gained 47sec on Dumoulin, was critical in giving him the lead he now enjoys.
Over a largely flat course through the vineyards that line the valley of the river Adige – and alongside the motorway that runs south out of Trento, this was far from the “klcking” predicted by Yates’s directeur sportif Matt White, but it was by no means a straightforward process for the Briton. He never looked entirely comfortable on his time-trial bike, in stark contrast to Dumoulin’s smooth, unflustered style.
The risk Yates ran, as all climbers do in this kind of stage, were exemplified by the fortunes of Thibaut Pinot, a past winner of the French national time trial title and a contender for the podium in this Giro until this stage. Here, a catastrophic performance meant he dropped to fifth overall.
“I had a good rhythm,” said Yates. “I felt I was going well and not losing too much time, just trying to hold my position [on the bike]. In the final 10 kilometres I died a thousand deaths. I thought I was going to lose a lot more so I’m happy.”
The top three on the stage were specialists, led by Dennis, who had targeted the opening time trial in Jersusalem, where he finished second to Dumoulin, although that ride enabled him to snatch the pink jersey in the opening week. It is a welcome result for the BMC team, which is searching for a new sponsor after the death of its founder and long-time backer Andy Rihs, and it hoisted him to sixth overall.
The former world champion Tony Martin finished ahead of Dumoulin in second, while Chris Froome’s fourth place on the stage suggests that he can still at least target third place, although he has been anything but consistent over the past two and a half weeks. Just behind Froome, the Italian national champion Fabio Aru created the one major shock with fifth place – surprising for a rider who had looked close to quitting the race on Sunday – while the Essex rider Alex Dowsett posted a respectable seventh.
Yates has now opened a healthy gap over the other riders pushing for victory behind Dumoulin: Pozzovivo has slipped to 3min 11sec, Froome is at almost 4min, just ahead of Pinot, which again gives grounds for optimistim.
“I’ve got a bigger gap to the guys behind me. It’s not just Tom, he’s at a minute, the guys behind him are at a good gap. There are still some hard days to come, I have to hope I have no bad luck and no bad days.”
On Wednesday the race heads through the Italian lake country for a flat finish in Iseo, which will be the final chance for breakaway specialists to target a stage win. That is followed by three mountain-top finishes in succession. Friday and Saturday’s stages to Monte Jafferau and Cervinia look particularly tough, although on paper, Yates’s climbing skills should enable him to defend or extend his lead.
Stage 16 result
1 Rohan Dennis 40:00 2 Tony Martin (+14sec) 3 Tom Dumoulin (+22 secs) 4 Van Emden (27) 5 Froome (+35 secs)
1 Yates (66hrs 39:14) 2 Dumoulin (+0:56) 3 Pozzovivo (+3:11) 4 Froome (+3:50) 5 Pinot (+4:19) 6 Dennis (+5:04) 7 Moreno (+5:37) 8 Armentia (+6:02) 9 Carapaz (+6:07) 10 Bennett (+7:01)
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