Opinion: No longer a question of if Bernal will win Giro d'Italia, but by how much
Any question marks over Egan Bernal’s condition entering this Giro d’Italia have been answered emphatically by both the Colombian and his impregnable Ineos Grenadiers team. With just five stages remaining – can anyone stop the 24-year-old from winning the 104th edition of La Corsa Rosa by the biggest margin in eight years? Only himself.
Watch unseen footage from Bernal's remarkable attack on Stage 16
First, we had the small gravel climb at Campo Felice; then, the long gravel day over the mythical Tuscan strade bianche to Montalcino; after that, the first big summit finish on Monte Zoncolan. On each of these tests, Egan Bernal emerged with flying colours – winning a maiden Grand Tour stage and taking the maglia rosa in the Apennine ski resort, before extending his lead on those two mountain rendezvous that followed.
This is a Giro in which Bernal has only got stronger, not once losing any time to any of his rivals. And Monday’s controversially shortened stage up and down the snowy Passo Giau on the race’s first venture above 2,000m was no exception. Sure, we only saw it later in the photos that managed to get down from the mountain, but so comfortable is Bernal atop the standings that he sat up and removed his rain jacket on the home straight before winning Stage 16 in pink – perhaps the most precarious thing he’d done since Turin.
Grand Tours nowadays – and in particular, the Giro – get won by seconds, not minutes. And yet, with five days still to ride, Bernal is on course to set the biggest winning margin since Vincenzo Nibali’s gulf of 4’43” over Rigoberto Uran in 2013. Given the way he – and his rivals – are riding, it could yet even surpass the Shark.
Highlights: Bernal 'on another planet' as he charges to Stage 16 glory
It would take something special for Bernal to top Ivan Basso’s nine-minute-plus demolition of Jose Enrique Gutierrez in 2006, but you wouldn't bet against the man on this showing.
For not only is the 24-year-old getting stronger by the day; his rivals are getting weaker. The consistent Damiano Caruso of Bahrain-Victorious and resurgent Romain Bardet of Ag2R-La Mondiale – the first two riders who finished behind Bernal in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the shortened queen stage – are exceptions to this truism. But British duo Adam Yates and Hugh Carthy seem to have hit their ceiling, Belgian tyro Remco Evenepoel has blown up, and Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov is tapering as you would expect from a rider effectively making his Grand Tour debut.
A ray of sunshine – for the neutrals – came during the small ascent of the Colle Santa Maria and the start of the Giau on Monday when Carthy’s EF Education-Nippo team muscled in and did away of the Ineos power trio of Salvatore Puccio, Filippo Ganna and Gianni Moscon.
Even without the absent Pavel Sivakov, Bernal could still rely on compatriot Dani Martinez and the Spaniard Jonathan Castroviejo to stick with him until EF burned all their matches – at which point, as the flame went out on Simon Carr’s otherwise ardent launchpad ride for Carthy, it wasn’t the rangy rouleur from Preston, but the dainty climber from Zipaquira who danced clear (like a tearaway who passed through the train barriers behind without a ticket, before running away to avoid detection).
‘On the attack’ – The moment Bernal launched on Passo Giau
Before the stage, Carthy had made sounds to his teammates along the lines of putting in a Giro-winning ride in the Dolomiti queen stage; he said he was ready and hoping to ride the full four-climb 212km parcours whatever the weather. Five hours later, it was Bernal who was lamenting the absence of the Cat.1 climbs of the Fedaia and Pordoi – knowing full well that, such is his form and strength, his advantage (if we’d had a tappone and not a tapp-half) would be even greater going into the second rest day.
It was a shame for cycling fans around the world that TV images cut out just moments after the Ineos leader made his winning move. From that point – until Bernal emerged onto the home straight inside the final kilometre – we had to make do with race radio updates, estimated time gaps filtering through and our own imaginations.
While frustrating, it did add a certain mystic to the day – and the emergence of Bernal certainly had something of the legendary “un uomo solo al comando” phrase that accompanied the great Fausto Coppi’s majestic ride between Cuneo and Pinerolo in 1949. No one is seriously comparing Bernal to Coppi just yet. But he does have time on his side.
