Opinion: Fortunato favours the brave on the mighty Zoncolan in Stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia
On a day Egan Bernal might well have won the Giro d’Italia, it was a little-known Italian debutant who stole the headlines after a coming-of-age victory – both for him and his second-tier Eolo-Kometa team – on one of the sport’s toughest climbs. Now, on your bike, Alberto Contador…
Highlights: Bernal emerges from Zoncolan showdown strengthened as Fortunato takes gruelling win
Alberto Contador, who manages the Eolo-Kometa team whose inclusion in the 104th Giro d’Italia raised eyebrows, recently told Eurosport’s Laura Meseguer that, should one of his riders win a stage on the race, then he’d dust off his bike and ride from Madrid to Milan.
It was a quite breath-taking way for the 25-year-old Italian Grand Tour debutant to take his first professional win – not to mention secure Eolo-Kometa their first victory of the season. Given the calibre of a breakaway that also included Bauke Mollema, George Bennett and a former stage winner in Jan Tratnik, it was an unexpected win, too.
Many people felt a little bit of favouritism had been employed when the Italian-based Eolo-Kometa team made the wildcard selections ahead of the Giro – largely, it was thought, off the back of the influence of Contador and fellow double Giro champion Ivan Basso, one of the team’s sporting directors.
But they have certainly earned their invitation since the start in Turin with Vincenzo Albanese, Francesco Gavazzi and Samuele Rivi all regular fixtures in the breakaways – and now a cherry-on-the-cake win from Fortunato.
With both Kiwi champion Bennett and the Dutch veteran Mollema enjoying the presence of a teammate in the move, the script certainly seemed to pitch an uphill scrap involving those two uphill thoroughbreds on the Zoncolan. But Fortunato also enjoyed support in the break – that man Albanese – and it was he, and not his more illustrious companions, who bridged over to the Slovenian Tratnik with 7km remaining.
‘What a victory for one of the second division teams!’ - Fortunato wins gruelling Stage 14
With Bennett and Mollema forming a chasing quartet alongside Alessandro Covi – the young Italian who finished runner-up in the gravel stage to Montalcino – and the experienced Portuguese Nelson Oliveira, there was clearly enough class behind to scupper the dreams of the duo ahead.
But Tratnik and Fortunato still held a gap of one minute going onto the steepest section of the climb inside the final three kilometres – and it was here that Fortunato's 10-kilogram weight advantage over the Slovenian unit played into his hands.
The pain etched across the face of Fortunato as he tackled the 27% ramp in the final kilometres was palpable – but behind him, Tratnik was forced to weave his way up the slope to lessen the gradient. That was the moment it became clear Fortunato would win.
And yet there was still time for one clown to go and ruin everything: not content with picking up one of only 1,000 tickets issued for the cable car up the snow-capped mountain, one fan got over-excited and almost knocked over the lone leader.
Come to think of it, the chap looked not entirely dissimilar to Basso, who could well have been told by Contador on the radio to do something to ensure he didn't have to ride the 1,500km from Madrid to Milan.
In the event, though, you could see just how much it meant to Contador when Fortunato took the win, his exuberant Spanish manager soon posting a video of his reaction which, audio alone, proved very much NSFW fodder.
By winning on Monte Zoncolan, Fortunato not only took what could well be the biggest win of his career regardless of what he goes on to do from now, he tellingly followed in the footsteps of his DS Basso, whose victory on the same mountain (from the western ascent) 11 years ago paved the way for his overall win in the 2010 Giro.
It was just as well that Fortunato made his move when he did – for behind, pink jersey Egan Bernal showed once again why he is the outright favourite to win this race. Responding to Simon Yates’s attack from the main group of favourites, Bernal joined his BikeExchange rival before riding clear through the mist – picking off Oliveira, Bennett and Mollema before crossing the line for fourth place behind Fortunato, Tratnik and Covi.
Any doubts whether the 24-year-old Colombian's notoriously fragile back would hack the high mountains seemed to evaporate on a day that most of his rivals – most notably Aleksandr Vlasov and Remco Evenepoel – didn’t.
Earlier in the stage, Vlasov and his Astana team had put Bernal and the GC favourites under pressure on the descent of the second climb, splitting the pack into multiple groups in the process. But Bernal was alert to the danger – another reminder of what a canny and mature rider he is.
‘An amazing example of why Bernal is so good!’ – Ineos rider gets on the right side of split
The rise of Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar these past two years seems to have cast the Colombian in the shade – exacerbated by his ongoing back issues. But a Bernal free from pain and unencumbered by injury is an exciting prospect ahead of the Tour de France – if not this year’s, then in the years to come.
Bernal is a classy rider who does what he needs to do – but isn’t too greedy while he’s at it. There’s no doubt he could have put his Ineos Grenadiers team on the front earlier, or made his own attack at a point where reeling in the entirety of the break would have been a certainty.
After all, victory on the Zoncolan would have been a great addition to his swelling palmares. But it would have also been a victory that denied one for the little guys, the outsiders, the newcomers – and on Saturday, Fortunato favoured the brave.