Tonina Pantani was on the podium at Sega di Ala on Wednesday afternoon, accepting a replica of the Trofeo Senza Fine after her late son Marco was voted the most popular wearer of the pink jersey in its 90-year history.
She was still clasping that trophy in the mixed zone beside the podium when current maglia rosa Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) entered to talk reporters through his struggles in the wickedly steep final kilometres of stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia, where he was dropped by Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange).
The Ineos Grenadiers leader and Tonina Pantani had met before, after she invited him to Cesenatico after he dedicated his 2019 Gran Piemonte win to her son. When they greeted one another here, Bernal took the time to help her locate Pantani's name on the trophy, before gently shrugging off a question about whether his own would be added in Milan on Sunday evening.
"I don't know, but I hope so. There's a long way to go," said Bernal, whose name had already seemed inscribed on the swirling trophy after his remarkable solo victory amid hard rain on the Passo Giau on Monday. A lot can change in 48 hours on the Giro, or even, in this case, in just four kilometres of hard road above the Lagarina Valley.
While Bernal remains 2:21 ahead of Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), Yates has moved up to third and closed to within 3:23 after he dropped the Colombian and clawed back 53 seconds – plus bonuses – of his deficit on the most demanding climb of the Giro to date.
"Like I've always said, this race doesn't finish until we get to Milan. You can lose everything in a day. We have to stay with our feet on the ground," said Bernal.
"We left everything out there on the climb. Days like these are the ones that really show the true rider. When everything goes well and you have the legs to attack, it comes easy, but on the days where it goes wrong, you have to show a bit of grinta."
Bernal's Ineos teammates had adopted the familiar position and tapped out the accustomed tempo on the lower slopes of the climb to Sega di Ala on Wednesday, and nothing in the Colombian's bearing suggested that this would prove to be his first giornata no of the Giro.
A number of rivals, including Hugh Carthy and Aleksandr Vlasov, had already been distanced by the time Yates threw himself onto the attack as the steepest section of the climb began with 4km remaining. For 500 metres or so, Bernal was able to match the Briton's pace but he began to suffer thereafter, eventually sinking back just shy of the 3km to go marker.
At one point, a floundering Bernal was unable even to hold the buoy provided by the wheel of his teammate Daniel Martínez, who turned and pumped a fist in encouragement. Fortunately for Bernal, the shore was close at hand. The gradient eased just enough to feel like dry land in the final two kilometres, and he came home behind Martinez and Caruso, seventh on the stage, 1:23 behind winner Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation).
"Dani [Martinez] is a friend, it was very important to have him on my side today, he waited for me and gave me morale," said Bernal. "I was able to suffer a bit and I came to the finish with Caruso, who is the rider who interested me the most because he's second on GC. Tomorrow we'll try to recover and then we'll try to be good for the last two mountain stages and the final time trial."
A battle with Yates
Already a stage winner at Campo Felice and Cortina d'Ampezzo, and imperious on the gravel at Montalcino, Bernal's superiority had seen most of the men close to him on general classification all but concede the race during Tuesday's rest day. Plenty of unusual and surreal things have happened in the final week of the Giro over the years, but Bernal seemed the kind of leader who would prove impervious to any combination of slings and arrows.
He still might – and his lead is still a healthy one, after all – but it remains to be seen if his struggles at Sega di Ala were a one-off or the sign of a deeper malaise. Bernal has, after all, been nursing the back injury that ended his 2019 season, though he didn't cite that as an explanation for his losses on Wednesday.
"I think it's a bit of everything," he said. "In the end we've raced for two weeks, we've had the rest day and changed temperature. I don't know how to explain it, but you can also just say that other riders were stronger than me today. It's not simply that I suffered. The other riders were good. They gained on me because they had good days."
Of the threats to Bernal's lead, Yates had the best day of all, producing his strongest display of the race to date. Unlike Bernal, Yates had reconnoitred the climb of Sega di Ala immediately after winning the Tour of the Alps, and that knowledge might have proved critical. Bernal confessed he might not have tracked Yates' initial attack had he realised how much the gradient eased inside the final two kilometres.
"I tried to follow him and maybe I made a bit of a mistake. Maybe if I knew the last two kilometres were not so hard, I would have waited until then and I might have had more energy to go faster," he said. "It could have been important but you can't see all the stages, and overall I'm pleased with today."
The next test for Bernal will come at Alpe di Mera on Friday, the one summit finish on this Giro that he has reconnoitred – way back in February.
"Each day is different at the Giro," said Bernal. He will hope this one proves to be an outlier, and he knows that his name isn't on the trophy just yet.
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