Three years after Simon Yates imploded in Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia to lose the pink jersey, the British rider continued his steady third-week rise in the current Giro to move within 2’49” of the current pink incumbent, Egan Bernal.
After Team BikeExchange put in the groundwork with some hefty pulling in the peloton during the 166km stage around Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, Yates attacked with six kilometres remaining of the Alpe di Mera, the last of three climbs, to draw out a response by some of the big GC favourites – but not, noticeably, Bernal.
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But as Yates then darted clear of Portugal’s Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step), Italy’s Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), Britain's Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) and Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Bernal kept his cool and rode his own rhythm in the erstwhile wheel of dependable Ineos Grenadiers teammate Dani Martinez.
This exceptional crisis management saw Martinez drag Bernal back onto the wheels of the chasing group before a dig from the man in pink with two kilometres remaining completed the turnaround as Caruso, Carthy and Vlasov started to drop back.
Only Almeida kept up with the Colombian, who got stronger as the climb progressed and he rediscovered his rhythm. In the final kilometre, Almeida managed to drop the race leader, but it was too little, too late – the 22-year-old crossing the line 11 seconds behind Yates to take second place for the fourth time in his first two Giri.
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For Yates, it was a fourth Giro stage win and his first since the swashbuckling hat-trick of successes that preceded his ultimate downfall at the hands of Chris Froome in the 2018 race. With Bernal crossing the line for third place at 28 seconds, four seconds clear of Caruso, Yates moved within 20 seconds of the Italian veteran in the general classification.
Bernal will now enter Saturday’s Stage 20 – which features two climbs above 2,000 metres in Switzerland before the summit finish at Alpe Motta – with a lead of 2’29” on Caruso. The last road stage will then, of course, be followed by a 30km time trial in Milan on Sunday.
If Bernal was feeling any problems with his well-documented back issues or his form late in this race, the 24-year-old was able to disguise it with a post-stage interview to rival even the best of poker players.
“I actually felt really good,” Bernal said. “I did really good numbers and I did a really good climb. Of course, Yates was the best today but I’m very happy with my condition.
I hope to have the same legs tomorrow. With the altitude I hope to have the same feelings and I will try to manage the gap on the two other guys on the podium. I’m happy with where I am, but I also want to have good legs for the time trial. Everything should be okay if I am feeling good.
A frantic opening hour to the stage saw the peloton rampage along at an average speed of 53kmph as attack after attack was thwarted as the riders sped north towards the hills of Lombardy. It took almost 50km for the day’s break to form with six riders going clear following a dig from Larry Warbasse (Ag2R-Citroen).
Joining the American in the move were Nicola Venchiarutti (Androni-Giacattoli), Giovanni Aleotti (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mark Christian (Eolo-Kometa), and the Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert duo of Quinten Hermans and Andrea Pasqualon. Oscar Riesebeek of Alpecin-Fenix and Samuele Zoccarato of Bardiani-CSF both failed in attempts to bridge over as the gap grew to four minutes for the leaders ahead of the first climb.
It was Yates’s BikeExchange team which took over the reins in the pack to keep a lid on the lead as the riders climbed above the glistening waters of Lago Maggiore on the Alpe Agogna.
Deceuninck Quick-Step – another team searching for their first stage win of the race – then came to the front of the pack on the long, twisting descent – forcing the pack to split in two. Ineos Grenadiers were caught out by events, with Martinez on the wrong side of the divide – forcing Italian duo Filippo Ganna and Salvatore Puccio to drop back and put out the fire.
The pack reformed ahead of the second climb, the Passo delle Colma, where a touch of wheels saw Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) among a handful of riders to hit the deck. The Italian was forced to withdraw from the race.
With Deceuninck and BikeExchange sharing the pacing to pave the way for Almeida and Yates respectively, the breakaway’s lead came down to just 20 seconds ahead of the final climb – the Alpe di Mera. Over 9km long with an average gradient of over 9%, the climb was a severe test – especially after the preceding three fast hours.
The tempo set by Britain’s James Knox for teammate Almeida was enough to swallow up all the escapees before the Portuguese made his move with 7km remaining. Yates then put his plan into action – riding clear of Bernal with such ease that it momentarily looked like the pink jersey could be in full crisis mode.
But Bernal and Martinez managed the situation with aplomb – conceding time to Yates, but extending the overall lead on all the other GC riders. It will take a monumental ride from Yates – coupled with a huge decline from Bernal – on Saturday to see the pink jersey change hands on the final road stage of this race. But if the Briton comes within, say, a minute of Bernal’s cushion atop Alpe Motta, then the scene will be set for an intriguing final time trial into Milan.
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