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Analysis: Tight margins on GC with Egan Bernal a step ahead at Giro d’Italia

CAMPO FELICE - ROCCA DI CAMBIO, ITALY - MAY 16: Egan Arley Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team INEOS Grenadiers celebrates at arrival during the 104th Giro d'Italia 2021, Stage 9 a 158km stage from Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice - Rocca di Cambio 1665m / @girodiitalia / #Giro / #UCIworldtour / on May 16, 2021 in Campo Felice - Rocca di Cambio, Italy. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) wins stage 9 at Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The mile of rough road atop Campo Felice won’t decide the Giro d’Italia, but it has brought the contours of the race into sharper focus. The margins at the finish of stage 9 were still tight, but the hierarchy is a little clearer. Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) is, for now at least, a step and a couple of gears ahead of everybody else.

The key moment came 550 metres from the summit, as the gradient ratcheted into double digits and the Colombian shifted into his big ring. He had already hit the front of the fraying pink jersey group after responding to Aleksandr Vlasov’s (Astana-Premier Tech) attack and now he tore it apart with a vicious acceleration that nobody could follow.

Bernal’s past as a mountain biker meant he perhaps felt more at home than most on the dirt roads, but familiarity can only carry a man so far on slopes of 14 per cent. His raw strength made up the bulk of the difference. It was an acceleration that will serve both to allay Bernal’s concerns about his nagging back injury and sow plenty of doubt in the minds of his rivals.

“He was on another level today, I think he is the best guy here,” said Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), who was planted on Bernal’s wheel for the decisive acceleration. Ciccone couldn’t follow, but he was still the best of the rest, coming home seven seconds down in second place, just ahead of Vlasov.

The time gaps were not imposing. Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), fourth and fifth on the day, respectively, lost only 10 seconds plus bonuses, while nine more riders finished within 12 seconds, including Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange). However, the nature of Bernal’s victory – and his early capture of the maglia rosa – had the feel of a message.

Above all, it felt as though a semblance of order had been brought to the Giro at the end of an always frantic and sometimes confused day of racing. There was a breathless feel to stage 9, which began with relentless attacking and the intensity scarcely dropped thereafter.

It even appeared as though echelons might play a role 14 kilometres from the finish, when Evenepoel’s Deceuninck-QuickStep squad tried to break up the pink jersey group on the altopiano between the summit of Ovindoli and the base of the final kick to Campo Felice. The split never materialised, however, and once the road began to climb again, there was a familiar feel to proceedings.

As at San Giacomo on stage 6, Ineos Grenadiers hit the front en masse - with help from a still-ambitous Bahrain Victorious - though on this occasion, Bernal didn’t bother sending out Daniel Martínez on a scouting mission. Instead, he waited until the ground beneath his wheels shifted from asphalt to chalk and then took matters in hand himself.

Evenepoel focused on more mountains

In the overall standings, Bernal holds a lead of 15 seconds over Evenepoel and 21 over Vlasov, while Ciccone (fourth at 36 seconds) is now surely Trek-Segafredo’s leader. Nine riders remain within a minute of the pink jersey, including Hugh Carthy (sixth at 44 seconds), Dan Martin (eighth at 51 seconds) and Yates (ninth at 55 seconds) and the road to Milan is still long.

“In the third week, nobody’s going to remember who gained a few seconds on stage 4 or 6,” one directeur sportif told Cyclingnews this weekend. Recent history underlines his point but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Bernal is establishing firm foundations.

Evenepoel, of course, seems unlikely to be deterred by the concession of seconds to Bernal on Sunday and he downplayed his disappointment as missing out on inheriting the maglia rosa from Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ). He will continue to wear the white jersey, though now on behalf of Bernal rather than Valter. “The time losses are almost nothing, as we know the big, big mountains are still coming,” said Evenepoel.

His nine-month spell away from racing has undoubtedly not helped his ability to follow brutal accelerations like Bernal’s, though logic says that same lay-off – not to mention his tender years – should preclude him from challenging the 2019 Tour de France winner across three weeks. But it has been abundantly clear throughout the 21-year-old's short career that none of the usual norms or caveats seem to apply to him.

Further down the standings, Yates – so impressive at the Tour of the Alps last month – continues to yield seconds in small denominations to Bernal. His deficit is edging out towards a minute but the Briton was again within the vicinity of the action on Sunday. He also knows better than most that the third week of the Giro is an entirely different kind of race.

Ineos directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto, meanwhile, was keen to preach caution, noting that there were still danger men within touching distance of the maglia rosa

“You don’t win the Giro 10 days from Milan, you only win it in Milan,” he told RAI. “I think there’s a long list of potential winners: Evenepoel is one of the riders on that list, but there are others like Vlasov, Ciccone, and Bahrain are riding well too.”

He didn’t need to say it, but Bernal now clearly tops that list of potential winners.