"He's getting better. He's getting better or people aren't recovering as good - I don't know what it is."
Herein lies the tale of the 2018 Giro to date.
Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White uttered as much to journalist Richard Moore of The Cycling Podcast following Sunday's fifteenth stage to Sappada, the only leg of this year's race in the Dolomites.
For everyone other than the maglia rosa of Simon Yates, there has been a hidden toll to the seventeen days we've witnessed so far.
Tim Wellens (Lotto–Soudal), the winner of stage four to Caltagirone, did not start Saturday's hike to hell, a.k.a. Monte Zoncolan. "Tim had a fever, which means it's no option to let him continue racing. The past days his body was already fighting against laryngitis and bronchitis, which is a logical consequence of the tiredness," explained their team doctor, Steven Bex. "The Giro has been exhausting for all riders because of the travelling, the long transfers and (long) stages, which ask the maximum of the riders every day. Also, the in-theory easier stages turned out to be tough."
What most did not expect, however, is how easy he'd make it look.
Until you've ridden and completed a Grand Tour, particularly the Giro d'Italia, it is often what you don't see that, until you've actually done it, makes the racing so hard. Long transfers, such as going from Israel to Sicily, meant not only a sparrow's fart start to catch their flights but an interrupted and truncated first rest day. Mount Etna, the end point of stage six, was another that ate into riders' recovery time, for many arrived at their hotels after 10pm and went to bed at midnight or later, save for the lucky few who were escorted by helicopter. (Chris Froome was supposed to be one of them but it took him over two hours to produce a sufficient urine sample, and thus missed his flight off the volcano.) And the only way to get off the 2,135-metre-high Gran Sasso, the finish of stage nine, was by chairlift.
"Already after the move from Israel to Sicily, I felt as if I couldn't catch up on sleep and that didn't improve with the move to the mainland," Wellens said in a team release issued Saturday. "You notice the tiredness in the peloton, and the battle among the GC riders still has (yet) to really begin. I will take some days of rest and hope to resume training afterwards."
There's plenty of others who would love to do the same, I'm certain of that.
Like, for example, Esteban Chaves, whose fall from grace the stage after Gran Sasso remains a mystery to everyone including himself, it seems. On Gran Sasso he finished third behind Yates and Thibaut Pinot to move into second overall, 32 seconds behind his British team-mate. A second rest day followed, then, at 244 kilometres across the Apennines, the race's longest leg to Gualdo Tadino. Bookmarked by a Cat. 2 at the beginning and a Cat. 4 at the end, it was designed for a breakaway and, supposedly, an easier day for the GC contenders. And, while the former eventuated, the latter did not: The smiling Colombian was dropped on the first climb and by day's end would lose more than 25 minutes and any chance of equalling or bettering his Giro two years previous, where he finished runner-up to Vincenzo Nibali.
Or Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates), who ever since the opening time trial in Jerusalem has been searching for form. He still hasn't found it. The Sardinian apologised to his fans in La Gazzetta dello Sport after coming up short on the Zoncolan, where he was expected to make his move. He fared even worse en route to Sappada and is now 25 minutes in arrears of the maglia rosa. Perhaps he's better off calling it quits, recalibrating mind and body, then enter the Tour as co-leader with Irish team-mate Daniel Martin.
It was not till stage thirteen, the day prior to Monte Zoncolan, that saw GC protagonists offered a reprieve. "It's been the easiest day we've had so far," Yates said last Friday, who has held the lead since Etna and not for a second looked like relinquishing it.
"The Giro is a very different beast to the Tour; it's a lot more unpredictable, a lot more explosive," Froome, whose euphoria following victory atop Zoncolan was cut short just 24 hours later on the stage to Sappada, dropping from fifth to seventh on GC, said. "It's the Grand Tour that's almost a combination of Classics, as opposed to a general stage race, and that's part of what makes it so exciting. It's great racing, it's brutal on the riders, but that's bike racing at its best."
Ever since he took the maglia rosa 10 days ago, Yates said he needed to gain time on one man in particular: Tom Dumoulin. "I'm not scared of the third week; I'm scared of the (final) time trial. I know I'll lose some time there," he said the day Chaves fell out of contention. "I'm more afraid of the time trial than the Zoncolan," repeated Yates the following day in Osimo. Sunday in Sappada, after his third stage victory and biggest one-day gain to date, he said: "I was also really tired but, at the same time, I was very motivated to take as much time as I could on Tom before the time trial."
"I've been fighting since Israel to build a good lead."
What most did not expect, however, is how easy he'd make it look.
Across five major mountain stages - Etna, Montevergine, Gran Sasso, Zoncolan, Sappada - the 25-year-old has gained 1'50 in real time over Dumoulin and a further 32 seconds in bonuses. His lead is 2'11 prior to Tuesday's 34.2 kilometre time test; "I'm happy with the gap I have now but it's far from over. It could vanish in 35 kilometres." Under normal conditions most pundits would expect him to lose two to three seconds per kilometre to the world champion in said discipline. But the Giro is about as far removed from normal as you can get and Dumoulin, like others in the battle for pink, appears to be fading, if ever so slightly. Or, as Matt White believes, Yates is growing stronger.
"I don't know... He's in such great shape, maybe he can also do a really, really good time trial," suggested the defending Giro champion. "Even if I have an excellent TT and he doesn't and I take the lead, how it is now, he's just riding away from us whenever he wants... (Winning overall) is going to be very difficult."
Unlike the year previous, where the time trial came on the final stage, there looms three more major mountain stages after Tuesday. In fact, such is the unrelenting nature of the parcours from stages eighteen to twenty, this year's Giro, despite being two-thirds complete, has only traversed roughly half the total elevation - which, based on current projections, would grant Yates a chasm-sized advantage over his nemesis.
Other than hope for jour sans or three from Yates, all the Dutchman can remind himself is adopt the approach from erstwhile maglia rosa Rohan Dennis, who, by the way, has ridden superbly to still lie eleventh overall: "Whether I'm one hour behind or not, I'm still going to race as if I'm trying to win," said the Australian after the third stage. "Mentally, it's the best way."