The misty mountains numbered two rather than four, but the abbreviated tappone of the Giro d'Italia still rendered a clear verdict. On a day of hard rain in the Dolomites, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) soloed clear on the Passo Giau to claim stage 16 – his second win of the race – and buttress his overall lead even further.
Five stages still remain, including three summit finishes and an individual time trial, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that Bernal's entry into Cortina d'Ampezzo on Monday afternoon was something of an early coronation, and he marked the moment with a ceremonial gesture.
The miserable conditions on the crooked roads and dark forests of the Dolomites meant that Bernal had raced with layers covering his pink jersey all through Monday's stage. Now, as he drew close to the finish line, Bernal dispensed with his jacket and tucked it awkwardly into the back of his maglia rosa.
The operation cost Bernal several seconds as he slowed on the slippery cobbles on the Corso Italia, but with his rivals scattered around the mountainside above him, he could already afford to think about creating a timeless image rather than simply managing a lead.
He still came 27 seconds clear of Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), and in the overall standings his position already appears unassailable. Caruso is second at 2:24 and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) now third at 3:40.
"Look, it's not every day you win with the maglia rosa, so I wanted to show it off," Bernal said afterwards. "I have a lot of respect for this jersey, so even though I lost a few seconds taking off my jacket, I wanted to do it. This was a special day."
When the gruppo assembled in Sacile for the start, there were already thousands of whispers suggesting the stage might be shortened due to the frigid temperatures on the descents of the Fedaia and Pordoi, with one rumour claiming the finish line would be posted atop the Passo Giau.
Instead, the CPA and RCS Sport brokered a compromise that saw the Fedaia and Pordoi excised from the route while maintaining the final descent off the Giau into Cortina.
Bernal admitted that he would have preferred to ride the full 212 kilometres of road and 5,700 metres of climbing that had been planned rather than the shortened course that was ultimately raced. Despite the pink jersey on his back, however, he preferred not to insist on his viewpoint as riders discussed their options beneath the deluge in Sacile, with reports reaching them of grisly conditions atop the Fedaia and Pordoi.
"I thought it would become harder to control, because in a shorter stage, more people will try from distance on the first climb and more people are fresher for the final climb," Bernal said. "As a team, we came to do the race. If it's long, we do it long, and if it's short, we do it short.
"I was prepared to do all the stage, but then with the weather like this, you don't want to be the rider who says, 'No, I want to do the whole stage,' when there are others who say they don't want to do the whole stage… In the end, the organisers take the decisions and we cyclists do what they tell us. It went well."
Echoes of the Iseran
There was an obvious if slightly distorted echo of Bernal's greatest success to date at the 2019 Tour de France, when he took the maillot jaune after the race was stopped atop the Col d'Iseran due to a landslide on the descent.
In truth, his superiority in the final days of that Tour brooked little argument and the absence of the Fedaia and Pordoi will do little to diminish his seemingly inevitable Giro triumph for posterity.
"The cyclists who were there that day at the Tour know how the stage was, and they know everyone was flat-out out on the Iseran. I know that I could have gone all the way to the finish," said Bernal.
"It was like that again today, but I'm happy. There were two climbs and we all knew where the finish line was, so I don't think anyone can say anything about it."
The ultimate finish line in Milan is still a shade under 800 kilometres away, but it already seems difficult to picture anyone other than Bernal claiming the Trofeo Senza Fine in the shadow of the Duomo next Sunday afternoon.
The final week of the Giro may have thrown up some remarkable turnarounds over the years, but in the history of the race, a rider of Bernal's pedigree has rarely squandered a winning hand like this one.
"I'm in an excellent position in this moment. I think I have 2:30 on second so in this moment even if I have a bad day, I should be able to manage the situation," Bernal said. "A day like that can happen to anyone in the third week of a race, that's normal, especially when it's so cold and the weather is so bad. But if I have a bad day, I'll try to manage it well."
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