Caruso’s lack of firepower chez Bahrain and Carthy’s inability to recreate his Angliru form from last November will perhaps stand between them coming any closer to Bernal over the remaining days – although they could feasibly swap positions on the lower rungs of the peloton. Astana-Premier Tech’s Vlasov seems to have reached his level and would be better served looking over his shoulder at Bardet and Giulio Ciccone of Trek-Segafredo rather than further up the road at the man in pink.
‘In crisis’ - Is this the moment Yates’ Giro dream died?
And then there’s Team BikeExchange’s Yates, whose unfinished business with the Giro looks like it will end up becoming an annual fixture. There was a school of thought – professed in this here blog last week, too – that Yates was riding a canny Giro, keeping his powder dry for the final week, limiting his losses and not going on the kind of small-gain, stage-winning attacks that seemingly did for his fizzling yet ultimately flawed 2018 Giro campaign.
We will never know how much of it came down to the weather – for both the Zoncolan and Giau have hardly been picnic conditions – but that pull-through we expected of Yates has not only failed to materialise, the 28-year-old seems to have regressed. Now 4’20” down on Bernal, the Briton neither has the legs nor the team to put into operation the kind of ballsy attempt Carthy and EF made in Stage 16.
Of course, it’s not over. It never is until it is. And when Bernal’s concerned, there will always be a big worry about his persistent back pain issues. But if the Colombian is able to avoid any flare ups then he should, even in the event of a bad day, have enough of a cushion going into the final time trial where – let’s be honest, his big rival was going to be Evenepoel (now 28 minutes down) and not any of the other GC riders of a climbing persuasion.
In short, it would take a jacket-removing incident on slippery cobbles to put the brakes on his campaign – either that, or a freak chainsaw-related accident...
Watch shocking footage of fans running with chainsaw next to Bernal
Wednesday’s Stage 17 culminates with back-to-back first-category climbs, with a finish on the new Sega di Ala climb which peaks at 17% during a sustained opening 9km of double--digit gradients with the exception of a small ledge halfway up. It's the first time the climb has featured in the Giro - although some fans may be able to remember it from the 2013 edition of the Giro del Trentino when an irate Bradley Wiggins tossed his bike to the side of the road and it ended up neatly resting against the wall with impeccable balance and pose.
After a day for the few remaining sprinters or breakaway artists on Thursday, Friday’s Stage 18 features another first-time finish on Alpe di Mera but after a relatively easy build up following the switching of the Cat.1 Mottarone climb (out of respect for the victims of last weekend's cable car crash nearby) for the gentler Cat,4 Gignese.
Then, on the eve of the final day of the race, the riders return above 2,000 metres for a gruelling foray into Switzerland with the Passo San Bernardino and the Passo di Spluga in the Lepontine Alps before a final ascent back in Italy up Alpe Motta.
All in all, there are six big climbs for Bernal’s rivals to make the difference ahead of the final 30km time trial in Milan. And with most teams in varying states of depletion, it’s nigh-on impossible to think of anyone making mincemeat of Ineos. Even on the occasion when Bernal has been isolated, he's emerged the strongest. It would take Bernal's back crumbling on the Splügen Pass in the same way as Yates's legs on the Colle delle Finestre – on top of a ride of Chris Froome-esque proportions from someone else – to stop the Colombian adding the trofeo senza fine to his palmares.
Once Bernal has wrapped up this Giro, he will not attempt the double unseen since Marco Pantani in 1998 – not only because of Ineos’s strength at the Tour (2018 winner Geraint Thomas will be joined by former Giro winners Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart) but also to avoid overloading his back muscles, which are still not at 100 per cent.
So any double in 2021 would be of the Giro-Vuelta persuasion – last achieved by Alberto Contador in 2008. Succeed in Spain and Bernal would be a winner in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours before his 25th birthday – that’s to say, while still qualifying for the white jersey. It would be another record (Bernard Hinault was 26 and Eddy Merckx 29 when then joined that elusive club, for instance) that would stand until, at the very least, Tadej Pogacar beats it.
That would be some way to gear up for a return to the Tour de France, three years on from his victory there in 2019. Since then, Bernal has been cast in the shadow by the likes of Pogacar and Primoz Roglic. But a Bernal without back pain and in the form he has shown on each of this Giro’s key stages – most notably the Passo Giau, Monte Zoncolan and over the gravel – is one who could restore the balance of power in his and Ineos’s favour.