On the short but stiff climb to Guarene on Monday, Filippo Ganna might have had a preview of what awaits him when the Giro d'Italia reaches its first uphill finale at Sestola on stage 4. The Italian carries the pink jersey, but he knows that a young man of outsized ambition is primed to take it from him.
Fatigue was general in the peloton after an afternoon spent following a course that arched gently around the narrative universe of Beppe Fenoglio in the rolling hills of the Langhe. After crossing the Tanaro in the writer's native Alba, they climbed again in the finale, this time into the hills of the Roero.
Fifteen kilometres from the finish, an intermediate sprint was perched in the hilltop village of Guarene. The bonus seconds had already been snaffled by the break, but that didn't stop Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) from testing himself against the gradient, mashing a monstrous gear as he moved past the maglia rosa on the double-digit slope.
"I was impressed on the climb to the bonus sprint when I saw Remco go by in the big ring in a very big gear. I could see that he has very good legs," Ganna said admiringly. "I've also been really impressed by the way he's come back into the peloton after his crash."
Ganna carries a lead of 16 seconds over Tobias Foss (Jumbo-Visma) after three stages of the Giro, but Evenepoel, now third at 20 seconds, appears poised with intent ahead of the testing finale to Sestola on Wednesday.
On taking the pink jersey in the opening time trial in Turin, Ganna insisted he was likely to lose the garment on the first real climb of the Giro, just as he did at Mount Etna last October. He was keen, however, to ensure he carried the jersey this far at least, albeit for practical reasons as much as personal ones.
"Today it was important to keep the jersey to keep our team car at the front of the convoy behind us. It seems banal but that's very important on a stage like tomorrow with narrow, twisting roads," said Ganna. "The Giro of my team leaders starts tomorrow, and I might lose this beautiful jersey.
"I haven't looked at the route too closely yet, to be honest, but we're at the Giro d'Italia and I know the race will be hard every day over the three weeks. There are certainly rivals who will be more suited to the climbs than me tomorrow. But we have two leaders at Ineos and hopefully, the jersey can stay within the team if I don't keep it. I will work for the team tomorrow."
Gianni Moscon (6th at 26 seconds), Jonathan Castroviejo (9th at 30 seconds) and Pavel Sivakov (21st at 37 seconds) are the Ineos riders closest to Ganna in the overall standings, but the bracing climb of the Colle Passerino will serve as an early test of team leader Egan Bernal (30th at 42 seconds), who entered this Giro still nursing the lingering effects of the back injury that ruined his 2020 campaign.
"I see Egan riding very well at the moment, and with the right motivation and determination," said Ganna.
On the flat approach to Novara on stage 2, the maglia rosa himself served as Bernal's guide through the frenetic run-in. On the punchier fare through the Langhe and Roero, Moscon took over the piloting duties. "He was on Gianni's wheel in the finale today. We're a good group and we work well together."
Speaking to RAI's Processo alla Tappa programme on Monday evening, Ineos directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto acknowledged that Ganna's tenure in the pink jersey might not survive the more rugged terrain of Emilia-Romagna, with the climbs of Castello di Carpineti and Montemolino on the agenda before the final haul up the Passerino towards Sestola.
"Tomorrow will be hard, the first important test," said Tosatto. "We're going well as a team, and we're very happy with how this Giro has started. It was an objective to win the first stage and wear pink with Filippo. Holding the jersey will be hard for him tomorrow, but we also have Egan, Castroviejo, Moscon and Sivakov up there in the overall standings."
Ganna, meanwhile, was happy to make light of his place in the Ineos hierarchy. In the mixed zone beside the podium, he was asked if he was now poised to work for Bernal on the climb towards Sestola. "Well, the team certainly won't be working for me," Ganna laughed. "We'll see as we go along tomorrow."
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