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Simon Yates: The Giro d’Italia is Egan Bernal’s to lose

Spectators cheer as Team BikeExchange rider Great Britains Simon Yates Front and overall leader Team Ineos rider Colombias Egan Bernal ride in the last ascent during the 14th stage of the Giro dItalia 2021 cycling race 205km between Citadella and Monte Zoncolan on May 22 2021 Photo by Tim De WAELE POOL AFP Photo by TIM DE WAELEPOOLAFP via Getty Images
Yates leads Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) on the Zoncolan on Saturday (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Next man up. After Remco Evenepoel and Aleksandr Vlasov, Simon Yates assumes the role of Egan Bernal’s prime challenger at this Giro d’Italia, and just as the race reaches its most rarefied air with the Dolomite tappone over the Fedaia, Pordoi and Giau on Monday. 

Team BikeExchange leader Yates knows more than most about the hurt business of the Giro’s third week. He has never been allowed to forget his collapse at the end of the 2018 race, even though he applied its harsh lessons to win the Vuelta a España just three months later.

And so, when he illuminated the Tour of the Alps in April, there were murmurs that the Team BikeExchange rider ought to have kept his light under a bushel lest it extinguish by the final week of the Giro.

As it turned out, Yates instead struggled to ignite in the opening phase of the race, consistently shipping seconds to Bernal et al at each hilltop finale. He finally sparked with a forceful effort on the upper reaches of Monte Zoncolan on Saturday that distanced everyone bar Bernal. Although the Colombian pilfered another 11 seconds within sight of the line, he at least had to suffer to do so, while Yates moved up to second overall, 1:33 off pink.

Immediately after the finish, Yates vaguely hinted that the opening stanzas of his Giro had been blighted by physical issues, without explaining precisely what they were. He was only marginally more expansive in Grado before stage 15, but then again, the Bury native has never been much given to making excuses.

“Just niggles, here and there, a few muscular problems as well, but I’m feeling much better and hopefully I can continue with the same legs as I had yesterday for the rest of the race,” said Yates, who downplayed the idea that his deficit to Bernal would be rather tighter without those concerns.

“It’s hard to say. I was always going to lose a few seconds here and there, and I also lost a few seconds yesterday to Bernal. Look, I’ll just keep plugging away and we’ll see what we can do.”

The paradox of Yates’ display on the Zoncolan was that he conceded more time to Bernal, while simultaneously signalling himself out as the man most likely to contest his pink jersey in the Giro’s arduous final week.

The other riders near the top of the overall standings, from gregario in paradiso Damiano Caruso to youngsters like Vlasov and Evenepoel, might understandably settle for a podium spot. Yates’ pedigree means that he is not yet resigned to Bernal and Ineos’ superiority.

“I’ll try: if I have legs, I’ll try,” Yates said. “It’s going to be hard to dislodge Bernal. He was there yesterday and he still put some time into me. We’ll see. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s his race to lose now, I think.”

Yates knows what it is to be in that position at this point in the Giro, and he knows how the logic of the race’s opening phase can collapse upon itself amid the sheer volume of climbing crammed into it’s final week.

The truism says that the gaps are counted in minutes rather than seconds from here on in, but it seems clear, too, dislodging Bernal will require a sense of adventure and a dash of invention.

“If I have the legs, yes, I like to race that way,” Yates said when asked if he would race more aggressively from here to Milan. “I enjoy watching that kind of racing, as well, so that helps. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t promise anything.”

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