• "I have the confidence to be the captain until Rome": Simon Yates. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The first major mountain finish provided clues but no firm answers as to who may win the 2018 Giro d'Italia, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
11 May 2018 - 5:41 PM  UPDATED 11 May 2018 - 6:54 PM

Rohan Dennis was right to give himself four years to prosecute his Grand Tour ambitions, because that's exactly how long it's taken Simon Yates to fulfil the first of his. "Today I finally realised my goal," he said after donning the maglia rosa atop Etna.

The latter was grossly underestimated going into this year's Giro d'Italia, though perhaps understandably so.

This is only his sixth Grand Tour. He is just 25 years young. The five main favourites - Tom Dumoulin, Chris Froome, Esteban Chaves, Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot - have previously won a Grand Tour or finished on the podium. The best to date for the 59-kilo flyweight from Greater Manchester is sixth and seventh overall at the 2016 Vuelta a España and 2017 Tour de France, respectively. And in the eyes of numerous pundits, his twin brother's fourth place at the 2016 Tour elevated Adam's Grand Tour credentials above his own.

Till now, that is.

Chaves and Yates deliver a Etna one-two for Mitchelton-Scott
Mitchelton-Scott took control of the 2018 Giro d'Italia after Esteban Chaves won stage six at the top of Mount Etna and team-mate Simon Yates became the new race leader.

What is intriguing about this Giro is not just the number of contenders for the title but the pedigree of each, and how, over the next fifteen stages, that will shape the race. Dumoulin and Dennis (and to some extent Froome) clearly hold court in the race against the clock; Chaves, Aru, Pinot and Yates are in their element at altitude. History has told us that both types of rider can win a Grand Tour. Who prevails depends on a combination of things: the parcours; strength and form of each contender; strategy and tactics employed; and, of course, luck.

Till Etna, it was good to have Dennis, whose four-year plan began after the Rio Olympics, bedecked in pink. In his press conferences you got the idea how complex a plan it is for someone like him, rather than the seemingly more natural transition from climber to GC rider. Here's what he said the day before, in Santa Ninfa: "Tomorrow will be a very important day in my four-year plan to become a Grand Tour contender. It's a big test to see if the work in my training has gone the right way or if we need to change something in my preparation. If I can't hold the pace of the best climbers, I'll ride my own pace at my own limit like I did at the Tour de Romandie. I know Etna. I've done every ascent in a training camp. The way we go tomorrow is the hardest at the bottom, then it gets easier. I hope to keep the maglia rosa."

There's also the question of leadership. It wasn't addressed in the team press release but obviously came up in the press conference after Etna because the answer from Yates left little room for interpretation.

If one considers climbing began with 25 kilometres to go rather than as advertised in the roadbook (the climb proper to the astronomical observatory measured 15km), the difficulty of the ascent and the pace the best riders went up it Thursday, then the 27-year-old South Australian did well to only lose contact 3km from the 1,736 metre-high summit. "I've still got some work to do obviously but I was actually pretty happy with my climb today. There were points when I was in trouble but I stayed calm and I actually rode back onto the group where the winners came from at the end of the day. I took confidence from the fact that they can go a little bit deeper than me, in terms of spikes in power, but they can't sustain it. I just need to keep reminding myself of that."

Dennis limits losses with strong Etna ride
Rohan Dennis entered Stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia knowing the climb up Mount Etna would be a test of his developing Grand Tour ambitions.

Still, he was hoping for more: "I was hoping not today (that I would lose the lead) and that I would get a little bit more confidence from the race."

How Dumoulin has managed to transmogrify into a Grand Tour contender is precisely what Dennis is aiming to replicate. The Dutchman said he didn't feel in showroom condition on Etna or stage four's hilltop at Caltagirone but nevertheless finished in the next best group on both occasions. He already showed last year a physical and mental maturity not to panic when being attacked or on an off day (or when nature calls); as much as his prowess in time trials, it is this ability to mitigate his not so good days that, in my mind, makes him the man to watch. One gets the sense that with each passing stage the Butterfly of Maastricht is stretching his wings, and will soon be aflutter.

In contrast, every day from this point onwards is unknown territory for Simon Yates.

It is both a blessing and a curse: the former because he can throw caution to the wind like he did on Etna and at his age and where he's at career-wise, there is little to no fear of failure; the latter because unlike Dumoulin or Froome, he has no experience being in a leading position in a Grand Tour - let alone the most unpredictable of Grand Tours - or how to win such an event. That said, as happened at the 2016 Giro, in Chaves he has a team-mate who knows how it feels to lose after being on the cusp of victory, which as Dumoulin's 2015 Vuelta experience shows, can be as valuable, if not more, than winning itself.

Prior to Etna, word from the Mitchelton-Scott team bus was that Yates is the most relaxed he's ever been. However like his compatriot Bradley Wiggins, this is a guy who detests the media merry-go-round (in their behind-the-scenes team video from stage four, Jack Haig, his room-mate at the Giro, offers to help answer any questions fans might have for him). So long as he's in pink they'll be a lot more where that came from. Something else to think about.

There's also the question of leadership. It wasn't addressed in the press release from Mitchelton-Scott but obviously came up in the press conference after Etna because the answer from Yates left little room for interpretation: "I want to win this Giro, of course," he said.

"From the beginning I said that I believe we have the strongest team and I still think so. It's not just the climbers but the guys for the flat, too – real powerful guys. I think we can do a really good job in defending the jersey. Of course it will be difficult – there are many hard stages – but I've confidence in the guys around me. I have the confidence to be the captain until Rome. We came here as a team and I'll try to win."

Said Chaves: "It's been a fantastic day for us as a team but we have to keep our feet on the ground. A lot of things can still happen in the Giro with many more climbs ahead but we have something to enjoy now."

A lot of things can, and will, happen between now and Rome. Nothing's decided. As I said before, the road will tell the true tale of this Giro d'Italia.