After looking flawless so far in this Giro, the Mitchelton-Scott leader wobbled in stage 18 in the first of three straight mountain stages. Yates kept the pink jersey but ceded 28 seconds to his direct rivals.
When asked if it was the first sign of a crack, Yates replied: “Good question. I don’t know. I hope not.”
Yates still brandished lipstick on this cheeks from kisses from the podium girls, but his grip on the pink jersey unraveled by half to 28 seconds.
“I was only bad for one K, so that’s OK,” Yates said. “I am still in the lead, I’m still in front. For me, that’s OK.”
Yates looked vulnerable for the first time in this Giro since capturing the pink jersey on Mount Etna in stage 6.
The mostly flat stage was punctuated by the 14km Prato Nevoso climb on the southern edge of the Italian Alps. It wasn’t steep until the final few kilometers, but the long, fast climb put Yates on his back foot with just days to go in this Giro.
“I couldn’t close the gap. I was really tired and I couldn’t respond to the attacks, that’s OK, that’s OK,” said Yates, as if trying to convince himself. “For sure today was not a super day for me, as in the parcours. The next few days suit me much more.”
Arch-rival Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) attacked with about 2km to go, a move that Yates initially covered. Four-time defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) then pounced, drawing out Dumoulin and Dominico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida). The trio pulled clear and a haggard Yates did his best to limit his losses.
Mitchelton-Scott riders didn’t know what happened until they crossed the line at the Prato Nevoso summit. Soigneurs whispered the news, and riders reacted with a mix of relief and surprise.
“I sat up there at the bottom to save my legs for tomorrow. I really don’t know what happened,” said key helper Jack Haig. “Everyone is quite tired at this point. Yates had to go deep in the time trial, and if it’s his first bad day he’s had in the entire Giro, to lose 20 seconds, it’s a good outcome.”
Colombian climber Esteban Chaves tried to calm down journalists hovering around the finish line eager for a choice quote after the day’s drama.
“We still have the pink jersey and that is the most important to still have the lead. The team is very motivated,” Chaves told Colombian TV. “What is clear is that Yates is calm. He also has the experience in big races. He knows he has the entire team around him.”
Yates might have taken some lumps, but he defended pink. He said he was marking Dumoulin, his most direct rival, and not so worried about what Froome and Pozzovivo were doing.
“Froome is still a long way down. I was watching Dumoulin,” Yates said. “I said from the beginning [Froome] was never out of it. He said he was going to fight all the way to Rome, and that is what he has shown now. I never doubted him for one minute. For me, it’s not a surprise.”
Yates is hoping to avoid more surprises. He’s hoping the more mountainous stages in Friday’s and Saturday’s summit finales in the Alps to close out the Giro see him back at his Giro best.
“Tomorrow sees many more passes and longer climbs that suit me much more,” Yates said. “I am much more confident about tomorrow and the next day than I was about today.”