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Giro d’Italia: Egan Bernal the favourite but resurgent Simon Yates can test his resolve

Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) on stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia
Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) taking time as he climbs to victory on stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images)

Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) could perhaps breathe a little easier on Friday evening after he managed to keep stage winner Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) at arm’s length on the Giro d’Italia GC for at least another day. With two stages to go, Bernal holds a 2:49 advantage over Yates and, just as he has been for the last 10 days, he surely remains the odds-on favourite to win.

Bernal’s Giro has not played out as expected, however, as he said himself on Friday evening. His long absence from competition beforehand meant that he was prepared to feel his way into this Giro slowly and improve as it went on. Instead, he started strongly but is now on the back foot, managing his advantage over Yates. Bernal may be the leader, and he is by no means cracking completely, but he is no longer dominating events like he was through the first two weeks. Hence the current intrigue, and why this Giro could yet go down to the wire.

It’s worth recalling briefly how we got here. Having reached a high point on Monday’s stage to Cortina d’Ampezzo, where undoing his rain jacket to ensure he crossed the finish line with his pink jersey on view had all the feel of a coronation in advance, Bernal has since ceded over 90 seconds of his previous 4:20 lead over Simon Yates. Just when the gaps were supposed to widen, they are narrowing.

Rather than panic on Friday, by trying to chase down Yates and then cracking badly, Bernal took the more sensible defensive option of playing a conservative game and his losses were half of those of Wednesday’s ascent. There were still, however, some troubling signs. As soon as he was left isolated when João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) dropped him in the last 200 metres, Bernal began flailing badly. In Almeida’s company he had cut his deficit on Yates to 16 seconds at the flamme rouge. Riding alone in the closing metres the gap swelled again to 28 seconds.

That wouldn’t matter so much if stage 20 were an easier menu of climbing than the previous two stages but in fact it’s the closest the 2021 Giro will come to a ‘classic’ high mountain stage. It has around 4,000 metres of vertical climbing, more than 1,000 metres more than on Friday, and three first category ascents, the first of which is the insufferably long San Bernardino.

Of course, quite apart from showing on Friday that he is a long way mentally or physically from throwing in the towel, Bernal doesn’t just have time on his side, either. He also has the considerable advantage of having what is, by common consent, the strongest team in the race.

Team Ineos rider Colombias Daniel Martinez R encourages his teammate overall leader Team Ineos rider Colombias Egan Bernal as they ride in the last ascent during the 17th stage of the Giro dItalia 2021 cycling race 193km between Canazei and Sega di Ala on May 26 2021 Photo by Luca Bettini POOL AFP Photo by LUCA BETTINIPOOLAFP via Getty Images

Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) egged on by teammate Dani Martínez during stage 17 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On Wednesday, Dani Martínez proved vital for enabling him to regain momentum after he all but cracked on the climb, right down to waving a hand in front of him to try and get him to re-focus. And Martinez was critical on Friday, where Jonathan Castroviejo and Bernal’s compatriot gave him exactly the pacing strategy he needed to keep Yates at a safe distance, as well as shattering many of his GC contenders in the process. So these two, as well as the rest of the team, may well stand him in good stead on Saturday’s 164 kilometre trek through the Alps, too. Even without Pavel Sivakov, who crashed out early, Ineos Grenadiers have rarely looked less than hugely powerful in almost every terrain in this year’s race.

However, if Deceuninck-Quick Step and Team Bike Exchange unofficially join forces again as they effectively did on Friday’s super fast approach to the Alpe di Mera, there’s no knowing if they may be able to prise Bernal apart from his team’s support. Yates may be missing Nick Schultz and the other top climber in BikeExchange’s Giro line-up, Mikel Nieve, is currently off the boil but the combined strength of the Belgian and Australian teams on Friday was notable.

It’s tempting to wonder, too, if Yates might opt for a long range attack of the style that effectively poleaxed his chances of winning the 2018 Giro, when Chris Froome powered away on the Finestre, leaving Yates reeling in his wake. Forecasts of poor weather, meanwhile, look likely to prove inaccurate. That will be welcome news for Yates who rides much better in the warm.

Given we are talking about that sort of ‘double-or-quits’ attack to settle sporting business with a vengeance for Yates, Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) can’t be ruled out of the GC battle in Milan either.

It would be inaccurate to draw too many parallels with the 2019 Giro scenario, when Primož Roglič and Vincenzo Nibali were the biggest favourites and ignored a certain Ecuadorian rider. His tenacious defence of pink made his win a richly deserved one but Richard Carapaz’s initial capture of the maglia rosa owed something to the way the two favourites overlooked him.

For all that he insists the podium is his target, Caruso might yet find himself within touching distance of pink. After all, the history of Grand Tours is littered with tales of how two favourites watched each other so closely that they lost sight of the fact that another was riding away with their prize.

With so much in store on Saturday, the final time trial barely feels relevant at this point, at least in terms of a potential Yates-Bernal battle. On the opening TT in Turin, Yates was just a second faster than the Giro leader. But Caruso, again, is the strongest of the three and it’s worth remembering too, that last year’s Giro was finally decided by a time trial in which neither Tao Geoghegan Hart nor Jai Hindley were natural favourites. But after 3,400 kilometres, the entire race was still decided by that time trial into Milan.