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.
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