At the Giro d'Italia, high mountains aren't the only obstacles to be overcome and other riders aren't the only adversaries to be defeated. On stage 19's climb to Alpe di Mera, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) seemed to grapple with his own instincts when Simon Yates (BikeExchange) surged clear with 6.4km remaining.
Two days ago at Sega di Ala, a similar effort from Yates had provoked an almost Pavlovian response from Bernal. The maglia rosa, so dominant to that point, perhaps felt duty-bound to react immediately to Yates' attack, and he paid an unexpectedly heavy price for his hastiness when he was distanced by the Briton after the gradient steepened further shortly afterwards.
A rider can make mistakes and still succeed at a Grand Tour, but it's never advisable to make the same error twice. This time, Bernal preferred to continue the climb at his own rhythm, or rather, at the carefully curated tempo that was being tapped out on his behalf by Daniel Martínez.
Even when Yates' advantage shot out to half a minute, and even when second-placed Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) briefly edged clear, Bernal still didn't react. He would eventually reach the summit in third place, 28 seconds down on Yates and just ahead of Caruso. In the overall standings, Bernal now leads Caruso by 2:29, with Yates a further 20 seconds back in third.
"When I need to go from a long way out and when I have the legs, I try to do it. But in this moment, I know there's a rider who is stronger than me, and that's Yates," Bernal said when he took a seat in the mixed zone afterwards.
"Now I have to manage the advantage that I built up by attacking earlier on. There's the work of a whole team behind this jersey, and I don't want to do something wrong and lose it. I want to ride with my head to try to bring this jersey to Milan.
"It's difficult when they attack and straightaway they take 10, 20, 30 seconds in a short space of time. But I wasn't going slowly, and I knew they had to have sore legs in front and they would have to recover a bit."
At Sega di Ala, Bernal's travails were such that he struggled even to match his teammate Martinez's pace. Although his pedalling looked rather heavier here than it had done at Campo Felice or on the Passo Giau, Bernal had the strength to accelerate when his pilot swung off with 2.5 kilometres remaining at Alpe di Mera, bridging across to João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) just shy of the flamme rouge.
At that point, Bernal had sliced his deficit on Yates to just 16 seconds, but his pace dropped notably within sight of the line, when he was unable to follow the resurgent Almeida's final acceleration. He suggested afterwards that he was now managing his energy as much as his advantage.
"I did drop off a bit at the end, it was a very fast climb," he said. "Maybe I could have done it 5 to 10 seconds quicker, but that effort might have put me into difficulty when I didn't need to do it. In the end, I preferred not to go flat out in the last few hundred metres, because I know I have a nice advantage, and I want to come to the final time trial with some strength left. That will be a head-to-head battle, alone against the wind."
Bernal entered this Giro nursing a lingering back injury and, perhaps, its attendant doubts. After a sound defeat at the hands of Tadej Pogačar at Tirreno-Adriatico, he returned to Colombia to train at altitude, and he eventually opted to extend that sojourn rather than compete at the Tour of the Alps last month.
That period away from competition meant that Bernal arrived in Turin expecting to hit the occasional bum note early on, but instead he found himself immediately at the pitch of the race. By the summit finish at Campo Felice on stage 9, he was already in full song and in pink. Come the Passo Giau a week later, the curtain seemed to have come down early on the race as a contest.
"Before the start, I thought I might lose a little bit early on and I thought I'd be trying to gain time at this point. Instead, it's been the complete opposite," Bernal laughed.
"At the start I was good, and without going crazy, I managed to gain a bit here and there. The gravel stage was actually the first day I was planning to start trying to make gains, but I'd already gained quite a bit already."
Yates' revival has suffused the final act of this Giro with a suspense that seemed most unlikely when Bernal was slowing down to show off his pink jersey in Cortina d'Ampezzo on Monday afternoon.
Yet, despite his losses on the last two summit finishes, Bernal retains a commanding lead ahead of the final two stages. Stage 20, with two climbs above 2,000 metres, appears to play to Bernal's strengths, even if he will be braced for an onslaught from Yates on the Passo San Bernardino, Passo dello Spluga and Alpe Motta.
"I'd like to be a little better but I have to say, I'm good. It's just that Yates is the strongest," Bernal said. "This is the level I thought I'd be at. With Yates going so well, people might say, 'Egan is dropping off,' but I think it's that Yates is the strongest in this moment."
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