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Prato Nevoso looms: Yates shifts into defense mode

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ISEO, Italy (VN) — Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) isn’t thinking about winning more stages or even taking more time in the Giro d’Italia overall.

The British rider wants only to defend his 56-second lead and survive the final onslaught of three straight climbing stages to arrive Sunday in Rome with the pink jersey on his back. He doesn’t care if it’s by one second or one minute.

“It’s not up to me to attack or be aggressive,” Yates said at the stage 17 finish. “I will ride conservatively and try to be as defensive as possible. I have almost a minute’s lead. I don’t need more than that.”

Yates pedaled one day closer toward becoming the first British rider to win the Giro d’Italia Wednesday.

A day after defending the pink jersey in Tuesday’s decisive time trial, Yates rode cautiously through the wet transition stage. Late rain doused the peloton as Mitchelton-Scott rode to defend Yates’s enviable position atop the leaderboard.

Three fearsome days in the Italian Alps are up next, and they could decide the 2018 Giro. The famous dirt climb over the Finestre awaits Friday and the final climb to Cervinia looms Saturday. The next major hurdle is Prato Nevoso in Thursday’s 196km stage 18.

The route is mostly flat all the way across the Po Valley before hitting the day’s main obstacle in the Italian Alps. The first-category summit waiting at the end climbs 13.9km with an average grade of 6.9 percent. It’s a solitary, steady-pace climb unlike anything the Giro’s seen so far this year. It’s not Zoncolan-steep nor is it short and punchy like Osimo.

“It’s an ideal climb for me,” said second place Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). “It’s similar to the Oropa climb [which he won in the 2017 Giro]. It goes straight up. It’s a question of who has the legs. I am not feeling so bad. I hope to do something nice.”

Simon Yates was well-protected by his Mitchelton-Scott teammates throughout stage 17. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Mitchelton-Scott is in an ideal position after Yates defended the pink jersey in Tuesday’s time trial. Team officials said the lack of a headwind during the race against the clock helped save Yates’s lead.

So instead of attacking to gain time back on Dumoulin, Yates can now race defensively to mark any moves from his direct rivals.

“There’s going to be a fight for the podium now,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We can use that to our favor.”

Yates’s GC rivals are sure to test him in the coming days, but if he proves he’s just as solid in the mountains as he’s been since the Giro started, they will start to attack each other.

Barring a complete collapse, Dumoulin is Yates’s most dangerous rival. Others are all more than three minutes back. Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Chris Froome (Sky), and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) are stacked up at 3:11, 3:50 and 4:19, respectively, behind Yates and Dumoulin.

Yates’s ideal scenario would be if Froome or Pinot go from far away, forcing Dumoulin to chase. If Dumoulin cannot answer, Yates can then bridge across, drop Dumoulin and widen his lead for the pink jersey.

That’s, of course, easier said than done.

Chris Froome looked like his old self when he unleashed a vicious attack 4km from the finish line to win on Monte Zoncolan. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The big question mark going into the final trio of races is Froome’s condition. He’s been wildly inconsistent since crashing just hours before the Giro began. He lost time in nearly all the key stages but won at Monte Zoncolan. The four-time Tour winner surged back up into podium contention, and maybe even more, following Tuesday’s time trial.

“That was like junior racing out there — from the gun to the finish it was non-stop!” Froome said Wednesday. “It was a really full-on day at the Giro even though on paper it looked to be quite a straightforward day.

“I’m still hoping to do the best I can do, whatever place that ends up being,” Froome continued. “I wanted to be at my best in this last week and I’m feeling good. We’ve got three really hard days ahead of us now. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and see where we’re at once we get to Rome. It’s all going to be about the legs the next three days.”

Yates has clearly been the strongest rider through the first 17 stages of this Giro d’Italia. Whether he has four more days in his legs is the big question mark coming into the final weekend.

“The real racing starts tomorrow,” Yates said. “My condition is OK. I was a bit tired today, but everyone is tired. It’s stage 17. I am getting closer to the end, and as the days tick down. I will be careful.”

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