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Froome ground out his first victory since last year’s Vuelta a España and suddenly bounced back into contention for the pink jersey.
“I am really, really happy with the victory today,” Froome said. “It’s a big boost of morale after what’s been a very tough start of the race for me and the team.”
After struggling with an early crash and nearly being written off what’s been a challenging Giro at many levels for the Sky captain, Froome reminded everyone why he’s a four-time Tour de France winner.
With finish-line bonuses, Froome moved up seven places, from 12th to fifth overall, now 3:10 back.
Is the Tour de France-winning Froome back? He showed glimpses of it Saturday on what he called “one of Europe’s most prestigious climbs.”
Froome attacked with about 4km to go up the brutally steep slopes of Monte Zoncolan. Race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) gave a fierce chase, but Froome had just enough in the tank to hang on for his first career Giro stage win.
“In the last kilometer today I thought [Yates] was going to catch me,” he said. “He’s got more kick than me, and I thought he was going to come flying around me. It was such a nice feeling to reach those last few hundred meters and not have him on my wheel.”
Froome was hesitant to talk too much about the GC, but promised he will keep fighting all the way to Rome.
“It’s a great boost for us, but at the same time, I need to be realistic,” Froome said. “I am still three minutes down on GC. There are some really strong riders here.”
From the beginning of the Giro, Sky’s plan was for Froome to hit his top level of fitness going into the second half of the Giro. A high-speed crash just hours ahead of the first time trial in Jerusalem knocked him on his back foot.
Froome is starting to look like the rider who became the first to win the Tour-Vuelta double in modern cycling history.
“The goal was since the start of the Giro to build toward the last part of the race,” Froome said. “I was always planning on finishing stronger than I started. Today is proof of that.”
Yates, who took important gains on arch-rival Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), knows having Froome breathing down his neck will only make his life even more complicated.
“He’s not out of it,” Yates said. “Chris is the same as Tom [Dumoulin]. He’s going to take time out of me very easily, maybe close to three minutes in the time trial. I felt it was like a drag race in the end. I just couldn’t get him. I am happy with what I did today.”
Dumoulin, too, is watching with concern as Froome claws back into podium range.
“I don’t know if this was one good day for Froome or that if he keeps improving in the coming week,” Dumoulin said. “If he keeps improving, then he’s definitely in contention.”
The victory comes as a huge boost inside the Team Sky bus. The team came to the Giro to support Froome, so with its captain struggling, the team fought to keep their heads in the game. Questions about Froome’s unresolved salbutamol case also added another layer of stress.
“It was so important for Chris and the boys,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “It’s been a rough start for Chris, but he is a fighter. He will never give up. Today was a big reward for him.”
Froome said his toughest moment came during a sprint stage when the Giro returned to Italy after three controversial days in Israel.
“There was a day about a week ago, when I had very intense pain down the right side of my body,” he said. “That was one of the hardest moments. Since then, I’ve felt like the body is starting to recover.”
Despite losing time on nearly every key climb, Froome kept hanging around. Portal said Froome is finding his legs just in time to make a late-race surge for pink.
“I never believed that Chris is out of the GC. He is a guy who won four times the Tour de France, the Vuelta and other hard races, if there is someone who can believe he can do it, it’s him,” Portal said. “The GC is not over. This is a game, so let’s try to play until the end.”
Sky has one role model when it comes to clinging to their hopes of winning the pink jersey: Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian posted an amazing comeback to win the 2016 Giro. Nibali was nearly five minutes back going into stage 18 — even further back than Froome is now — and surged back in the final two mountain stages to win.
“We’ve seen in the past how quickly the maglia rosa can change shoulders so fast in the Giro,” Froome said. “That’s always been in the back of my mind.”
Can Froome pull a Nibali? If Froome can consolidate his gains in Sunday’s hard climbing stage, Tuesday’s time trial should see him nudge even closer to the pink jersey.