Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) wears the maglia rosa, and deservedly so, but on the evidence of the first summit finish at San Giacomo, the road to overall victory at this Giro d'Italia will run through Egan Bernal and his Ineos Grenadiers team.
Few were certain beforehand if the final climb above Ascoli Piceno would prove selective enough to separate the general classification contenders. In hindsight, Ineos directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto had issued a tacit warning on Wednesday evening in Cattolica: "It depends on who takes the race in hand."
Spoiler alert, it was Tosatto's own team who dictated the terms of engagement on stage 6, making light of the loss of Pavel Sivakov. They fractured the peloton on the descent off the Forca di Gualdo shortly after the midpoint of the stage, and then opened those fissures irrevocably on the windswept plateau that led into the next ascent, the Forca di Presta.
Their forcing – and more specifically, Filippo Ganna's overwhelming strength – brought a swift end to Alessandro De Marchi's adventure in the maglia rosa and, more relevantly in the final reckoning, disseminated chaos and wore down the resistance of some direct rivals on a day of constant rain and biting cold.
From his berth on the back of a RAI motorbike, Italian national coach Davide Cassani spotted that George Bennett hadn't the time to put on a cape before the descent and it was perhaps hardly surprising that the Jumbo-Visma man was among those to suffer the most on the final climb, losing over seven minutes and all hope of a podium place.
Since Tao Geoghegan Hart's surprise victory at last year's Giro, much has been made of Ineos' supposed commitment to a new style of attacking racing, but their sweep of the podium at the Volta a Catalunya demonstrated that they are still more than happy to ride in their previous, controlling style when their strength in numbers allows.
In the Apennines on Thursday, Ineos seemed to marry the old with the new. Their aggression between the prongs of the mid-stage 'fork' may have surprised, but their pace-making on the way up the final climb of San Giacomo was redolent of the Tour de France victories of Wiggins, Froome and Thomas.
It came, however, with a slight twist in the finale. In yesteryear – or maybe with a different leader – Daniel Martinez might have served as the last man, setting the tempo and then swinging off before Bernal’s own acceleration. Instead, the Colombian attacked with 3km remaining, allowing Bernal to assess the strength and ambitions of his rivals.
Tellingly, it was the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad of Remco Evenepoel who took up the reins, as Fausto Masnada's effort whittled down the group of favourites still further. Bernal, seemingly now satisfied that he had the measure of the men around him, kicked forcefully with 2km to go, and then again just shy of the flamme rouge.
Only three men could follow. Evenepoel, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) dragged themselves up to his wheel, while the rest of the podium contenders scrambled for sandbags to keep them from leaking seconds.
"There was a moment in the race where there was the opportunity for us to control of the race, we had the idea to take the opportunity where we knew there was going to be winds at a certain point," said Bernal, who insisted their forcing had been largely intuitive.
"It wasn't planned. We arrived at that point and Pippo [Filippo Ganna] pulled. Even though I was on his wheel I could tell there was a bit of wind. We went round a few bends, I spoke with the riders, with Castro[viejo] and said 'if we pull now we can do some damage', and he said 'if you think so, I'll speak with the riders'. Pippo and the others went full gas, with everything that they had until the first mountain, and although it didn't do exactly what we wanted, you have to take those opportunities."
Bernal won the sprint for second place ahead of Martin and Evenepoel to pick up six bonus seconds and in the overall standings, he now lies third, 16 seconds behind Valter and just five down on Evenepoel, who produced another remarkable display considering his lengthy lay-off since his crash at last year’s Il Lombardia.
Evenepoel’s Bunyanesque feats since he turned professional mean that just about anything is possible in this, his Grand Tour debut. After losing 11 seconds to Bernal at Sestola, he was able to track his every move here, which augurs very well for the rest of his Giro d'Italia, but he has, of course, yet to prove himself over three weeks.
It seems that neither man is unduly hindered by the effects of the injuries that ended their 2020 seasons prematurely, though it would be remiss at this early juncture to reduce the race to a duel between Bernal and Evenepoel, especially with the margins so tight and the road ahead so arduous.
Ciccone, for the second mountain stage in succession, erred with his early aggression – he slipped away with Romain Bardet and Alberto Bettiol ahead of the final climb – and yet he still managed to live with Bernal in the closing kilometres. With Vincenzo Nibali losing another 45 seconds to the best of the favourites, Ciccone is looking increasingly like Trek-Segafredo's leader.
Dan Martin's battling display, meanwhile, was an improvement on his showing on stage 4 and confirmed the form he showed prior to his crash at the Tour of the Alps. He has ample reason to believe he can better last November’s 4th place at the Vuelta a España.
Elsewhere, it was another mildly disappointing outing for pre-race favourite Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), who had looked a couple of steps ahead of the rest at the Tour of the Alps last month. He conceded another 17 seconds – plus bonuses – to Bernal here. He now lies 10th at 49 seconds – 38 behind Evenepoel – but he downplayed his losses afterwards.
"It was another tricky stage with the changing conditions. I think I rode OK, nothing really special," he said. "I have lost a few seconds to the front guys, but you can see a lot of the other GC guys were struggling with the conditions today."
Perspective is always useful in the early days of the Giro, especially when the toughest mountain stages are crammed into the final third of the race. It could indeed have been worse for Yates. Jai Hindley (DSM) suffered a significant setback and now lies 25th at 3:29, while Bennett is out of the reckoning altogether.
For men like Yates, Bardet (14th at 1:14) and Emanuel Buchmann (16th at 1:40), there is still a route to the pink jersey, but it is clear now that Bernal and Ineos will be imposing obstacles.
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