Perhaps it was in keeping with the tone of this Giro d'Italia: Egan Bernal began the penultimate stage braced for an onslaught from Simon Yates and he finished it by limiting his losses to an attack from Damiano Caruso.
The mantle of Bernal's direct rival has been passed around across these three weeks, but ultimately, the Colombian has seemed to be in a race against himself. Provided his form – and, crucially, his lingering back injury – held up, it was difficult to see how Bernal could be divested of the pink jersey once he seized it at Campo Felice on stage 9.
At Alpe Motta on Saturday, as at Alpe di Mera the previous afternoon, Bernal and Ineos did enough to ensure that he will enter the final time trial to Milan with a virtually unassailable advantage atop the overall standings. He will set off for the final 30.3km from Senago on Sunday with a buffer of 1:59 over Caruso and some 3:23 over Yates.
The concluding stage should be more a lap of honour than a contest, but such a thought seemed fanciful on the frantic descents of the Passo San Bernardino and the Passo dello Spluga, where Bernal's carefully ordered Giro briefly risked unravelling. Caruso had escaped up the road in the company of DSM's Romain Bardet and Bahrain Victorious teammate Pello Bilbao, while Bernal was increasingly isolated in a dwindling pink jersey group.
"To be honest, it was the most complicated moment of the entire Giro," Bernal confessed when he took a seat in the press conference truck following the podium ceremony.
At one point on the way down the San Bernardino, Bernal had only Jonathan Castroviejo for company, but the Basque had the guile to stall the pace just enough to allow Daniel Martinez to latch back on.
Once the final haul to Alpe Motta began, Martinez adopted his familiar role as Bernal's shepherd. His searing pace first tempered Caruso's advantage and then burnt off Yates. In the final kilometre, Bernal clipped away alone, taking second on the stage, 24 seconds down on Caruso.
"The truth is we didn't want to take any risks on the descent [of the San Bernardino], and in that moment, Bahrain went for it," Bernal said. "They got a few metres' advantage, but we thought it was under control. Then when we got to the flatter part they caught the break from earlier and began to gain time again. It was complicated in terms of how to handle it."
Unlike last October, when Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley raced into Milan locked in a virtual dead heat, this Giro looks to have been resolved a day early. Save for accident or misfortune, it seems impossible to imagine Bernal conceding two minutes to Caruso in a 30km time trial, even if he confessed that his training for the discipline was compromised by the lingering back injury that ended his 2020 Tour de France prematurely.
"I haven't worked a lot on my time trial bike because of my back injury. Riding in that position was painful so I couldn't do too much work on it, although I trained a bit before the first time trial because I didn't want to lose too much time there," said Bernal.
"For one thing or another, my Giro preparation didn't go exactly like I'd initially planned. Tomorrow is a longer time trial but after three weeks, the main thing is to have recovered well and to have the strength left in your legs.
"The time trial isn't my speciality, so I need to manage my effort tomorrow. But it doesn't matter whether I win by two minutes or one second. The most important thing is the name on the trophy."
This Giro looks destined to be the second Grand Tour on Bernal's palmarès after his victory on the 2019 Tour de France. On that occasion, Bernal seized yellow on the Col d'Iseran with two days remaining having started the race as Team Sky's co-leader alongside Geraint Thomas. This time out, Bernal has led the Giro for two weeks and he had been touted as the favourite since he confirmed his participation early in the year.
"The emotions are different, I can't compare them. I didn't expect to win that Tour," said Bernal.
His dauphin Milan is likely to be a man who didn't expect to be in the photograph on Piazza Duomo. Caruso entered the race in the service of Mikel Landa but he was thrust into a leadership role after the Basque's abandon. Behind the podium at Alpe Motta on Saturday afternoon, Bernal approached his closest rival with a playful request.
"I hope I'm on the podium with him tomorrow, but I asked him to go slowly in the time trial," Bernal said. "I think it's better like this, with me first and him second."
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