Cadel Evans is back in the pink leader's jersey of the Giro d'Italia for the first time in four years after firmly controlling all his main rivals on Saturday's full high mountain stage.
Despite huge expectations, neither Nairo Quintana of Movistar nor any of the other big guns of the Giro were able to produce the required climbing on the ascent to Montecopiolo – the summit finish- to threaten Evans.
And as the leader of the general classification before the stage, Orica – GreenEdge's Michael Matthews, was dropped early on the day's first climb, the pink jersey was effectively Evans' to lose.
The Australian duly accepted the invitation as his BMC Racing teammate Steve Morabito relentlessly kept the pace high up the Montecopiolo to keep the competition in check.
The leading group, consisting of around two dozen favourites, could not muster any real attacks, and Evans dealt well with the few challenges that arose on the final climb.
Despite the group shattering a bit on the top of the penultimate climb, Evans had no real difficulty and his steady riding did the job as he pulled back a few fleeting attacks from fellow general classification contenders Rafa Majka (Tinkoff – Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana).
Pre-race favourite and expert climber Quintana managed to clinch the stage and grab a couple of seconds on Evans but the Australian's fifth-place finish on the stage was more than what was required to earn him the pink jersey and his first Grand Tour lead since he won the Tour de France in 2011.
Evans is now well positioned to take the Italian grand tour after his third place last year. He currently leads Rigobert Uran (Omega Pharma – QuickStep) by 57 seconds and Tinkoff – Saxo's Majka by 1:10 seconds.
“There’s still a long way to go, but I got some seconds today [on my rivals] and I’m very pleased to have the lead,” said Evans, who praised his team.
“I’ve managed to get where I am thanks to my teammates and I’m happy to be able to pay them back for such a great effort on their part.”
He put his rivals' lack of challenge down to the events of the last few stages, especially the huge crash on Thursday where many riders suffered various injuries because of the pile-up.
“It seems like everybody is paying a bit for the events of the last few days. I’ve got an advantage at the top of the classification, but there’s a lot of climbing to come so the gaps between all the favourites will probably get much bigger. Stages like Monte Grappa [the uphill time trial on stage 19 -Ed] and the Zoncolan [stage 20] are for the pure climbers, so the bigger the gap I can get, the better.”
In the lead after a tough first week of riding, Evans pointed out Majka and Belkin's Wilco Kelderman as two riders going well and who could challenge his position as leader of the race.
I’m sure they’re younger than me,” said the 37-year-old with a smile “and they’re potential future winners for the Giro.”
Evans expressed slight surprise by the lack of a real attack from Quintana, especially as the high-gradient climbs should suit the Colombian, but the climber's gains were limited to just two seconds and the fact that Evans' teammate and support rider Morabito looked to be one of the strongest men on the climbs will give the team real belief that they can continue to go strong in the mountains.
“I’m very proud of the work he did,” Evans recognised.
The Australian leader was as cautious as his team's tactics when evaluating his chances to last the distance.
“The leader that goes down in history is the one that has it on the last day,” he reasoned, “[but] this week, we saw that the race could be won or lost in the first week, too.
“We’ve been racing cautiously, minimizing the risks. We’ve ridden really defensively so far. But it’s been a good tactic.”
Write for GiveMeSport! Sign-up to the GMS Writing Academy here: http://gms.to/1a2u3KU