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Egan Bernal back to his best with blistering Giro d'Italia attack

Giro d'Italia 2021 - 104th Edition - 9th stage Castel di Sangro - Campo Felice (Rocca di Cambio) 158 km - 16/05/2021 - Egan Bernal (COL - Ineos Grenadiers) - photo Dario Belingheri/BettiniPhoto©2021
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)

A devastating late attack on the Giro d'Italia's off-road summit finish of Campo Felice netted the Egan Bernal both the stage win and the overall lead, simultaneously confirming that, after a troubled 18 months, he is back at the top of his game.

Any lingering doubts about Bernal's longstanding back injuries before Sunday all-but evaporated when the Ineos Grenadiers racer powered out of a fast-shattering pack in the final kilometre with a vicious double acceleration.

His advantage at the finish over closest pursuer Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) was just seven seconds, with the bulk of the favourites a few seconds further behind. Meanwhile, overall, Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick Step) is a scant 15 seconds back in second place. 

However, with his first ever Grand Tour stage win, the overall lead, and, for that matter, the lead in the best young rider classification all now in the bag, Bernal has confirmed himself as the man to beat. Not only that, but the sheer blazing aggression on display as he powered towards victory surely shows he has regained the 'sparkle and confidence' he had said he would be trying to find in Italy this May.

"It has been two very difficult years for me, both mentally and physically after the 2019 Tour, so winning again was very important for me and my team," Bernal told reporters afterwards. 

"I didn’t actually know that I had won when I crossed the line, I thought there was somebody ahead. But when we got on the dirt roads at the summit, I just went into my own world and concentrated on going as hard as possible. So when I realised I’d won, it was a very emotional moment."

From the penultimate climb of Ovindoli onwards, Ineos Grenadiers had already  made it clear they meant business, with Spanish veteran Jonathan Castroviejo stretching the bunch out and following that up with much of the spade work in the early part of the final ascent.

Prior to Campo Felice, Ineos' hard work at the front of the favourites' group - with some assistance from Bahrain Victorious and Movistar - already punched a massive hole into the early break’s advantage. Then, when Bernal placed his first acceleration 600 metres from the line, only Ciccone could initially keep contact as he tore past the two final breakaway survivors, Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroën) and Koen Bouwman (Jumbo-Visma). 

When Bernal went for it again,  almost immediately afterwards, nobody could follow.

"This morning I wasn’t thinking about winning the stage, it was just about getting time on my rivals in the final," Bernal said. "So on the second last climb, I wasn’t sure about getting the team to work, but the squad decided they wanted to do that.

"On the dirt road section, I didn’t know how good I would be. But as I was in top condition, I was able to get a good gap."

It was also the latest display of climbing power by Bernal this May in the Giro, and of his consistently strong riding in the mountains, from stage 4 on the Colle Passerino, when he first went on the rampage, then on stage 6 to San Giacamo, and again now on stage 9.  Each time fewer riders have been able to follow his moves; on stage 4 his attack group contained five riders; on stage 6 it was three; on stage 9 he was alone. And each time Bernal has inflicted more damage on his rivals, too. 

Asked to describe his final attack on Sunday, Bernal said: "I was totally concentrated, it was 1.5 kilometres of going all-out. I didn’t look round at anybody to see if I’d dropped them, I just thought to myself, 'this is four minutes at full gas and whatever happens, happens'."

Bernal’s back issues are, he said, steadily improving, but he struck a slightly cautious note by saying he "hoped it would go on like this from here to Milan", where the Giro will finish in two weeks' time.

"I’m still doing physio, before the stages, and core training as well, then physio in the massage at the end of the day. Everything I can do to be in good condition. But for now, anyway, I just want to enjoy this win and this lead."

However, Bernal’s next opportunity to inflict damage on his rivals may come in as little as three days, when the Giro d’Italia tackles the gravel roads of Tuscany on one of the most highly-anticipated stages of the whole race. 

And for all Bernal said on Sunday he did not know if his mountain biking background had helped him at Campo Felice, his third place in Strade Bianche this spring over the same Tuscan sterrato roads that the Giro will soon tackle speaks volumes about what he could achieve on Wednesday. 

And Sunday’s performance, of course, says even more.