Miguel Ángel López has been distanced by almost a minute, while pre-race favorite Richard Carapaz is almost 30 seconds down. As far as curtain-raisers go, Yates and his team are sitting pretty at second overall in the race after just two days of action.
The time gaps may not be terminal at this point, but they leave several riders facing difficult questions. Yates is not alone in that sense, however, as he and his team will need to plot a path towards Verona that potentially avoids or gives away the maglia rosa within the first week.
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While the climber and his Australian team currently occupy a position of strength, the next two days, and especially the summit finish at Mount Etna, will prove integral in terms of the team’s tactics and their overall ambitions in the race.
Yates is obviously in fine form, and on his current trajectory, should ride into the maglia rosa atop Etna.
Such a scenario certainly wouldn’t be a disaster – even in the short-term, as it would come with the assumption that even more time had been created between himself and his principal rivals. However, there are still two and half weeks remaining in the Giro from that point on, and history has shown us, and Yates especially, that controlling a Giro d’Italia for that long can leave even the best riders in the world pedaling squares come the final week.
It’s also fair to say that although BikeExchange is geared entirely towards Yates’ needs, it is not strong enough to defend a lead from stage 4 until Verona. Perhaps no team in this year’s race is.
This is not a team that boasts the dependability of a Mikel Nieve in his prime, or the climbing exploits of Esteban Chaves from 2016. There are strong workhorses and reasonable sized engines in the Gerry Ryan stable, but this certainly isn’t the strongest team in the race.
Therefore, the notion of defending the race lead built on just a handful of seconds over Tom Dumoulin all the way until the final week is an unrealistic one. BikeExchange needs to seek time on its rivals, it does not need to seek the maglia rosa and, if it arrives, its best option is to give it away.
“You’ve got to see how things play out on the climb,” Yates’ expert sport director Matt White tells VeloNews. “Who wouldn’t want to be leading the bike race but for how long, you just don’t know. There’s a stage up for grabs, so which GC team wouldn’t be going for it.”
Playing the long game
There is a chance that a break takes both the stage and the jersey on stage 4, while Yates and his rivals duke it out on the final slopes of Etna in a bid to forge time gaps that will only rise to the surface once we hit the final week.
One only needs to scan through the current general classification to see who the potential candidates are. Typically, riders currently at between two to five minutes on GC might be allowed to ride up the road, but there are some key riders higher up who will sense that the true GC teams are reluctant to take control.
Think Davide Villella, Nans Peters, Lilian Calmejane, or several other options at Ag2r-Citroën, Rein Taaramäe, Diego Rosa, or even Alessandro De Marchi, although he’s probably too far down on GC at this point. Perhaps even Quick-Step with Mauro Schmid could be allowed a certain degree of freedom, even after his strong start to the race.
There are several cards that Yates and his team could play but the current objective is to play the long game.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that a leader’s jersey has been given away in the first week of a grand tour and then taken back. It’s a long climb,” White says. “We’ve used part of it in 2018 but we’ve never used the full climb before. It’s tough. Some guys here haven’t raced for a month, some raced last weekend, and some are building into the race.
“You’ll get a bit of a lay of the land, but a break could also take the lead. What we do know is that Alpecin won’t have any interest in defending on Etna. So, it will be a bit of a free for all. Things could pan out in a lot of different ways.
“We all know what’s coming and how tough the race is in the back end. We’re thinking of the big picture, and that’s the podium in two and a half weeks.”