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Starting the stage in fourth place more than three minutes down, Froome knew it would it take something extraordinary to pry away the pink jersey.
The Sky captain attacked on the steeps of Colle delle Finestre to drop the entire peloton. Froome rode 80km alone at the front over three of the stage’s four rated climbs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever attacked like that from 80km from the line all on my own and gone all the way to the finish,” Froome said. “The team did a fantastic job to set me up. We knew it was going to take something special today to get rid of Simon and get away from Dumoulin.”
His victory, with time bonuses, pushed Froome 40 seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and 4:17 to third-place Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). Overnight leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) fell back to earth, losing more than 38 minutes. He sunk from first to 18th on a dramatic afternoon.
How did Sky pull it off? Let’s listen to the protagonists tell the story:
Keeping the faith
The first key to setting up Friday’s coup was staying in the frame.
Froome’s crash just hours before the opening time trial in Jerusalem put Sky on the back foot. Froome struggled early, and many wrote him off after a rough first week. A win up Monte Zoncolan and a solid time trial Tuesday put him back within podium range.
“We still believed it could happen,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “You could already see in the media in the first two weeks, oh, come on guys, what are you going to do? We kept pushing. Froomey never wanted to stop fighting.”
“The plan was always to get to this point in the race in this block,” said Sky general manager Dave Brailsford. “We just thought, let’s put it on the line and see what happens. You can have the best plan, but it takes the individual and mentality to deliver it.”
Blood in the water
Yates looked unstoppable. After defending the pink jersey Tuesday in the time trial, many thought Yates would ride to Rome in pink.
Sky wasn’t throwing in the towel yet. It pressured Mitchelton-Scott in Wednesday’s lumpy stage and then set a high pace Thursday to Prato Nevoso. Yates was gapped when Froome and Dumoulin attacked in the final 2km.
There was blood in the water and Froome wanted a bite.
“We saw some weakness in some of GC contenders,” Portal said. “Most of the time, we race more defensively to protect the yellow jersey. Here we were in a different situation. Chris was feeling better and better, and our team was getting stronger. We looked at the Finestre and we decided it was all or nothing.”
“We had nothing to lose,” Brailsford said. “We were fourth on GC, a long way back. Sometimes you gotta race in true-racing fashion.”
Planning an ambush
Friday’s four-climb, 184km stage over the dirt Finestre summit was a perfect setting for an ambush.
Sky’s staff and directors huddled overnight Thursday plotting strategy.
“We spent all day yesterday dissecting the stage,” Brailsford said. “We worked with our nutrition team, with our coaching team, and the DS’s to chop the race into different sections. And we decided that we would try to drop Yates in the switchbacks on the Finestre, and Dumoulin at the top.”
The plan was audacious. Sky wanted Froome to attack on the Finestre, still 80km from the finish line. It was a daring strategy.
“We know that guys like Nibali and Quintana can make these kinds of things happen,” Portal said. “You don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, but you’ve got the try. You never find out until you do try. He was coming up in form.”
Froome was up for it. After winning the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in succession in 2017, Froome wanted to go down swinging in his bid to win the Giro.
“To move from fourth to first, I wasn’t going to do that on the final climb alone,” Froome said, “So I had to try from far out.”
The plan worked almost to script. Early breakaway attempts put Mitchelton-Scott under pressure on the day’s first climb. Sky upped the pace again on the steep approach to the Finestre. Yates was gapped even before the gravel.
“Colle delle Finestre was perfect,” Froome said. “It’s a gravel road. It reminds me a little bit of riding on the roads back in Africa. I felt good. It’s now or never, I have to try.”
Froome topped out over the Finestre summit 40 seconds ahead of Pinot and Dumoulin. Pozzovivo was even further back. Yates had blown.
Froome barreled down the narrow, twisting descent, reminding everyone yet again he is a world-class descender. He widened his gap to more than one minute. Froome continued to pour it on over the Sestriere summit and down an across the long valley toward Bardonecchia. The gap was north of three minutes and he was nearing the virtual pink jersey.
“There is not that much tactic. When it’s a hard race like this, it’s legs against the legs,” Portal said. “It’s not about sending guys up the road at the front. Today is just unbelievable what he did.”
Dumoulin and Pinot could only watch in vain as Froome powered away. Froome had enough to seal the pink jersey up the final steep climb to the finish line.
“That showed how strong he is,” Portal said. “He is the best riders in the world and he can make these kinds of efforts after three weeks. It’s not just 20 seconds, but more than three minutes. It’s unbelievable.”
Almost to Rome
After Froome’s exhibition, Sky now needs to finish it off. The team will pull back into its more familiar defensive mode in Saturday’s finale in the Italian Alps.
“We’re very proud,” Brailsford said. “We’re halfway through this two-day block that is going to decide the race.”
Fortress Froome will return and the fight will likely descend into a skirmish for the podium.
Froome said he already had one eye on Saturday even during his daring attack over the Finestre.
“I gave it everything, but I also tried to stay within my limit and tried to stay within myself there,” Froome said. “Hopefully we can finish this off tomorrow.”
Like him or not, Froome delivered something wholly unexpected and completely extraordinary. The Giro always surprises, and Froome lived up to his word to fight until the end.