The analysis from stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia
The race is still on
After coming through the time trial with a handy lead in tact, it had looked as though overall victory was within touching distance for Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
But this is the Giro, where every stage has the potential for unpredictable twists and turns, and today’s big surprise was to see the pink jersey dropped on the final climb.
With 1,500 metres to ride Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) attempted what felt like a token attack, which produced the expected outcome of Yates following his wheel. But the effort must have taken far more out of Yates than it seemed, as when Chris Froome (Sky) countered he was this time unable to follow.
With the action not kicking off until so close to the summit, the time gaps weren’t substantial, with Yates losing just 28 seconds to Dumoulin, Froome and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida).
But having finally shown weakness, all three will have received a significant psychological boost, and perhaps be more inclined to take on the pink jersey rather than just aim for podium positions.
Yates finally shows vulnerability
There are several ways to interpret why Yates endured such a bad day today.
Was this stage simply an anomaly, the result perhaps of an unusual stage that featured over 150km of flat followed by one very difficult climb to the finish? Such parcours have been known to produce unexpected performances as some riders struggle to adapt to such a sharp contrast in gradients, in which case we should expect to see Yates return to form in the following more conventional mountain stages.
Or perhaps, as suggested by Mitchelton-Scott’s DS Matt White, the constant gradients of the Prato Nevoso simply didn’t suit Yates’ punchy climbing style, and Dumoulin and co should in fact have aimed to take more time out of Yates?
On the other hand, was it a sign of something more terminal regarding Yates’ form? As has been reiterated throughout his dominant display so far at the Giro, there was always the chance that such a young rider lacking experience in battling for the GC into a third week of a Grand Tour could see their fortunes change, especially having ridden the first two weeks so aggressively.
If so, he is at risk of losing serious time in the following more difficult duo of mountain stages – meaning that not only is Dumoulin a threat at 28 seconds, but perhaps even Pozzovivo at 2-43 and Froome at 3-22 too?
Stranger things have happened – Vincenzo Nibali overturned an even bigger gap of 4-43 in just won days to win the 2016 Giro, for instance – but for Yates’s sake let’s hope that one of the first two interpretations rings closest to the truth.
Wout Poels could yet have a big role to play
For the second day running Wout Poels (Sky) went up the road in an intriguing tactical ploy from Sky. The team are used to defending rather than chasing an overall lead in the final week of a Grand Tour, so it’s interesting to see analyse how they approach this distinct challenge.
Sending Poels up the road worked a treat this time, as Froome had someone to pace him and maximise the damage inflicted on Yates once he had been dropped – at least until the Dutchman’s shift took a premature end when he made a wrong turn in the finale.
Despite that mishap, the ride demonstrated what great form Poels is in, and he could play a huge role in how the race for the maglia rosa ultimately unfolds.
It is imperative that Mitchelton-Scott do not let him get up the road in the remaining two mountains stages. Today he outperformed all of the Australian team’s super-domestiques, meaning that if the same scenario plays out again – only with scores of kilometres to ride rather than just 1.5km – then Yates could have to take things into his own hands and embark on a very difficult solo chase against a Poels-led group of favourites.
Such a race situation could be fatal for Yates’ dreams of pink, as well as demonstrate the invaluable role of a domestique like Poels.
At last, a breakaway succeeds
After the madness of yesterday’s stage, today played out in a much more straightforward manner with a decisive group forming almost at the very start of the day’s racing.
Evidently no-one was in the mood for another exhausting day spent racing full-on from start to finish.
Neither was any team committed to bringing the break back to contest the stage win, as Mitchelton-Scott were left to set a gentle pace all day, allowing the break to gain a lead of 15 minutes heading onto the Prato Nevoso.
That proved to be more than enough for them to duke it out for the stage win – just the second time the day’s break has been allowed to do so at this year’s Giro.
Quick-Step win again
With a breakaway finally being allowed to succeed, the chance was there for an underdog to go for glory, and one of the 12 teams yet to have won a stage yet at this Giro to finally get off the mark.
As it happened, though, the breakaway turned out to be just another scenario for Quick-Step’s indomitable ‘Wolfpack’ to greedily consume yet another win.
At one point it even looked as though this stage would be a repeat of every sprint stage so far as a showdown between Quick-Step Floors and Bora-Hansgrohe, as the former’s Schachmann and the latter’s Christoph Pfingsten attacked each other up the climb.
Eventually, though, Schachmann and Androni’s Mattia Cattaneo emerged as the strongest, despite the best effort of Ruben Plaza (Israel Cycling Academy), who yo-yoed agonisingly off their wheels throughout the climb.
Ultimately it was Schachmann’s explosive uphill sprint – demonstrated earlier this season with a top 10 at Fléche Wallonne – that decided the stage, and denied Androni what would have been the first win from a pro-continental team this race.
For the 24-year old Schachmann, though, the win was realisation of a substantial talent, and confirmation that the German is one to watch in the coming years.