Four days from the finish in the open streets of Rome and Simon Yates is on the brink of becoming the first Englishman in history to win the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s most prestigious Grand Tours.
The 25-year-old Bury man has climbed with consistent ease to clinch three stage wins during his time in the maglia rose, but his latest finish was one of the most spectacular yet.
Tuesday’s 34km individual time trial was seen as the decisive moment in Yates’ reign in pink, with defending champion Tom Dumoulin bidding to reduce the 2 mins 11 sec gap that lay between him and the overall leader.
Yates would go on to place a stunning 20th on the stage, 1:37 behind Rohan Dennis and 1:15 behind Dumoulin.
In some distance, it was the best time trial of his career and he now holds a comfy 56-second buffer over the Dutchman.
It was a bullish performance for a man who has struggled in time-trials throughout his career, and with the exception of his 61st place finish on stage two, he has not crossed the line in lower than 34th place in the two weeks of racing.
He could have won a fourth stage too – but instead gifted it to teammate Esteban Chavez on stage six and even came within a whisker of passing Chris Froome on the treacherous Monte Zoncolan on stage 14.
Let’s no also forget his overall consistency in securing eight top-five finishes in the 16 stages of the race so far.
Yates may not be the same household name as Froome or Doumoulin, but his steady rise to the pinnacle of the sport this season is no surprise.
The Mitchelton–Scott rider finished second at the Paris-Nice in March behind eventual winner Marc Soler, and followed that up with a fourth place finish at the Volta a Catalunya two weeks later.
And with Froome struggling for form of late, the question bodes whether Yates could be the man to lead British hopes in this year’s Tour de France.
Froome may be a four-time winner and one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but at 33, his stamina, strength and general drive for success may be starting to fade.
With the Kenyan-born rider facing a potential doping ban in the coming weeks, there is no certainty that he could be lining up at Noirmoutier on July 7.
Though many column inches have been devoted to Yates’ unlikely rise in a turbulent time for the sport, it should be noted that he tested positive for the banned substance terbutaline at the 2016 edition of Paris-Nice, where he placed seventh.
The team’s doctor took responsibility for failure to apply for a therapeutic use exemption for an asthma inhaler and the UCI issued a four-month ban for his ‘non-intentional doping’.
It may be a minor black cloud that hangs over his name in the peloton these days but if Froome and Bradley Wiggins receive criticism for similar actions, then it shouldn’t be any different for Yates or any other cyclist.
With four days remaining in one of cycling’s greatest races, the Briton holds a healthy gap over other riders bidding for victory behind Dumoulin – with Froome almost 4 mins behind and Thibaut Pinot a further 29 seconds back.
Three climbing stages will follow over the next three days, with Friday and Saturday’s stages to Monte Jafferau and Cervinia looking gruelling, but as proven over the last two weeks Yates has an impressive ability to hold his position comfortably or push away on the climbs.
Based on his confidence and ability, this looks to be a seminal moment in a career and season that could see him challenge for the yellow jersey in France later this summer.
Yates, 25, limited the damage on defending champion Tom Dumoulin, who remains 56sec behind the Briton going into the crucial, final week of racing.
Mitchelton-Scott rider Yates said he was satisfied with his day after finishing the 34.2km stage from Trento to Rovereto in 22nd position.
“I’m very happy even if I have to be careful in the stages to come,” he added of the race which finishes in Rome in five days.
And the Team Sky rider warned the final week could see some surprises despite being 3min 50sec off compatriot Yates who looks increasingly difficult to beat.
“I think it’s all to race for. Simon has been untouchable so far, so it will be interesting to see how he goes after the time-trial and he goes in this last block, but I can’t see anyone taking that jersey off his shoulders,” said the 33-year-old.
“Still a lot could happen in this race. The parcours leads to some very aggressive racing, so let’s see.”
BMC rider Dennis is now sixth overall, five minutes behind Yates.
“This is a big day for me to jump back into the top ten,” said the Australian.
“I really wanted to come here to win a stage.
“I just have to hold on for as long as possible. There’s going to be guys trying to do crazy things in the last week.”
Dennis, 27, finished 14sec ahead of Germany’s Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin with Dumoulin of Team Sunweb third at 22sec off the pace.
It was the first Giro stage win for the rider from Adelaide who finished second in the opening stage time-trial in Jerusalem behind Dumoulin, and adds to his stage wins on the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
Overall leader Yates lost less time to second-placed defending champion Dumoulin than many observers had predicted.
“I felt good in the first half. I had a good rhythm,” said Yates.
“I was trying to hold on to my position. But I died in the final 10 kilometres.
“Being in the lead after the time-trial changes my tactics for the remaining stages.
“Unfortunately for the fans, I might be more defensive. I’d like to have a bigger gap but I’m very satisfied with where I stand now.”
Italian climber Fabio Aru, who had looked out of the race after losing 20 minutes on Sunday, created the big surprise of the day as he achieved the best time-trial of his career finishing just two seconds behind Froome.
But France’s Thibaut Pinot lost more than three minutes on the stage winner to drop to fifth overall, 1min 8sec off Italy’s Domenico Pozzovivo who occupies the final podium position.
“I wasn’t good, I had no power. From the start I felt I wasn’t great,” said Pinot who posted the 66th best time.
Wednesday’s 17th stage over 155km from Riva del Garda to Iseo, east of Milan, should suit the sprinters.
The Colombian slid down the general classification after falling behind on the first climb of Stage 10 last Tuesday.
He had earlier won the Mount Etna stage (Stage 6) and was sitting pretty in second place overall behind Mitchelton-Scott teammate Simon Yates – the current race leader.
The 25-minute loss, however, put him down in 39th. The next day he lost another five minutes as his hopes of victory were ended.
The disastrous 10th stage followed the first full rest day and may have been part of the problem. Some riders do not perform well after a rest day.
A week has passed but Chaves is still not sure of the reason behind his woes, and he has yet to undergo deep medical checks to try to find out what happened.
“That will take time for sure,” he told VeloNews. “There is no one-word answer from one day to the other or one night, now we just need to fight for the pink and this is it.”