After crashing in the prologue and fading like a flower for large spells of the race, Chris Froome has blossomed to become the first Briton to win the Giro d’Italia – but the pre-race favourite didn’t have it all his way over the past three weeks.
Trailing by over three minutes heading into Friday’s third last stage, it looked like compatriot and long-time maglia rosa holder Simon Yates was all but set to clinch a first Grand Tour victory.
But for the first time in 15 days, the man who has won four Tour de France titles and is considered one of the greatest cyclists of all time burst to life and showed us his true pedigree.
Friday’s mammoth 185km stage to Bardonecchia was cycling at its rawest and thrilling best. With Yates struggling at the back of the peloton, Froome and his Team Sky set the pace like a Maserati charging around an F1 street circuit.
With a grueling 80km still remaining, Froome attacked on the Colle delle Finestre, a mountain that makes the body shake by even looking at. Too many times in the past we’ve seen riders attack too early and it all end in tears, but the Briton sparkled on the hills of northern Italy, with each pedal stronger than the next.
As he crossed the finish line to record one of the most extraordinary stage wins in Giro history, the margin of his effort meant he donned pink for the first time, finishing over three minutes ahead of reigning champion Tom Dumoulin and nearly 39 minutes ahead of Yates.
Yet, strangely, before this, he was nowhere to be seen – apart from his win on Stage 14 – with most people believing his lack of form and confidence was down to the distractions of the ongoing anti-doping case against him.
Three weeks ago many believed Froome shouldn’t have been on the start line in Jerusalem with the positive test for the banned substance salbutamol from last September at the Vuelta a Espana continuing to hang over his name and reputation.
He dismisses any wrong doing and is fighting his case with the UCI, but too many times before in this sport we have heard similar stories with a sad ending.
It’s easy to imagine the pressure from the world’s media, coupled with certain members of the peloton criticising him, was affecting his focus and momentum during the early stages of the race.
But until a ban is issued or statement to clear his name circulated, we can only speculate as to what the result will be and what it will do to his status going forward.
For now, the 33-year-old remains one of the greatest-ever cyclists – only the third man in history along with Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault to hold the Tour de France, Vuelta and Giro titles at the same time.
It’s a phenomenal feat considering the three races navigate the most arduous terrains around Europe and offer little rest for those who consider themselves to be strong enough to challenge for general classification honours.
His Giro victory is nothing short of spectacular, with the historic stage win on Friday sure to live long in the memory of cycling fans worldwide, especially after he looked down and out when crashing hard before the Jerusalem time trial.
Whether Froome will be on the start line bidding for his fifth Tour de France crown in July remains to be seen, but there is no doubt he is the undisputed king of world cycling at the moment.
Chris Froome is set to complete a remarkable victory in the Giro d’Italia after retaining the leader’s pink jersey at the end of stage 20.
The Team Sky rider need only safely negotiate Sunday’s largely ceremonial final stage to lay his hands on a third straight Grand Tour title, following his wins at the Tour de France and La Vuelta last year.
Froome, who held off reigning champion Tom Dumoulin, will become the first British rider to take the honours at the Giro and join Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as the only other men to hold the three Grand Tour titles simultaneously.
Froome appeared to be barely in contention a matter of days ago, but moved into the lead on Friday, when he made an audacious solo charge from 80km out on the mountainous stage from Venaria Reale to Bardonecchia.
It was a monumental effort which propelled the 33-year-old from three minutes and 22 seconds off the lead to the frontrunner by 40 seconds.
By the time he crossed the line ahead of Dumoulin, who attempted to attack Froome on several occasions but seemed to accept he had come up short in the final phase, victory was all but assured.
Spaniard Mikel Nieve was the stage winner on his birthday, but as the race heads to Rome for its procession, it is Froome’s mastery of the general classification that dominates.
Froome cut a composed figure as he accepted congratulations at the finish line and suggested he had never felt threatened by Dumoulin’s efforts to force the pace.
“I thought there were attacks I had to follow in the final, but I felt very much in control and capable of following today,” he told Eurosport 1.
“Everyone had such a hard day yesterday no-one really had the legs to go anywhere.
“It was for us to follow and me to keep an eye on Tom.”
Reflecting on the exacting nature of a course which has taken many high-profile contenders to the limits, Froome added: “This Giro has been brutal, absolutely brutal.
“When someone tends to have a bad day here it’s not just a matter of 30 seconds or one minute, it’s 10-15 minutes. It’s a brutal race.”
Fabio Aru feels he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career as his miserable Giro d’Italia ended on Friday when the UAE Team Emirates rider abandoned the race just over an hour into Stage 19.
The team’s leader had lost time on almost every mountain stage and found himself down in 27th place overall at the start of Friday’s stage, more than 45 minutes down on race leader Simon Yates.
Italian Aru had fought his way inside the top 10 early on but slowly began to slip out of contention.
His team confirmed the former Astana man’s exit on Friday, with no indication Aru was suffering with illness or any other problem.
The 27-year-old, however, admits he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career.
“I’m really sorry for all this, for my team, my family and the sponsors that I represent, but it didn’t make sense to go ahead,” said Aru.
“I had said that I’ll evaluate my feelings day by day because I feel that I’m going through an abnormal period of my sporting career.
“I wanted to keep going and honour the team’s jersey, give the fans something and the race its due respect. But I couldn’t do it.”
There were high hopes of Aru, the Italian champion, replicating prior success at his home Grand Tour heading into this year’s Giro, following his move to UAE Team Emirates this season.
After two disappointing attempts at the Tour de France, it was hoped he could rediscover his 2015 form, when he finished runner-up at the Giro and then won the Vuelta a Espana later in the year.
Sadly, @FabioAru1 abandoned the Giro during today’s stage. He spoke openly about how difficult it was for him to stop his home race. #UAETeamEmirates #Giro101 https://t.co/7asWsmNS7r pic.twitter.com/ErFDNNvbuL— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 25 May 2018
Yet his struggles were evident from early on. He lost a chunk of time on the opening-day time trial in Jerusalem, and although he finished with the favourites on Mount Etna on Stage 6, he lost more than a minute on the Stage 9 summit finish at Gran Sasso.
The second weekend saw any faint hopes of a podium evaporate. He lost two minutes on Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14, but alarmingly conceded another 19 on the following day’s stage to Sappada, which left him 22nd overall, and 25 minutes down on Yates.
After the final rest day on Monday, a remarkable resurgence seemed on the cards when Aru finished sixth on the 34.2km Stage 16 time trial, though it soon emerged how he might have achieved such a surprising result against the clock as he was penalised for drafting.
Aru finished 112th on Stage 17 and 122nd on the summit finish at Prato Nevoso on Stage 18, and it was unclear if the legs were empty or if he was saving himself for an assault on stage wins in the final two big mountain stages.
The question was answered just over an hour into Friday’s big mountain stage, before the riders had hit the Colle delle Finestre and onto Sestriere, scene of a famous stage win for Aru at the 2015 Giro.
“I’m not going to be dramatic, this is sport and maybe, even if it hurts to say so now, this sport is beautiful,” added Aru.
“I’ll try to reset and understand together with the team what happened, then I’ll restart thinking of the rest of the season. Because this is what you have to do in difficult moments.”