After all that effort, to be dropped by Primoz Roglic, then caught by the chasers and see Sepp Kuss take second place – it must have been a difficult pill to swallow for Egan Bernal.
Architect of the decisive move of Stage 17 when his attack on the penultimate climb could only be matched by the red jersey elect, the Colombian did his best to reanimate his GC hopes in a stuttering Vuelta which, so far, has failed to live up to the excitement of previous editions. While the 24-year-old ended up with little to show for his exciting move, Bernal must be praised for going for broke when the stakes were high.
“You’ve got to feel for him but I don’t think he’ll have any regrets for what he did today,” Dan Lloyd said on The Breakaway couch alongside Bradley Wiggins. “He laid it all on the line. Brad also said he had very good legs today and came up against a Primoz Roglic who had slightly better legs – or maybe slightly better endurance – at the end of it.
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“It was brilliant to watch and it made the stage and the race extremely exciting. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of status quo for those two – Bernal and Adam Yates – who are sixth and seventh on the GC. But Bernal tried so I don’t think we can take anything away from what he did.”
'That is a gap!' - Roglic cracks Bernal
Yates finished the day in fourth place – missing out on the final bonus seconds after Kuss completed the Jumbo-Visma one-two ahead of Movistar’s Miguel Angel Lopez, as the chase group came home 1:35 behind Roglic, who secured his third win of the race (and third return into the red jersey) with a simple punch of the air and bellowing “Yes!”.
As for Bernal, caught in the mist with two kilometres remaining, he safely finished in seventh place for what was ultimately an anticlimactic conclusion to an attack which had so much promise. For Bernal, it didn’t matter that he didn’t finish second or third – because he was racing for first. For the neutrals, it was just great to see the 24-year-old hit the kind of levels we expect from a reigning Giro d’Italia champion and 2019 Tour de France winner.
"I was just trying to enjoy my day and enjoy riding my bike – that’s all,” Bernal said. “Today in the morning we had a plan on the bus but, in my mind, I was thinking just to enjoy. I’ve been suffering a lot during this Vuelta but today, finally, I had legs. I was aiming to make the race hard which I did. I was enjoying every kilometre, even when it was hard.”
That plan became apparent when Pavel Sivakov came to the front of the main pack on the first of two ascents of the Collada Llomena climb – the Russian pulling hard for his teammate in white. The same tactic was employed on the second ascent when, with the rain now pouring down, Bernal turned the screw and put Roglic under pressure for the first time in this race.
"I was happy to be part of this winning move for Roglic,” Bernal said. “He was brave. I had nothing to lose but he was basically the leader of the race and he went with me. He was the strongest today and I’m happy for him."
Although he now trails the Slovenian by 4:45 in the general classification, Bernal’s joy at being back in the game was clear to see after he crossed the line.
For many, Bernal's seventh place at Covadonga was far more impressive than any of his Grand Tour stage wins - because he showed true grit while the chips were down, throwing caution to the wind when clearly below his usual level of form, and just months after contracting Covid following his Giro victory. His attack also acted as an electric shock to revive a race that has struggled to keep fans interested owing to the seemingly one-way nature of the GC battle.
For there was, of course, an air of inevitability about the final result. With Bernal the rider with something to prove – and all of Roglic’s rivals behind – the Slovenian did not have to do any work on the penultimate climb, it’s treacherous descent, or along the long slog up the valley road towards the Vuelta’s 22nd ever ascent to the mystical Covadonga lakes. It was probably here where Bernal’s shot himself in the foot – but it’s not as if he had any other choice.
On a day Rohan Dennis confirmed his move from Ineos Grenadiers to Jumbo-Visma, it looked like Bernal was doing his part in helping lead out Roglic in their own two-up time trial. And when the road steepened ahead of the gnarly La Huesera section of the final climb, Roglic simply pulled the trigger with all the calm and calculation of Daniel Craig in the opening sequence of James Bond.
Stage 17 highlights: Roglic back in red after supreme Covadonga ascent
Wiggins was full of praise for Bernal, for whom being despatched by Roglic and reeled in by his rivals was the price he always had to pay for what was a ballsy all-or-nothing attempt to reboot his Vuelta.
“You can always guarantee that Ineos will go out to try and win a race,” Wiggins said. “Bernal is a winner and he laid it all on the line today to try and win the race. He’s moved up one place on GC but he didn’t come here to finish seventh overall. So, credit to him for doing that. But, of course, Primoz benefited from it from going with him – and he was clearly the strongest.”
All will not be lost, however, if Yates can build on his teammate’s groundwork in the Asturias mountains on Thursday’s second slog through the Picos de Europa. On a challenging day which could prove to be the queen stage of the race, the riders will face three tough climbs ahead of a summit finish on the Altu d’el Gamoniteiru, a new climb that has been compared to the nearby Angliru and which rises consistently with a double-digit gradient to the highest point reachable by bike in Asturias.
Jumbo-Visma looked absolutely rock solid on Wednesday – not just with Roglic’s win and Kuss’s second place, but with the likes of Koen Bouwman, Steven Kruijswijk and Sam Oomen all present and correct in the chase group until the closing kilometres.
Now the onus is on Yates to do his part in the depleted Ineos Grenadiers mini revival. If he can pull off a similar move to Bernal in Stage 18 then perhaps both teammates can yet rise into the top five or even push for a podium finish. The red jersey looks unlikely, but there is still a lot to play for in this Vuelta.
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