5 thoughts from opening phase of Giro d’Italia: Where is the real Chris Froome?
With Simon Yates in pink and Chris Froome on the brink, we take a look at the key talking points from an opening phase of the 101st edition of the Giro d'Italia that has taken us all the way from Jerusalem to the Great Rock of Italy, via Sicily, three big sprints and three uphill finishes.
Of course, there have been far more than just five takeaways from this year's Giro so far – and we're not simply talking about Carlos Betancur's post-stage recovery programme.
The credibility of starting a Grand Tour as far away – and in such a controversial country – as Israel should be something addressed by the sport, while the inclusion of Israel Cycling Academy as a wildcard team, the 100% record of Gianni Savio's Androni-Giocattoli in every break, Enrico Battaglin's superb Giro record and Team Sky's collective mediocrity would all be points worthy of discussion if, alas, there was enough time.
But for now, let's stick to these five points on the second of three rest days in La Corsa Rosa.
Mitchelton-Scott have become the dream team
If a one-two on Mount Etna was not enough of a haul then the Australian team ended the week with a one-two in the general classification after stage 6 winner Esteban Chaves finished in third place behind victorious Simon Yates on the Gran Sasso d'Italia.
Thirty-two seconds separate Yates and Chaves at the top of the overall standings as Mitchelton-Scott enter the second phase of the Giro with two realistic cards to play in both the fight for pink and blue.
With Roman Kreuziger, Mikel Nieve and the irrepressible Jack Haig for support in the mountains, engines Sam Bewley and Christopher Juul-Jensen on the flat, and the experience of Svein Tuft over every terrain, Mitchelton-Scott are reaping the rewards of years' hard work and team building.
It was also a canny decision not to bring sprinter Caleb Ewan and focus entirely on the GC battle, for which they look by far the best equipped team – for now. There's a sense of upbeat togetherness amid the team comparable with that of Liverpool FC – with directeur sportif Matt White playing the Jurgen Klopp role with aplomb.
And just as Liverpool have their eye on upsetting favourites Real Madrid to win the Champions League, Mitchelton-Scott are in an ideal position to prove the bookmakers wrong and take the maglia rosa all the way to Rome.
One thing is certain: Mitchelton-Scott – and not the suffocating circus at Team Sky – provides the ideal environment in which Yates and his twin brother Adam can thrive. Turning down Sir Dave Brailsford all those years ago could prove the best decision of their careers. Except for the curious Australian twang that has seeped through their Lancashire accents through the steady process of White-induced "Look-mosis", that is.
Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates in blue and pinkGetty Images
Yates needs all the time he can get
Rome, of course, was not built – or reached – in a day. There remains 11 stages of this race before the peloton arrives in the Italian capital – including next Saturday's rendez-vous with Monte Zoncolan, summit showdowns at Sappada, Pratonevoso, Bardonecchia and Cervinia, the gravel roads of the Cima Coppi Colle delle Finestre, and the all-important 34.2km individual time trial to Rovereto.
Team-mate Chaves aside, Yates's biggest rivals at this stage look to be Tom Dumoulin (+38), Thibaut Pinot (+45) and Domenico Pozzovivo (+57). The impressive Richard Carapaz is only 1'20" down but he's unproven over three weeks, while it would be folly to already entirely discount Chris Froome (+2'27"), Miguel Angel Lopez (+2'34") and Fabio Aru (+2'36").
As Yates told reporters on Sunday after his Gran Sasso win, it's the defending champion who is the key danger man, despite a quiet week following his opening time trial win:
"[Dumoulin's] still incredibly strong and very hard to gain time on. I'll need minutes before the time trial, and I only have 38 seconds now. For me that's not enough, we'll need to be aggressive to gain more time."
But looking at the schedule, it seems that the GC battle will be suspended until the Zoncolan in stage 14, before which we have two rolling stages suited to breakaways followed by two largely flat stages that will reopen the door to the sprinters.
While that may mean Yates is guaranteed at least another five days in pink, it may also be a small concern for the most in-form rider of this race. Yates will be aware that he should make hay while the sun shines, but he may not be able to whip out his scythe until Saturday – by which point those rivals of his who seem so undercooked now may be beginning to find some form of their own.
This is where the position of the time trial falls into his hands. Last year Dumoulin could rely on a negative split by coming from behind to make his decisive time gains over Nairo Quintana in the time trial on the final day of the race. But this year, three key mountain stages still follow the ITT, allowing for the likes of Yates and Chaves – but also the Pinots and Pozzovivos of this race – to redress the balance before Rome.
