When the curtain rises on the 2021 Giro d'Italia's last round of stages on Wednesday, the battle to take the overall victory in Milan may be all but resolved in favour of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers). But the right to stand next to the Colombian on the final podium is anything but decided.
There's no doubting that Bernal's superiority throughout the Giro's first fortnight on a wide variety of mountain stages, particularly in a year when the time trials, his only comparative weak point, have been reduced in importance, have left Bernal head and shoulders above his rivals and with a clear path to outright victory.
With a 2:27 advantage on Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), the time-honoured caveats of "barring disaster or illness", always used when describing a winner-in-waiting of a Grand Tour like Bernal, automatically remain in place. But to judge by his performances to date, the likelihood of such a disaster striking on the 800-odd, mountain-heavy kilometres remaining between here and Milan is, at least on paper, low.
The one question mark, perhaps, and it is very much perhaps, about Bernal's hypothetically straightforward progress towards his second Grand Tour win in three years hovers over his team.
Although Ineos Grenadiers have shown absolutely no signs of collective weakness up to now, having to defend a Grand Tour lead for such a long period, as they have done in this race, takes an accumulative toll, and after two weeks of harsh weather even more so. Whether the team's iron grip on the Giro d'Italia to date shows any indication of crumbling, though, given their rivals are presumably beginning to run low on energy levels as well, remains to be seen.
The terrain is certainly challenging enough between here and Milan for chinks in the armour of any team or rider to emerge. The 2021 Giro's last segment, running in a very rough clockwise spiral around Milan, contains no fewer than three first-category Alpine summit finishes - on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. There is also the longest single stage of the race, on Thursday, which is mostly flat for its 232 kilometres. It has a nasty fourth-category ascent and three other unclassified little climbs in the last 30 kilometres before the finish.
Thursday's route, while sparking memories of last year's equivalent, semi-cancelled stage in the third week, also bears a marked similarity to Milan-San Remo. The finish town of Stradella also played host to a memorable victory for Max Sciandri, now directing Movistar on the race, in the 1994 Giro, when the Italo-British all-rounder got the measure of no less a sprint star than Djamolidine Abdoujaparov.
Last but not least, the 30.3km time trial in Milan on Sunday afternoon may be completely flat, but it could see some further shake-ups in the overall standings as well as providing all the GC challengers with a fraught, final three-quarters of an hour before the final curtain falls on the 2021 Giro.
Bernal will, logically, be hoping to maintain the status quo between here and Milan. So it is to be expected that, just as Ineos Grenadiers have been happy to do on all the previous key stages, breakaways of riders who are no threat on GC will be given the nod on most days by the leader's team to try to go clear. Quite how much the other squads will be happy to let the breakaways stay away, though, may be another story.
Six key contenders
We already saw on Monday's ascent of the Giau how the fight for the day's honours on a critical stage, rather than going to a break, was subsumed into the GC battle. Monday was the only occasion bar Campo Felice on stage 9, where Bernal won, that the favourites group, in this case driven by EF Education-Nippo, regained control of the stage win fight. But it seems likely it won't be the last.
The reason for this is even as the battle to beat Bernal is cooling down given his superiority, the battle for the podium is heating up. It's symptomatic of the intensity of the struggle that four riders have been closest to the Colombian since he took the lead nine days ago - Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) and now Caruso. And right now while just two minutes separate Caruso in second place from Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) in sixth, an even scanter 1:20 divides Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), provisionally in third, from Romain Bardet (Team DSM), in seventh. For these six, then, there is everything to play for, and quite apart from the prestige of a stage win, the time bonuses on offer for a victory and placings could prove crucial on GC, too.
Adding to the interest of these battles is that as Yates, currently fifth overall, pointed out on Tuesday, none of these GC riders - including himself - have so far turned in consistently strong climbing performances in the Giro. Bardet perhaps is the only rider showing a steady degree of improvement. But as the worst placed of the contenders on GC, the Team DSM leader will have to fight the hardest if he wants to become the first Frenchman on the podium of the Giro d'Italia since John Gadret 10 years ago.
As for the three upcoming mountain stages, none, on paper, would have been as hard as Monday's original 212-kilometre tappone and its staggering 5,700 metres of vertical climbing. However, after the stage was reduced enormously in difficulty and length, all of the three stages left to race, except possibly Friday, are arguably harder, even in the better weather that should (underline that, given how accurate forecasts have been up to now) accompany the Giro to Milan.
Averaging 3,500 metres of ascending between them, and between 164 and 193 kilometres in length, most of the ascents are relatively unknown to the Giro d'Italia or its contenders, with all three summit finishes unprecedented in the race.
Wednesday's 11.2-kilometre ascent of the painfully steep Sega di Ala climb, reputedly second only to the Zoncolan in difficulty, last saw race action in the Giro di Trentino, as the Tour of the Alps was formerly known, in 2013. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) won alone that day, but none of the other GC contenders in the 2021 Giro was present, reducing their points of reference considerably, and not even Nibali has raced over the longer, steadier first category Passo Valentino, which immediately precedes the Sega di Ala on Wednesday.
Following the Giro's long shift westwards via Thursday's transition stage to the Alpine ranges closest to Milan, Friday's Alpe di Mera is also an incognito for most of the Giro peloton, but not, interestingly enough, to Egan Bernal who made it the one mountain stage finish he reconned before the race. He and the peloton will find it the easiest of the three stages though, after the first-category Mottarone, due to be tackled in the first two hours of racing, was removed from the route on Tuesday following the recent cable car tragedy on its slopes.
The last mountain stage of the 2021 Giro, in any case, looks set to be the hardest by far of the third week, as well as the most steeped in Giro history. A monster category 1 ascent of San Bernadino in Switzerland, 24 kilometres long, will be the first major challenge, and it is quickly followed by the shorter, but far steeper Splugenpass. These two climbs replicate the finale of the 1965 stage where Italian star Vittorio Adorni claimed an impressive lone win after an epic nine-hour, 282-kilometre ride.
For the Giro 2021 riders, the mountain climbing finally ends 30 kilometres further on than the Splugenpass, following a return to Italy from Switzerland and a last, relatively easy, first-category ascent of Alpe Motta. Even if it is unprecedented, the race's history will still be a silent witness in the stage's (hopefully sunlit) background: half-way up that final ascent the riders will pass through the town of Madesimo, where Adorni raised his arms in victory 56 years ago, telling reporters afterwards he had been inspired to win by "Fausto Coppi and his great performances."
While in 1965, Adorni and the Giro peloton still had the mighty Stelvio left to climb 24 hours later before winning the race outright in Firenze, the 2021 Giro riders face one last major hurdle, the final time trial in Milan.
However, given the toughness of the menu of climbing in the last segment of the Giro, it may well be that the gaps between all the 2021 GC favourites, and not just Bernal and the rest as is the case for now, will be far greater and more stable to the point where the TT has a limited impact on the overall battle.
Pan flat and fairly technical in its first half before some broad boulevards give fans a final chance to view the stars in action, the last stage could well come down to a battle for the day's honours, then, rather than providing a last-minute resolution of the Giro's GC podium. However, in other, equally mountainous Giros, the final TT has been a tie-breaker for the overall, and at this point in the game, predictions of its importance have a limited shelf-life.
The Giro, in other words, is far from over, even five days out from Milan.
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