What a way to pick up your first professional win. Lorenzo Fortunato, a little-known 25-year-old Italian riding for the wildcard Eolo-Kometa team, proved the strongest from an 11-man breakaway to win on one of the toughest mountains in the sport – and in doing so, defied a rampaging Egan Bernal in his wake.
Eleven years after his boss Ivan Basso won on Monte Zoncolan to set up his second triumph in the 2010 Giro d’Italia, Fortunato came of age as he emerged through the mist to win Stage 14 ahead of the experienced Slovenian, Jak Tratnik of Bahrain-Victorious, after what Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch described as “the ride of his life”.
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Tratnik, a stage winner in last year’s Giro, was reduced to weaving up the steepest 27% ramps in the final kilometre, crossing the line 26 seconds down on Fortunato, whose face was a picture of pain as he grimaced with the gradient before breaking into a beaming smile as the road levelled out and he secured the win.
Runner-up on the gravel roads to Montalcino, Italy’s Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates) took an impressive third place before Bernal, the pink jersey from Ineos Grenadiers, made light work of the challenge by blasting past the remnants of a chasing quartet of escapees to finish fourth.
Bernal had ridden clear of the main group of GC favourites following an attack by Britain’s Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) inside the final two kilometres. The pair combined before Bernal stamped his authority down on this race, a huge, unseated surge seeing him drop Yates and reel in Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) before the line.
The 2019 Tour de France winner came home 11 seconds clear of Yates before teammate Dani Martinez led home the rest of the GC riders in dribs and drabs. Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) and Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck Quick-Step) were the big losers of the day, both riders conceding over one minute to Bernal.
Despite some impressive preparation from his Astana team ahead of the final climb, Vlasov dropped from second place to fourth on the general classification while Evenepoel now finds himself almost four minutes down in eighth place after a baptism to fire on the first major mountain-top finish his nascent Grand Tour career.
“Bernal showed that he’s the man to beat,” Yates said after taking sixth place on the stage. “It’s going to be difficult to beat him – but we’re going to keep trying.”
Yates is now Bernal’s closest challenger, the climber from Bury up three places at 1’33” – 18 seconds ahead of the third-place Italian veteran, Damiano Caruso of Bahrain-Victorious. Vlasov is 1’57” down while another Lancastrian, Hugh Carthy of EF Education-Nippo, dropped to fifth at 2’11” after failing to reproduce his Angliru legs on the Zoncolan.
The spectre of the Zoncolan – even the supposedly easier eastern approach from the town of Sutrio – was enough to render much of the 202km stage from Cittadella a nervous and cagey affair – although Astana did their best to put a bee in the bonnet of Vlasov’s rivals on the descent of the second of three climbs.
An early attempt by Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt to force a move – and add the Zoncolan to a list of conquests that includes the Stelvio and Mont Ventoux – came to nothing and once the Lotto Soudal rider was reabsorbed an 11-man move managed to open up some daylight.
Along with Tratnik, Covi and Oliveira, Fortunato’s Eolo-Kometa teammate Vincenzo Albanese, Bennett’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Eduardo Affini and Mollema’s Trek-Segafredo teammate Jacopo Mosca were part of the break, as well as Remy Rochas (Cofidis) and 18-year-old Andrii Ponomar (Androni Giacattoli), the youngest rider in the race.
The breakaway tackled the leg-stretching ascents of the Cat.4 Castello di Caneva and Cat.2 Forcella Monte Rest with a maximum advantage of eight minutes over the peloton, which was bring driven by the Astana teammates of the white jersey Vlasov. Dutchman Mollema picked up maximum points over the first two climbs to move up in the blue jersey standings before the gap started to come down.
Pressure by Astana on the long, technical, and at times moist, descent from Monte Rest split the pack into numerous groups and had some of the GC riders forced to dig deep well before the final climb.
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Bernal was alert to the danger and rode in a main group alongside teammate Jonathan Castroviejo, Bahrain-Victorious domestique Pello Bilbao, Vlasov, the Spanish champion Luis Leon Sanchez, and two other Astana riders. British duo Carthy and Yates were in a second chasing group, while Evenepoel was even further back.
The pack inevitably reformed on the valley road with 50km remaining, with the advantage of the break creeping back up to almost six minutes ahead of the final 14km test.
Tratnik rode clear on the gentler opening slopes and soon had Fortunato in pursuit as the New Zealand national champion Bennett formed a chasing quartet with Mollema, Oliveira and Covi. Fortunato caught Tratnik with 7km remaining and the pair combined to open up a gap of one minute going onto the steepest final 3km section of the climb.
By this point, Ineos Grenadiers had taken the reins over the main pack with Gianni Moscon, Jonathan Castroviejo and Jhonatan Narvaez all putting in stints before handing over the reins to Bernal and his compatriot Martinez. The pace saw two-time Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) get dropped halfway up the climb – the Sicilian eventually coming home 12 minutes down to fall well out of the GC picture.
With Covi going clear of the other chasers in pursuit of the leaders, Fortunato dropped Tratnik with just over 2km remaining. Despite a near miss when an overeager spectator almost knocked him off his bike, the 25-year-old from Bologna held on for a breakthrough win for both himself and his second-tier team, which is owned by the former cycling star Alberto Contador.
By the time Yates made the first move from the group of GC favourites, Evenepoel had already been tailed off the back while Vlasov was hitting the wall. Bernal shadowed the move before making one of his own in the final kilometre – forcing his rivals to fight their way through the mist and limit their losses.
If Bernal has not won this Giro on Monte Zoncolan, he certainly cemented his status as the overriding favourite to add the maglia rosa to his maillot jaune from 2019. The Giro continues on Sunday with a foray into Slovenia with a short 147km Stage 15 that features a rolling closing circuit tackled three times ahead of the finish in Gorizia.
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