Two big mountain stages produced a tale of two British triumphs as Chris Froome bit back after a tough opening two weeks of racing, and Simon Yates did exactly the same thing after him in stage 15. George Bennett slipped to 8th overall in stage 14 and maintained his position.
Chris Froome hits back on Zoncolan
Stage 14 was feared by many riders, as the 186km of racing from San Vito al Tagliamento took in four categorised climbs before the final monstrous ascent of Monte Zoncolan. The final climb was some 10km in length and much of it would be over 12% in gradient, a brutal challenge ahead for many, but not for Tom Scully who withdrew from the race and didn’t start stage 14.
The race began with Valerio Conti of UAE Team Emirates and Mads Pedersen of Trek-Segafredo going up the road, only to joined by Pedersen’s teammate Laurent Didier, Francesco Gavazzi of Androni-Sidermec-Botecchia, Enrico Barbin of Bardiani-CSF, Jacopo Mosca of Wilier-Triestina and AG2R La Mondiale’s Matteo Montaguti. Mitchelton-Scott predictably took their place at the head of the peloton, with Sam Bewley in for a very big day in defence of Simon Yates’ maglia rosa. Team Sky joined them and together they kept the break at a maximum gap of a little more than 6mins.
It was interesting to note the involvement of a number of teams in the chase though, with Team Sunweb, Astana, LottoNL-Jumbo all lending a hand to bring the gap down en route to the Zoncolan. At 38km to go the gap to the leaders had been brought down to 3.23mins. On the penultimate climb of the stage the breakaway finally broke up, with Enrico Barbin and Valerio Conti pulling away. The catch was inevitable, but they fought valiantly on nevertheless, with their 1.15min gap with 20.6km to go gradually being chipped away by the peloton; once again led by Mitchelton-Scott.
The two leaders would survive over the penultimate climb and get to the climb of Monte Zoncolan with a lead, but that evaporated on the lower slopes, with Conti caught by an attack from Dimension Data’s Igor Anton. After Anton, Michael Woods of EF Education First-Drapac made his move, with Wout Poels leading the GC contenders forwards, but George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo was not in the GC group. Unfortunately for Bennett, he began the climb in the worst possible way – with a mechanical problem – and was forced to chase early on.
A number of riders came under pressure with 6km to go, with Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin both showing signs of suffering. As the catch was made to Woods it became clear that the strongest figures in the race were Chris Froome, Simon Yates and Domenico Pozzocico who held positions 2-4 behind Poels; who tapped out a steady tempo to deter any further attacks.
With a little over 5km to go Aru lost contact with the GC group, while Dumoulin fought to hang on. Also struggling was the white jersey of Richard Carapaz. Steadily the group whittled away until with 4.3km to go Poels pulled away with Dumoulin, Froome, Pozzovivo, Lopez, Pinot and Yates all together. Pinot had support in the form of Sebastien Reichenbach; but then an attack by Chris Froome put everyone under pressure, and shook Dumoulin and Pinot off of the group that was now at full stretch.
Steadily Froome pulled away from all-comers, including Lopez, Pozzovivo and Yates, with a little daylight forming with 4km to go. Behind him Lopez, Pozzovivo and Yates formed a bit of a group in pursuit, while Dumoulin and Pinot also joined together just a few seconds behind them. At 3km to go Froome’s gap was sitting at 15 seconds to the Yates group and 28 seconds to Dumoulin and Pinot; but then Yates attacked.
The maglia rosa dropped his companions and went off in search of his compatriot with Lopez the rider most able to limit his losses. At one point Yates closed to less than 10 seconds, but then inside 2km to go the gap climbed back up again to 12-13 seconds. It was looking like Froome was back. The final kilometre was a war of attrition between the two riders, with Yates persisting with Froome in his sights the whole way.
Behind Yates, Pozzovivo and co were losing more time, with Dumoulin and Pinot falling further back to 42 seconds in arrears as Froome pushed towards 500m to go.
Through the final tunnel on the Zoncolan, Yates looked as if he might catch his British rival, but the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana champion continued to press on, not wanting company at the line. 200m to go and Froome was looking more likely to win the stage as Yates visibly looked fatigue. The maglia rosa was doing a tremendous job of limiting his losses though as Chris Froome threw his arms aloft at the end of a brilliant stage win. Yates crossed the line 6 seconds adrift, with Pozzovivo third at 23 seconds just ahead of Miguel Angel Lopez.
Tom Dumoulin conceded 31 seconds to Simon Yates, with Thibaut Pinot a further five seconds back. George Bennett finished just ahead of Richard Carapaz and dropped to 8th overall, now 4.04mins behind Simon Yates; as Chris Froome leapt from 12th to 7th overall, just 3.10mins behind the leader.
Yates makes it three wins at Sappada
Another big day awaited the riders in the 176km from Tolmezzo to Sappada. The high point of the race was the Passo Tre Croci, which interestingly was just rated a category 2 ascent. There was no category for the final ramp up to the finish line, but the hurt on the riders would be well and truly on after yesterday’s Zoncolan efforts.
