Embattled Giro d'Italia leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) has said that from now on his strategy for winning the race will be to profit from his current GC time advantage and, above all, to keep calm no matter the circumstances.
"We've got three big days ahead, and that's where the Giro will be decided," Bernal said on Thursday evening after an uneventful stage 18 for the Colombian race leader.
As recently as Monday, Bernal was blasting off the front at almost every opportunity on every key final climb and dominating in the mountains.
But Wednesday's brutally difficult ascent of the Sega di Ala saw him almost come unstuck, as in his first visible setback in the race, he ceded nearly a minute to rival Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange).
However, given Bernal retains a solid, if not massive, 2:21 lead on second-placed Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) and 3:23 on Yates, Bernal can certainly afford to take a more conservative, cautious approach on the race's last two summit finishes on Friday and Saturday if he wishes.
Bernal hinted strongly Thursday that might be the case, saying that rather than impulsively responding immediately to another attack by the Briton, and then paying the price later like on Sega di Ala, on Friday's slightly less tough final ascent, he would consider keeping going at his own pace.
"I need to race with courage and passion, but at this point in the race, I want to stay cool, and not make mistakes," Bernal said.
Bernal played something of a secondary role on Thursday's very long, but mainly flat, trek across northern Italy with as many as four Ineos Grenadiers support riders keeping him out of the wind and safely on the front of the main pack for almost the entire 232-kilometre stage. Things were so calm that he even dropped down to the team car at one point to pick up a bidon and chat to sports directors Matteo Tosatto and Olly Cookson.
Reporters' questions afterwards understandably focussed on the Giro's final three stages, where Bernal will be back in the limelight with a vengeance. And after Wednesday's setback, the attention will be even more intense than usual.
On the plus side for Bernal on Friday at least, the final climb of Alpe di Mera is marginally easier than Wednesday's summit finish. Sega di Ala was 11.8 kilometres long and averaged 9.8 per cent, with stretches at 17 per cent, while Alpe di Mera is 9.7 kilometres at 9 per cent, with a maximum gradient of 14 per cent.
Perhaps even more importantly, Bernal has recon'd Alpe de Mera in the Piedmont region in February, unlike Wednesday, where he said he paid a price for not knowing the final segment of the climb.
"It'll be a good stage, I know the climb well, I did the recce and I lived in Piedmont for a couple of years, too. So for sure some people will come to see me there, and I hope to find some friends on the road," Bernal said.
Indeed, in a different kind of context, another question that will hover over Friday's stage is which rival, if any, might become a working ally for Bernal for the duration of the final climb. Third-week GC racing is often as much about maintaining overall placings as trying to improve them, and in this year's Giro d'Italia, Caruso set a precedent of sorts on the Sega di Ala, given he half-collaborated with the Colombian's last remaining domestique, Dani Martinez, to limit Yates' advantage.
However, Bernal played down the assumption that Caruso would repeat the same strategy on Friday, saying "everybody rides their own race, and in the end, it depends on a lot of different things: if he's still with us on the climb, who attacks, how long there is to go.
"Of course he'll want to stay on the final podium but it's difficult to know if he will be an ally."
The key issue, in any case, is how Bernal thinks he will react himself should Yates put in another punishing attack - although, given the Briton's inconsistency on the climbs to date, it can't be ruled out that he has a bad day and Bernal has the upper hand again, either.
"I just have to profit from the time gap I already have, and if he makes a move three or four kilometres to go, say, maybe it's best I don't respond," Bernal argued, "because maybe I wouldn't have the strength to follow. I just have to stay calm and try to do my best.
"The two climbs are very different, Wednesday had two very steep kilometres and Friday should be much steadier. But at the end of the day, a climb always best suits whichever rider has the best legs and whoever can get the biggest gap."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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