It's all intricately balanced and could prove utterly fascinating. If Yates proved in Jerusalem that his time trialling ability has improved no end, he's still a pony in comparison to Dumoulin's thoroughbred on a longer, flatter race against the clock. Yates is right – he needs time. But if not on the Zoncolan, that time can still come afterwards and once he's conceded the maglia rosa.
When it rains it pours for Froome
Whether the four-time Tour de France champion will ever be a factor in the thrilling fight for pink remains to be seen – but on the evidence of what we have already witnessed, there's a better chance of Danny van Poppel beating Elia Viviani in a sprint than Froome distancing his rivals on a climb.
Is this man who crashes uphill, gets distanced by Jack Haig and bumps into team-mates and opponents alike – all while pedalling so fast yet so ineffectually that he could whip the air into sour cream – is this the same man who started the race aiming to secure an historic Grand Slam of all three Grand Tours, the same man who this July aspires to join the five-yellow club occupied by Messieurs Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain?
In a word, no. Froome has more resembled the rider who was disqualified from the 2010 Giro d'Italia for holding onto a motorcycle on the fearsome ascent of the Zoncolan. At this rate, moto-assistance is the only way the 32-year-old will be able competitively to get to the summit of that same mountain next Saturday.
There are many theories as to why Froome has become so ordinary in this Giro – many of which are unpublishable for fear of incurring the libel lawyers' wrath. It's not speculative to suggest, however, that the previous months of intense media scrutiny and moral dissection have taken their toll on a shy man who struggles with the press even on the best of days.
Of course, there's also the possibility that the Tour remains Froome's number one target this season and so he has arrived at the Giro deliberately short – so as not to make the same mistake as Nairo Quintana last year, whose attempt on the double undermined his individual performance in both.
A Froome in form is capable of overturning a 2'27" deficit on a rider he has frequently beaten in bigger races, but while his Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal claims that "the war is not yet lost", one wonders whether the biggest war may be against himself in his own head.
Viviani and Bennett the top of a small deck
If this season has proved anything it's that Elia Viviani made a bloody good decision to ditch Team Sky and join Quick-Step Floors where, since his arrival, he's notched more wins than any other sprinter.
That said, hours after Viviani toiled home in the gruppetto on the Gran Sasso on Sunday, his Colombian team-mate Fernando Gaviria was beating the likes of Caleb Ewan, Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff in the opening stage of the Tour of California, with Mark Cavendish also making the top 10 at Long Beach.
These are the names who will be contesting the sprints in France come July and not Viviani's or Sam Bennett's. The Irishman from Bora-Hansgrohe opened up his Grand Tour account last week by denying Viviani a hat-trick of wins following his Israeli brace, but both riders will give way to team-mates Sagan and Gaviria respectively in the Tour.
That said, nothing should take anything away from the performances of both riders. You can only beat those you come up against and both Viviani and Bennett have shown their class in taking their wins – with Viviani, the run-away maglia ciclamino, often coming from far back and Bennett expertly shadowing his rival to turn the tables in Praia a Mare.
Expect more from the race's two fast men en route to Rome. With Jakub Mareczko and Andrea Guardini out, Danny van Poppel out of form and Sacha Modolo out of ideas, the duopoly should continue.
With Carapaz & Co, the future's in good hands
And finally, a nod to the men in white who have spiced up the battle for the best young rider of the Giro. Quick-Step's German tyro Max Schachmann was the revelation of the opening week with his strong ITT and consistent finishes thereafter – twice recovering from inopportune crashes to get back in the mix and retain his place in the top 10.
When Schachmann inevitably felt the pinch as the gradients got steeper, Richard Carapaz delivered with aplomb – making light work of the rain and final climb to Montevergine to become the first Ecuadorian to win a stage of a Grand Tour on Friday.
The Movistar rider is only 24 but is already a father of two and mature beyond his years. It won't be long before we see him ride alongside the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Mikel Landa and Quintana on even bigger races, surely.
Elsewhere, Ben O'Conner (Dimension Data), Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb) and, once again, Jack Haig of Mitchelton-Scott have shown their class, while Italian wildcards Fausto Masnada (Androni-Giocattoli) and Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF) will surely be in contention again for a mountain win before the end of the race.
And this is forgetting the best of the bunch, Miguel Angel Lopez. The Colombian from Astana has had a troubled race since crashing before the opening time trial, but you get the impression that once his legs return and he makes the most of his team's armoury and relentless pace-setting, Lopez has the capability to win big and slash his 2'34" deficit on GC.
If not for pink, it should at least be intriguing to see Lopez and Carapaz grapple for the white jersey over the next two weeks.