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Giro d'Italia

Don’t call it a comeback: Egan Bernal takes control of Giro d’Italia

Ineos Grenadiers in driver's seat at Giro d'Italia as the Colombian surges into the 'maglia rosa.'

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Don’t call it a comeback.

Exploding up the dusty road to Campo Felice, Egan Bernal‘s surge into the pink jersey Sunday at the Giro d’Italia is more a return to the norm.

Sunday’s version of “Gran Bernal” is the best indication yet that the rider who swept into the yellow jersey in 2019 never went anywhere.

Also read: Egan Bernal surges into pink jersey

Where were you, Egan?

In the best-case scenario, call 2020 a spell in cycling’s purgatory.

No rider’s career is a smooth, flawless spin across the peloton. Racing at the highest level of the sport is a bumpy road at best. Even Eddy Merckx endured setbacks.

In today’s hyper-competitive, finely calibrated WorldTour, only consistency and near-perfection delivers victory. And in a sport as haphazard as professional cycling, no one is immune to the frailties of chance.

Just ask Mikel Landa and Joe Dombrowski. In one instant, both were on top of the world. In the blink of an eye, both were on the ground and out of the Giro, thankful that it wasn’t worse.

If Sunday’s Bernal is the Bernal of 2019 — even if the margin to second-place Remco Evenepoel is razor-thin at 15 seconds and nine riders are packed inside of 61 seconds behind the Colombian — this Giro is his to lose.

Not to knock the rest of the field, but Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers are the strongest in this Giro by what should be a winning margin.

Any objective glance down the GC roster reveals a relatively thin field. There’s no Primož Roglič, no Tadej Pogačar.

A hobbled and aging Vincenzo Nibali is the only other former Tour de France winner in the bunch.

A few of the pre-race favorites are either already out of the race — Landa — or out of range, with George Bennett, Jai Hindley and João Almeida all seeing first-week losses. Romain Bardet, Emanuel Buchmann and Marc Soler have a fight ahead of them just to punch into the top-10.

Giro d’Italia now Egan Bernal’s to lose

CAMPO FELICE - ROCCA DI CAMBIO, ITALY - MAY 16: Egan Arley Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team INEOS Grenadiers Pink Leader Jersey celebrates at podium during the 104th Giro d'Italia 2021, Stage 9 a 158km stage from Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice - Rocca di Cambio 1665m / Mascot / @girodiitalia / #Giro / #UCIworldtour / on May 16, 2021 in Campo Felice - Rocca di Cambio, Italy. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Will Bernal carry pink to Milano? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Who can seriously mount a threat to Bernal?

Evenepoel remains untested in a grand tour. In fact, stage 9 already represents uncharted territory for the budding star, as his longest race to date is twice finishing the seven-day Tour a San Juan in Argentina.

Up-and-comers Giulio Ciccone and Aleksandr Vlasov are hovering close, but again, remain untested in a long, drawn-out fight for victory in a grand tour.

Experienced pros like Dan Martin, Hugh Carthy or Simon Yates perhaps present the most legitimate threats going into the second half of the Giro, but they’re no matches to Bernal right now.

And everyone knows the higher the road goes, the lighter altitude-baby Bernal dances on the pedals.

Also read: Bernal and Bennett at opposite ends of GC battle

The hardest part of the race is still ahead, so anything can happen.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bernal’s self-confidence doesn’t seem to line up with his performances so far in this Giro. In public comments, Bernal continues to express doubt about whether or not his back will hold out for another two weeks.

Even if Bernal begins to struggle, one big difference in this Giro compared to last year’s Tour de France is that this Giro doesn’t pack a team with such brute force as Jumbo-Visma brought to the 2020 Tour. Roglič’s collapse on Planche des Belles Filles opened the door for Pogačar, but Jumbo-Visma dominated the race from start to finish.

Without question, Ineos Grenadiers is the strongest team in the Giro with the strongest rider right now.

That usually adds up to one thing — victory.

Bernal will be able to count on the raw strength of his Ineos Grenadiers teammates to nurse him through the second half of the Giro even if his back starts to act up.

Who was leading out Bernal on the gravel road? Gianni Moscon.

Behind him the team is stacked with huge engines like Jonathan Castroviejo, Filippo Ganna, and Dani Martínez. Bernal will miss Pavel Sivakov in the mountains, but if he’s the Bernal of 2019, he won’t need him.

Will it mean Bernal is going to win by minutes? No. Many modern editions of the Giro are won by seconds.

Does Sunday’s searing victory mean Bernal is in the driver’s seat?

Absolutely.

Witnessing a new version of Egan Bernal

The 2020 season was Bernal’s crucible.

And the 2021 Giro is revealing which version of Bernal is coming out the other side of it.

There’s never been a doubt of his physical prowess. His V02 max is legendary. Up until 2019, he was happily riding in the slipstream of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome. His hardship and setbacks of 2020 is just as much a test of his mental and psychological resolve as his physical recovery.

If Bernal rides out of this Giro victorious, it could well mean that he will be an even stronger and formidable rival in the years to come.

Sunday saw the best of Bernal’s inner grinta on full display.

If his back holds out, and he doesn’t make any mistakes or have bad luck, this Giro should be his for the taking.

Also read: Ineos Grenadiers and the Egan Bernal enigma

One of the challenges in 2021 for Ineos Grenadiers’ boss Dave Brailsford was for what he called was the mission for Bernal to rediscover his smile. Bernal was certainly smiling Sunday after his first career grand tour stage victory.

Cycling’s history is littered with young riders who flamed out early under the weight of expectation, hype, and injury. Bernal is making the case that he will not become the next member of that club.

Don’t call it a comeback.

It’s Bernal picking up where he left off in 2019, and coming out the other side even wiser, more seasoned and, ultimately, a better racer.

First-placed Team Ineos rider Colombia's Egan Bernal celebrates after crossing the finish line of the ninth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2021 cycling race, 158 km between Castel di Sangro and Campo Felice (Rocca di Cambio) on May 16, 2021. (Photo by Fabio FERRARI / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FABIO FERRARI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A winning Bernal is a happy Bernal. Photo: FABIO FERRARI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images