It will come as little comfort to Simon Yates after losing the pink jersey of the Giro d’Italia on Friday, but he is not alone in his fate. The race has witnessed some epic collapses in its closing mountain stages in recent years. In 2016, Vincenzo Nibali, famously, took advantage of a catastrophic breakdown and crash by the Dutchman Stephen Kruijswijk en route to the French ski resort of Risoul with two days to go, while in 2002, the young Australian Cadel Evans cracked with four days remaining, slipping from pink jersey to an anonymous 14th overall.
It is the eternal fascination of stage racing, for the onlooker at least, that this sort of disastrous event can happen and occasionally does. In an era where fans and media have become used to the idea that everything can be predicted and dialled in, it is a welcome reminder that the participants are human beings, as frail as the rest of us for all the superhuman feats that they attempt, and usually achieve.
Yates shows remarkable sang‑froid on his bike. His style has always been to watch and wait for the right moment, going back to his first major victory, a stage win in the Tour de l’Avenir in 2011. In taking world championship gold on the track in the points race in Minsk in 2013, his patience in sitting back until making his move in the final 20 laps looked completely uncanny for one so young. So, too, in taking the stage win at Haytor in the Tour of Britain later that year, biding his time to beat Sir Bradley Wiggins and Nairo Quintana at the age of 20.
Similarly, Yates has rarely looked or sounded overawed, not even when his Orica-GreenEdge team called him up to the Tour de France in 2014, and certainly not when it came to rebuffing the overtures of Team Sky the previous year after they expressed an interest in signing him and not his twin brother, Adam. That particular imbroglio gave Team Sky’s full-on assault on the 25‑year‑old on the Finestre an ironic little twist.
What made Friday’s climb of the Colle delle Finestre so memorable, if not in a good way, was that it was so exceptional to see Yates proving powerless to control a given situation. Even when unable to hold the pace in a lead group in the Tour de France or Vuelta in the past, he has always looked impenetrable. Adam Yates was nicknamed “the Ghost” because of his ability to stay in a group without making his presence felt; the same could legitimately be said of Simon.
On the Finestre, however, it all unravelled. The final 15 kilometres of the climb offered a series of astonishing sights: Yates unable even to hold the wheel of his team‑mates Mikel Nieve and Jack Haig, lagging metres behind as they waited close to the summit, and the image of him being overtaken by flatland riders such as Zdenek Stybar, and by team car after team car as he lost ground at a rate that raised eyebrows. It was a spectacular collapse that took him from first to 18th overall in one fell swoop.
That prompted obvious questions. Yates and his Mitchelton-Scott team had made the decision to defend the maglia rosa from the moment the young Briton took the overall lead at Mount Etna, six days in. Immediately, it became legitimate to ask whether their strength could last until Rome, 16 days on. That other teams were asking the same question became apparent on Wednesday, during an innocuous “transition” stage through the Italian lake country into Iseo, when Team Sky in particular mounted a day-long assault – primarily through Wout Poels – that kept Mitchelton hard at work on a day when they might have hoped for some respite.
It is legitimate to ask whether Mitchelton asked too much of their young leader, given that Yates had never pushed for the podium in a three-week Tour before. He had finished sixth at the Vuelta a España and seventh at the Tour de France but there is a world of difference between holding on to the lead group in the mountains for as long as possible before limiting your losses and attempting to boss that group while wearing the leader’s jersey.
Additionally, it is well known that being a race leader involves a daily loss of rest time from appearing on the podium and doing media work; in Yates’s case it is likely that over two weeks, that caught up on him. Even so, this Giro and Friday’s catastrophe will probably come to be seen as a rite of passage en route to greater things.
Yates has suffered major blows before. His manager at the Great Britain Under-23s team, Keith Lambert, recalls holding him in his arms for half an hour after he crashed and broke his collarbone as a 19-year-old in the Tour de Picardie. Lambert also tells the story of the occasion when – without a major win to his name – in his first year as a senior aged 18 Yates was riding the Tour of Tuscany. He rode into the final‑stage finish in an elite group, only to be involved in a mass pile-up shortly before the end. There were no complaints and no moans, Lambert told me, just four words were spoken matter-of-factly: “I could have won.”
Seven years on, Yates could have won but once again he will return. Looking back to previous victims of the Giro’s final week, it remains to be seen whether it will be as a Kruijswijk – a solid talent yet not one who looks likely now to win a Grand Tour – or an Evans, who went on to win the Tour de France. The smart money, surely, is on the latter.