Giro d'Italia leader Egan Bernal heads into the second week of the race convinced that, despite the intensity of the early skirmishing, the battle for overall victory is only just starting in earnest.
Of all the pre-race favourites, Bernal has been consistently superior in the climbing stages to date, with a win on stage 9 allowing him to move into the pink jersey. But with only a slender advantage of 14 seconds over Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Bernal believes he will need over six times that margin before the final-day time trial in Milan. He has calculated 90 seconds as the figure he needs to be certain of holding his own against the clock to clinch Colombia's second triumph in seven years at the corsa rosa, after Nairo Quintana in 2014.
Bernal argued that the battle for the title is destined to produce much bigger gaps in the second and third weeks than it has done to date.
"Up to now we’ve been fighting for seconds, but from now on the differences are going to be much bigger," Bernal predicted during a rest-day press conference on Tuesday morning.
"The second half of the Giro d’Italia is much harder. There will be some intense days ahead."
As for how much time he needs to gain before Milan, Bernal recognised he "needs to get there with some sort of advantage, although a lot depends on which riders are up there too on GC."
"If it’s a time trialling specialist like Remco, say, having him at less than a minute would be risky. 90 seconds on a time triallist would be good."
The first big challenge on Bernal’s race to Milan will not be the Dolomites or Alps, but a daunting gravel stage on Wednesday, featuring 35 kilometres of sterrato.
Bernal, who spent his junior days on a mountain bike, has ridden well over the same kind of terrain in Strade Bianche this spring, finishing third, and he has his off-road stage win from Sunday to boost his confidence as well.
Yet the Colombian warned that there were plenty of differences between Strade Bianche and the Giro’s venture onto the gravel roads of Tuscany on Wednesday afternoon.
"Strade is a one-day race, so there are a lot more Classics riders taking part and it’s an all-or-nothing kind of day. One puncture, one crash and you lose a lot of options," he reasoned.
"Here, you won’t lose everything because it’s a stage race. We’re looking at the GC classification, so riders will take fewer risks. On top of that, there will be fewer kilometres of sterrato tomorrow."
Bernal went to recon the Giro stage route straight after Strade Bianche in March, and he recognises that some parts are "super hard", including the climbing sectors.
"But I think the fast sectors are where the most damage will be done," he predicted.
"People could lose time on the entrance to the sectors as well. Positioning will be critical."
Given the way Bernal has been in the thick of the action throughout the first week, though, expectations as to what the Colombian and his Ineos Grenadiers teammates can do on Wednesday are high. But Bernal played down the idea that the British team will automatically be at the head of affairs on Wednesday.
"I don’t know which teams will be able to force the pace the most, and we’ll just have to take it sector by sector," he said.
"Personally, if I don’t lose time, I’ll be happy."
Back better than expected
Yet Bernal can surely be encouraged by the fact he had not been planning to have done so well in the first week as has proved possible. Both he and his coach had deliberately lowered expectations prior to the Giro, given he was still dealing with the back issues that caused his Tour de France title defense to crumble last year.
"If I had lost a minute on the other GC guys at this point in the race, I would still have considered that to have been a good position," Bernal insisted.
"My preparation had not been ideal, so I was aiming for the second and third week. Fighting for stages and time bonuses was not in the plan. But the emotion and adrenalin have helped. I’ve seen some opportunities, and I’ve taken them."
Bernal was not able to compare his current condition with when he won the Tour in 2019, "as that was a very long peak of form, stretching back to Paris-Nice", nor to say if he was already at the peak of his powers.
"My coach knows that better than me," he said, "but in any case I didn’t do such good training rides as I wanted because of my back issues. From here on, it all depends on how well I recover after each effort."
As for his rivals, Bernal admitted that he was surprised by Evenepoel’s capacity to be up there after eight months without competing, but argued that any of the riders at a minute or less on GC are dangerous challengers.
Among them, he singled out Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) as "somebody I’m not ruling out at all". As both the Giro victories for Chris Froome in 2018 and Vincenzo Nibali in 2016 have proved in recent years, "riders who have lost a lot of time in this race can make a comeback. There’a lot of names still up there and a lot of high mountains to come."
Given the way that Bernal has dominated on the climbs up to now, whether he plans to keep on attacking in the bigger mountains could very well shape the Giro’s development in the days to come.
Asked directly if he planned to do so, Bernal hedged his bets, saying: "It’ll depend on the legs and my situation in the overall. I can’t be attacking every day, but I do need to get to Milan with something of a margin on the time trialists. And that’ll decide the tactics.
"Fortunately, I’m in a very good position overall, so I can take things calmly," he concluded.
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