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Giro d'Italia

Egan Bernal, Daniel Martínez, Filippo Ganna: Kings of the 2021 Giro d’Italia

Reflecting on the 2021 Giro, from the raw passion of Bernal's teammates to a swathe of unlikely stage winners.

Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.  

You could sum up the 2021 Giro d’Italia in various ways: I will point to two truly sublime episodes.

The first was when Filippo Ganna eviscerated the peloton through the first section of sterrato on stage 11, an effort so extreme he nearly left the road on at least one corner, an effort which left Remco Evenepoel trailing off the back (the Belgian got back on, but his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team was cooked) and which set the tone for the rest of the stage, where Egan Bernal rode the rest of the GC contenders off his wheel in the final kilometers.

It lasted only a short while, but it was brutal and compelling, arguably Ganna’s finest moment in the race, which is saying something given he won both time trial stages and wore the maglia rosa.

The other one was the Daniel Martínez moment heading for the Sega di Ala finish Wednesday, the split second when he turned to Bernal and made a gesture of what can loosely be called “encouragement,” and yelled as his leader floundered. In cycling, it’s rare to see the raw passion that drives a team performance laid bare in front of us; briefly, there it was.

Riders talk, sometimes, of how having a role to play impels them to ride out of their skins, and when you see the image of Martinez and his leader you get a sense of that; it is something that is unique to cycling and which is hard to grasp unless you have been in that position, which is why this moment mattered so much.

Team leaders often get to say how much they want a victory; that instant gave us an insight into how much it means to a supporting rider – the term gregario would surely be an insult to Martínez, who managed fifth overall.

To associate Bernal’s victory with some memorable riding by his team should not detract from what he achieved personally, leading the Giro for 13 days, winning two of the hardest stages, one of them the toughest stage of the race, all while wearing the maglia rosa.

The Colombian constructed his win meticulously, striking hard and ruthlessly whenever an opening appeared and hanging on grimly in the difficult days in the final week. It was a fine comeback for a rider who had abandoned last year’s Tour de France, just eight months ago, with a back problem that cast questions over when and if he might return to his best.

There was much else to savor in the 2021 Giro, but not much of it centered on the GC battle once Bernal had swooped to conquer at Cortina.

The joint effort by DSM and Bahrain-Victorious to unsettle Ineos over the Splugen pass was entertaining but ultimately changed nothing in the race’s bigger picture; Martínez, abetted by Jonathan Castroviejo, saw to that.

Personally, I always like to see a stage win for Dan Martin, but overall, the new faces caught the eye: Taco van der Hoorn, Victor Lafay, Jo Dombrowski and Mauro Schmid weren’t riders who would normally trouble the forecasters, and there was a bit of sporting justice in Gino Mäder’s stage victory at Ascoli Piceno.

The surprise packages?

Tim Merlier at Alpecin-Fenix was always a good bet for a stage win, but Qhubeka-Assos and Eolo-Kometa both performed well above expectations. Three stage wins for Qhubeka-Assos was more than any other team in the race apart from Ineos, and Victor Campenaerts’ day in the rain into Gorizia was a little work of art, with his initial attack from the break worthy of any textbook. Eolo-Kometa made the break virtually every day, led the mountains prize and netted the most prestigious mountain stage at Monte Zoncolan with Lorenzo Fortunato. Not bad for a brand-new division two team.

The disappointments? Jumbo-Visma never really looked more than mid-table fare – George Bennett will surely rue his lack of zip compared to last year – while at DSM Jai Hindley was light-years from his form of 2020. Movistar was never really in the hunt, Trek-Segafredo huffed and puffed to little effect, and at UAE-Emirates’ Diego Ulissi should have been worth a stage win given the number of hilly stages.

Deceuninck-Quickstep might regret João Almeida’s indifferent start to the race, given how he turned it round in the final week, but it’s easy to forget how young he is; on that note, they can have few second thoughts about Remco Evenepoel, who rode creditably for a young man who had not competed since the previous August.

The loss of Mikel Landa was unfortunate, and – given Damiano Caruso’s strength – it’s hard not to imagine that his crash affected the course of the race.

It was equally unfortunate – if understandable – to lose two of the three main mountains on the toughest stage of the lot into Cortina, although given Bernal’s unstoppable form that day, had the Fedaia and Pordoi been on the menu as well as the Giau, the verdict might have been even more emphatic and the final few days completely deprived of any suspense. There are always might-have-beens after the loss of such a stage, but the only one I can find is in Bernal’s winning margin.