An ultra-aggressive Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) provided the best possible response to those questioning his underlying race condition as he turned in a blistering climbing performance on stage 4's short but tough final ascent at the Giro d'Italia.
In a key first major test of the race for the general classification contenders, Bernal responded strongly when Astana's Alexander Vlasov set off in pursuit of Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) on the day's final ascent, the Colle Passerino, and the favourites' group began to disintegrate completely.
No sooner had he bridged across to Vlasov than Bernal put in another searing acceleration, which culminated in a five-strong group, which also included Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), going clear.
Bernal's attack effectively shattered the GC group, while the Colombian, still going at full tilt, led a group of five favourites over the summit of the Passerino, down the fast, rain-soaked descent to Sestola and across the line at the head of the small group of counter-attackers.
Having placed 11th at the finish, even if the stage win was no longer possible, Bernal has gained 19 places overall, making 11 seconds on the next GC group on the road.
But much more importantly, as the Colombian said afterwards, performing so well in the mountains, after months of uncertainty surrounding his condition, was a huge boost to his morale.
"I'm here to enjoy myself and to regain the kind of self-confidence I had in 2019," Bernal told reporters afterwards.
"A day like today" – particularly given the harsh, rainy conditions throughout – "has put me on the right track again," he added.
Just as Ciccone's move made it clear that he was at the very least now defending his own GC chances rather than those of struggling teammate Vincenzo Nibali, that it was time for Bernal to take over as race leader for Ineos Grenadiers was made abundantly clear when former maglia rosa Filippo Ganna sat up with around 25 kilometres to go.
And Bernal's promising opening time trial result in Turin, where he finished with a similar time to all the main favourites, has now been confirmed by his impressively strong ride on the tough the Colle Passerino and its 10 per cent gradients.
"There was no pain and no problems," Bernal said afterwards. "And I had the right kind of legs to follow the other guys when they attacked, and then try for it myself."
"It was a really hard stage with the rain," confirmed teammate Dani Martínez at the finish, "but we saved the day and Egan is in really good shape. There's lots of Giro left to come, but today he did really well."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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