The first section of gravel didn't prove decisive on stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia, but it set the tone for the entire afternoon. Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) surged to the front with maglia rosa Egan Bernal tucked on his wheel, and amid the Wagnerian swirl of dust and curses behind them, the peloton was sundered into several, panicked pieces.
Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was among those caught out on the fast and largely downhill section of dirt road. Earlier in the race, Evenepoel had already given the vague impression that his technical skills were not yet at the same refined level as his imposing strength, losing touch on the first stretch before rejoining the maglia rosa group before sector 2. Bernal downplayed the idea that the Belgian, riding in second place on GC, had been the specific target of Ineos' show of force.
"Before the start, we said we wanted to be the first ones into the first dirt sector. This morning on the bus we said if we got in there in front, we'd ride hard on the front for the whole sector because when you're going hard on a descent, it's harder for the riders behind to hold the wheels," Bernal said afterwards.
"When we came off the first sector and we saw that Remco was behind, we kept pulling flat out, of course, because he is one of the favourites. But then once he got back on, we didn't work on the next sector, that was Astana."
It was a temporary stay for Evenepoel, who would lose contact definitively on the third of the day's four sectors of gravel, where Ineos Grenadiers were back to the fore and Bernal himself appeared to apply the decisive force by placing a venomous acceleration on the front.
"I liked it a lot. I enjoyed myself on the gravel," Bernal said. "The most complicated part was mentally because you know that if you make a wrong movement you might fall or puncture, but in the end, it was about finding that balance. You had to avoid crashes or punctures, but to be in front, you have to take risks."
After dispatching Evenepoel with 20km remaining, Bernal saw off the rest of his rivals on the final, smooth ascent of the Passo del Lume Spento, where he responded sharply to an acceleration from Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) and danced across to Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Bernal would overwhelm Buchmann in Montalcino to claim 11th on the stage, 3:09 behind early-escapee and stage winner Mauro Schmid (Qhubeka-Assos), but the pertinent gaps were all behind him. In the overall standings, Bernal now leads Vlasov by 45 seconds and third-placed Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) by 1:12, while Evenepoel drops to seventh at 2:22.
Elsewhere, several guttering general classification challenges were dimmed in the heart of Brunello di Montalcino wine country, though others, notably Buchmann and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), will hope this is where their races finally ignite. In the press conference truck afterwards, Bernal dismissed the notion that his race – viewed (prematurely) by some as a duel with Evenepoel – would now be a head-to-head with Vlasov.
"I think there are a lot of rivals. I never thought there was just one rider. I have a lot of respect for the other riders: there's Yates, there's Carthy, there's Vlasov, there's Caruso. There are a lot of riders. There was [Mikel] Landa before, too," Bernal said. "For me, there are a lot of riders at this point, not just Vlasov. I gained a few seconds today, but we all know how hard the Giro is and how hard the last 10 stages will be. I'm keeping my feet on the ground. We know we're going well but we'll continue to have respect for all our rivals."
When Bernal placed third at Strade Bianche in March, it appeared to herald his return to fitness from the nagging back injury that had ruined his Tour de France challenge in 2020. A relatively subdued showing at the following Tirreno-Adriatico, at least in comparison to the effervescent Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), seemed to trigger doubts all over again, however, and Bernal's absence from the Tour of the Alps raised further questions about his fitness ahead of the Giro.
"With my coach, we thought we might get to this stage having lost a minute or 50 seconds. We thought if we'd lost that time to the favourites, we could be calm because I had lost some training time with my back injury," Bernal said.
"I wasn't always able to train like I wanted and in the end, that scares you a bit. If you're there at home and not able to train for a couple of days, you start to have some doubts. Before I came here, I didn't think I would go as strong as this from the start."
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