Giro d'Italia: The art of war

Filippo Ganna leads Egan Bernal on the sterrato of stage 11
Filippo Ganna leads Egan Bernal on the sterrato of stage 11 (Image credit: Getty Images)

The great Renaissance artists of Tuscany were never really landscape painters. The organically rolling scenery of Italy’s most beautiful region is enough to inspire tears, applause, religious devotion... whatever gets you right in the soul. But they knew that sublime as the Tuscan land and the Tuscan sky are, they were only ever the background to human intrigue, God, politics and the much more compelling spectacle of flawed people. 

It’s true in life and it’s true in bike racing. Call today’s stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia in Tuscany what you like – the wine stage, the gravel stage – and marvel at the panoramic helicopter shots of domed hills, green valleys and cypress trees in early summer glory but beyond the branding, and everything that says about modern cycling, it was a reminder that this sport is mainly about horrible things happening in beautiful places.

We looked at the profile of this stage beforehand – a couple of decent climbs, none higher than 600 metres – and noted the parts in grey, which denoted the sterrato roads, and concluded that this was not where the Giro would be won, but a stage in which it could easily be lost.

This was true to an extent but we just never realised how many people would lose the race today. Behind the stage winner Mauro Schmid (Qhubeka Assos) – who along with 10 other riders had been wise enough to put almost quarter of an hour between themselves and the GC favourites in the first half of the stage – Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) tumbled out of the top five, Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) out of the top 10.

Cycling is changing; has changed. There are voices raised for and against the inclusion of strade bianche in the context of a grand tour, even now. Some riders, especially the ones who are less certain of their ability on gravel roads, say they have no place in the steady, erosive war of attrition that is a three-week race. A few more traditionally minded fans see gravel as a gimmick. But the fact is that there was more excitement in the final 70 kilometres of this stage than there has been in the entire Giro up to this point and it’s not been a bad Giro at all. While the sprinters’ teams have (mainly) controlled the flat stages and the GC battle to this point has been nips and tucks, marginal gains and minor reshuffles, the gravel roads gave the riders of the 2021 Giro the canvas on which to paint a much more spectacular artwork.

What Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) did to the peloton on sector 1, the flattest of the four gravel stretches, was monstrous. Ganna may be, depending on your definition of the term and prejudices, the best cyclist in the world at the moment. The Italian press fret that he’s allowed to pursue his own goals in the time trials but spends most of his time doing bad things to Ineos Grenadiers’ rivals in the service of his team leader. But he’s turning the act of being a domestique into a personal fiefdom and shaping races in a way that very few other riders in the world are capable of doing. He went to the front on sector 1, with Egan Bernal tucked into his slipstream, and set about dismantling the peloton. With a cloud of dust discreetly covering the carnage, Ganna neatly divided the Giro d’Italia into two halves, everything that had happened before this point and everything that was to happen afterwards. The bunch went into sector 1 intact but it came out of it in its constituent parts, less than the sum of its whole.

A Grand Tour lasts three weeks, but some of the moments in that long stretch of time are more important than the others. Out of sector 1, with 50 kilometres to go, Ganna pulled clear a group of about 20 riders. It included the following, important, people: Bernal and several other Ineos riders; Marc Soler and a couple of his Movistar team-mates; Ciccone, Brambilla and Nibali from Trek-Segafredo. The next group, a little larger and about half a minute down, had Remco Evenepoel plus some Deceuninck riders, Aleksandr Vlasov and some Astana teammates and Hugh Carthy with a few of his EF Education-Nippo teammates.

At this point, the very Giro hung in the balance. Ineos (mainly Ganna), Movistar and Trek pulled in the front group, Astana, Deceuninck and EF in the second, and if the gap had expanded at that point the damage might even have been worse. The good news for Astana, Deceuninck and EF is that their desperate pursuit was successful. The bad was that it finished off most of their domestiques, even if Ganna was also spent. Until this point, the race had been a proxy war but now, with few teammates to hide behind, the favourites were exposed.

Nobody can say that Egan Bernal didn’t give his rivals adequate warning of his abilities on gravel roads. He was third in Strade Bianche this spring, and violently dropped his rivals just three days ago on the gravel hilltop finish at Campo Felice. At the time the latter looked like a lot of effort for not much gain but he rode the final half-kilometre seven seconds faster than anybody else and 12 seconds faster than most of his main rivals. Twelve seconds over 158 kilometres isn’t very much but over those 500m it represented a gap of 16 per cent.

Bernal diligently fanned the flames Ganna and his team had lit. It was a day on which the Giro could be lost, so he started making people lose the Giro. Whether it was Evenepoel’s morale or body that let him down first, the Belgian slid off the back on sector 3 and for the first time in his career he looked his age. The invincible, indestructible force of nature who’d won four stage races in 2020 suddenly looked frightened and lonely. And also mightily pissed off at team-mate João Almeida, who made a huge meal of waiting for his leader, and never quite looked like he was riding at the right pace for him. Bernal had said he would need 90 seconds on Evenepoel going into the final time trial; today he took 38 more than that, with his best territory to come.

One by one, Bernal squeezed his rivals out of the back, until he finally attacked and joined Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), and left every other GC rider behind. He is riding this Giro in the opposite way to when he won the Tour as then he sat tight, seemed to struggle in the first half of the race and came good in the final chaotic mountain stages. Here he’s looking for time at every single opportunity and there can be no doubt now that if the back injury that ruined his 2020 doesn’t reappear, he is the favourite to win the pink jersey.

Not everybody lost the Giro today. Vlasov and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) both conceded minimal time. The British rider is now up to fifth place overall and might be an interested observer of Bernal’s strategy. Three years ago, Yates rode the first half of the Giro in a similar way to how Bernal is riding now, he kept chipping time out in ever more spectacular attacks and then folded with three days to go.

The most famous Renaissance artwork of all, of course, is the Mona Lisa. Again, Leonardo da Vinci painted a portrait of a woman and the background is more or less incidental, though it’s every bit as enigmatic as the subject of the painting. The landscape behind the Mona Lisa is imaginary, it’s part Tuscany but mostly Italian Alps, and a reminder perhaps to Egan Bernal that no matter how compelling a picture he is painting the 2021 Giro will still be decided next week in the mountains.

Edward Pickering is the editor of Procycling magazine.

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Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor. He graduated in French and Art History from Leeds University and spent three years teaching English in Japan before returning to do a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism at Harlow College, Essex. He did a two-week internship at Cycling Weekly in late 2001 and didn't leave until 11 years later, by which time he was Cycle Sport magazine's deputy editor. After two years as a freelance writer, he joined Procycling as editor in 2015. He is the author of The Race Against Time, The Yellow Jersey Club and Ronde, and he spends his spare time running, playing the piano and playing taiko drums.