Chris Froome in pink after incredible charge on Stage 19 as Simon Yates implodes
Great Britain’s Chris Froome soared into the pink jersey with a devastating long-distance mountain raid to win Stage 19 at Bardonecchia while destroying the hopes of compatriot Simon Yates and piling the pressure on defending champion Tom Dumoulin.
In one of the most astonishing performances in modern cycling history, Team Sky's Froome threw caution to the wind as he soloed clear on the dirt roads of the Colle delle Finestre with 80km still left to ride of the gruelling 184km stage in the Alps.
With Team Sky’s savage pace already distancing race leader Yates shortly after the start of the iconic climb, Froome crossed the snow-capped summit of the highest point of the race with a minute over Dutchman Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, who led the chase in a select group alongside Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and white jersey rivals Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Richard Carapaz (Movistar).
Pedalling squares, Mitchelton-Scott’s Yates would crest the summit more than 15 minutes in arrears, the 25-year-old’s hopes of becoming Britain’s first winner of the Giro d’Italia left in tatters.
Instead, Froome took on that mantle. His advantage over the Dumoulin chase group stretched out to three minutes after the long descent and subsequent climb to Sestriere, putting him in the virtual maglia rosa with the final climb of Jafferau still looming.
Despite a spirited chase from the tenacious Dumoulin, Froome, the four-time Tour de France champion, held on to win the stage by exactly three minutes on second-place Carapaz of Ecuador.
Having yo-yoed his way up the final climb, Dumoulin was dropped by third-place Pinot in the final kilometre and finished behind Colombia’s Lopez to take fifth place, 3’23” down on the man of the moment.
A winner already on Monte Zoncolan - having seen his race hindered by a training crash in Israel ahead of the opening time trial - Froome's comeback is almost complete.
The rider who trailed Yates by almost five minutes ahead of the third rest day, now sits atop the standings after donning the first pink jersey of his career. With two stages remaining, Froome leads the Giro by 40 seconds on Dumoulin having moved from fourth place to first on a historic day for cycling.
To rub salt in Yates’s wounds, Froome also took over the lead in the maglia azzurra king of the mountains competition as Yates came home in the gruppetto a sobering 38 minutes in arrears.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain Merida) rode in a second chase group that failed to gel, the Italian coming home eight-and-a-half minutes down to concede his place on the virtual podium to Pinot.
Pinot is now a distant third at 4’17” in a race that will go down to the wire: while Froome and his team look in dominating form, the final day in the Alps includes three back-to-back climbs that could still throw up some surprises in this increasingly intriguing 101st edition of La Corsa Rosa.
If last weekend’s stage to Monte Zoncolan was the queen stage of the race, then surely this was the king – and at the end it was Froome who ruled supreme: the Cima Coppi over the achingly beautiful Colle delle Finestre, a swashbuckling solo win, the pink and blue jerseys, and a Grand Tour grand slam very much within touching distance.
And to think that the omens were far from ideal for Team Sky following the early abandonment of Froome’s key lieutenant Vasil Kiryienka during the opening hour of the race, who called it a day along with the out-of-sorts Italian national champion Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates).
Not that Froome missed the absent Belarusian– even despite Kiryienka's experience in winning at Sestriere when the 2011 edition of the race tackled the Finestre.
If the gravel climb proved the turning point in the stage for Froome, the Colle delle Finestre was also where Yates found himself defenestrated: already on the ropes after seeing his overall lead halved on Thursday, Yates dropped like a stone as Team Sky went full throttle on the sinuous 18.5km climb.
Sky had already shown their intent by sending two men – David de la Cruz and Sergio Henao – in an early break which formed on the first climb of the day, the Colle del Lys. The gap never grew and Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez was the last man standing, riding clear on the Finestre before being called back once news filtered through that team-mate Lopez was in trouble.
Lopez recovered – unlike Pozzovivo, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) and a cluster of other GC pretenders, who were distanced when Sky’s Kenny Elissonde threw down a preparatory surge for Froome.
Froome then launched his decisive move with 80km remaining – setting the scene for a unbelievable string of events which culminated in him standing atop the podium in pink before the previous incumbent had even crossed the finish line in Bardonnecchia. Even as Froome reached the Susa valley after his zippy 20km descent of the Finestre, his counterpart had yet to reach the summit.
While Froome’s lead crept towards the magic three-minute mark following another heart-in-mouth descent from Sestrieres - during which he was forced to swerve wide of a toppled motorcycle inside a tunnel - there were still question marks over whether the 33-year-old could keep up his staggering performance all the way to a finish where Eddy Merckx first flourished in 1972.
But although Dumoulin – himself riding as virtual maglia rosa for a large part of the stage following Yates' struggles – found allies in Pinot and his Swiss team-mate Sebastien Reichenbach, a lack of cooperation from the South Americans Lopez and Carapaz hindered the chase. Pinot then attacked on the final climb, only for the white jersey rivals to trade blows in response.
Sticking to his own rhythm, Dumoulin found himself distanced, then back, then ahead, then back again. But after an ecstatic Froome had crossed the line and the clock was ticking, Dumoulin finally found himself definitively distanced when his rivals danced clear to mop up the final bonus seconds: the final insult after Dumoulin's pacing in the valleys.
The Dutchman trailed Froome by 3’23” over the line with the Briton adding another 13 bonus seconds from the win and intermediate sprint. The day, undisputedly, irrefutably, incredibly, belonged to the under-fire Froome, whose much publicised salbutamol case is still hanging in the balance.
After his second stage win of the race, Froome paid special tribute to his team for paving the way for his attack.
" I don’t think I’ve attacked with 80km to go before like that on my own but the team did such a fantastic job to set that up to me. It was going to take something really special today – first of all to try and get rid of Simon, but also to get away from Dumoulin and Pozzovivo. To go from fourth to first – well, I wasn’t going to do that on the last climb alone. We had to try it from far out and the Colle delle Finestre was the perfect place to do it – the gravel road reminds me a little of riding on the roads in Africa. It just felt good and I knew it was now or never."
Froome, who also leads Yates by 32 points in the king of the mountains competition, remained cautious – but bullish – ahead of Saturday’s stage, which features three back-to-back climbs including the final ascent to Cervinia.
After his previous win on the Zoncolan, Froome conceded 51 seconds to Dumoulin the next day: food for thought ahead of the 214km Stage 20.
“Obviously there’s still a really hard stage tomorrow but the legs are feeling good and I’ve been feeling better and better since the race started. Even today I gave it everything but I tried to stay within my limits. Hopefully we can finish this off tomorrow.”
Chris Froome wins stage 19 of the Giro at BardonecchiaGetty Images
It was long after Froome has uttered these words that Yates came home in a gruppetto a huge 38’51” down on the man who would well have just pulled the Giro crown out of the bag. There may be question marks over whether he will be able to race the Tour de France, but Froome, whether you like it or not, is currently king of Italy.
As for Yates, the rider who looked on course to winning his first Grand Tour now lies in 18th place more than 35 minutes down: a bittersweet day for British cycling fans.