Despite the pain caused after yesterday there were plenty of candidtes for the break of the day, with many attacks trying to go clear in the opening kilometres. Eventually a group did move up the road, but to say it was the break of the day was difficult to say as they held just a slender advantage for several kilometres. The 4-man move was made up of Nico Denz and Quentin Jauregui of AG2R La Mondiale, Dayer Quintana of Movistar and Krists Neilands of Israel Cycling Academy.
But still there was no real settledness in the peloton and eventually more riders broke free of the pack to form a group of 25 riders at the front of the race. Included in the move were a number of teams from Trek-Segafredo to BMC Racing, Bahrain-Merida to Quick-Step Floors, the usual suspects in Bardiani-CSF and Androni-Sidermec-Botecchia, Groupama-FDJ and even Sam Bewley of Mitchelton-Scott. The Kiwi joined the move that had a 3 minute advantage with 91km to go and he was there to simply police the move, but that also served a dual purpose as it was EF Education First-Drapac and not Mitchelton-Scott who led the peloton; expending the brunt of the energy at the front of the race.
With 80km left to race the gap had come down to 2 minutes with EF Education First-Drapac still leading the way and doing a good job of reeling the break back in gradually, not gobbling up the time gap too quickly. Eventually the break fragmented, as was expected on such a mountainous stage, and AG2R La Mondiale’s Mickaël Cherel and Nico Denz, Giulio Ciccone of Bardiani-CSF, Dayer Quintana of Movistar and Krists Neilands of Israel Cycling Academy led the way with a little under 70km to go.
Sam Bewley had dropped back to the peloton over the course of the stage, and after the climb of Passo Tre Corci he was seen right on the front of the race leading the way on the descent as in front Denz and Cherel distanced the rest of the break on the descent. With Mitchelton-Scott on the front of the race once again, it looked like the concern was primarily safety rather than bringing back the moves up ahead; and Bewley was happy to sit on the front and allow the break to gain a bit more time on the descent before the final two climbs; with the AG2R La Mondiale pairing enjoying a 2.45min lead at one stage.
Eventually though, as the road went up again, the gap came down and with 25km to go the gap had dropped to just over 20 seconds. Nico Denz was the last rider to remain out in front and he stretched his lead out to 39 seconds with 20km to go. Interestingly the first GC move went clear with two climbs still to come (including the finish), as Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana launched his move.
It was a risky move with so far to cover, but it did succeed in stretching the field out quite radically on the descent. Yates was able to go across along with Dumoulin, with George Bennett also there. With 18km to go Bennett made a move, pushing the pace as behind his group Chris Froome struggled to get back in contact. Jack Haig was wise to the move from Bennett though, with Bennett’s attack looking more like a bid to create distance between himself and Froome; rather than an earnest hit out for the stage.
Next up was a surprise with Simon Yates going on the attack. There was still plenty of riding to do, but he’d decided it was time to test the waters. Miguel Angel Lopez bridged across with Dumoulin, Pozzovivo, Carapaz, Pinot and Bennett all joining him eventually; although the chase to get across the gap saw Bennett fall back and a leading group of six form.
But Yates was not done yet, attacking again with 17km to go and this time seeing no reaction from the rest. He leapt up the road as behind him Chris Froome struggled to close the gap between his group and the Dumoulin group. Yates led over the summit of the climb with an advantage of 18 seconds to Pozzovivo, but more impressively, a lead of 1.04mins over Froome and co.
The final climb to the line began with just under 9km to go, and Yates was looking strong; growing his lead to over 30 seconds as Bennett now became part of the Froome group. In the first chase group the frustration was showing, as Tom Dumoulin remonstrated with the group around him; trying to inject some cooperation within the move. That was not coming though, as the chasers seemed to be attacking each other.
With a little under 5km to go Yates’ lead had grown to 50 seconds and 1.34mins to Bennett and Froome’s group. The maglia rosa looked comfortable and confident, a far cry from the pained expression on the Zoncolan the day before. Gradually though, the time gap did begin to descend but it was an attack by Richard Carapaz that then put Dumoulin on the ropes. Pozzovivo, Pinot and Lopez could keep pace, but the defending champion was on the ropes.
3km from the finish Yates’ lead was 38 seconds, but still cooperation was a battle for the GC contenders and this played into the hands of Tom Dumoulin who had them within view and was trying to claw his way back. Back in the Froome group, George Bennett was playing a strong role in limiting their losses and keeping his top ten hopes alive. In the Pinot group, it was a case of himself and Pozzovivo being forced to do the spade work, with Lopez and Carapaz not contributing to the chase. Dumoulin was 17 seconds adrift. Their cat and mouse games gave Dumoulin a lifeline if only he could take it and catch up again.
Yates continued to lead though, looking pained now through 1km to go. Through the last few turns the Brit dug deep on the drops, time trialling to the line to claim his third win of the Giro d’Italia. Behind him Dumoulin was yo-yoing to and from the chase group; but he’d valiantly succeeded in being back on board when it mattered most. At the finish Lopez took the sprint for second, with Dumoulin third; the group losing 41 seconds to Yates. Bennett’s group were next, with the Kiwi finishing 1.20mins behind the Brit, but 12 seconds ahead of Froome; who faded towards the finish.