As the race turned into the mountains again Friday, the British rider once again attacked — and once again gapped — Egan Bernal.
For the second consecutive mountain stage, the Colombian ceded time to the Team BikeExchange rider, who is emerging as a late thorn in Bernal’s side.
This time, however, Bernal didn’t look as forlorn or stressed as he was Wednesday, when Yates piled on to put the pink jersey truly under pressure for the first time in this Giro.
With Yates still trailing by nearly three minutes, Bernal knew all he had to do was keep his direct rivals on a close leash.
Also read: Simon Yates dashes to victory
Bernal admits Yates is on fire right now, and that he’s causing him some worry.
“There’s one rider stronger than me, and it’s Simon Yates,” Bernal said Friday. “I don’t want to make any mistakes that might ruin anything.”
Simon Yates wins stage 19 of the 2021 Giro d'Itaia with Egan Bernal finishing 28 seconds behind. pic.twitter.com/9yMyvqT6Rn
— GlobalCyclingNetwork (@gcntweet) May 28, 2021
Things might be getting more nervous inside the Ineos Grenadiers bus. Yates is banging on the door, and with Saturday’s three-climb stage up next, anything could happen.
Higher altitude — two of the passes hit 2,000m elevation — should favor Bernal, who lives about 600m higher than that. Yates, however, lives and trains in Andorra, and though that’s 500m lower than the highest peaks slated for Saturday, the British climber should be able to handle it.
Also read: How crashes shaped the Giro
The momentum is in Yates’ favor, but he might be running out of mountains.
The team is rueing Yates’ bad day in the weather-shortened stage 16, when he gave up 2:37. Considering that Yates is only behind by 2:49, those losses are proving decisive.
“I don’t have any regrets for the way I rode on the first week,” Yates said. “The gap is the maglia rosa is still quite important, but I am closer now to Caruso, who is in second place.”
Bernal seems to be playing a bit of poker, and it could be a dangerous game. Yates said that he expected Bernal to let him loose to win the stage Friday, and scoop up time bonuses. The time gaps are still comfortable, but the Giro’s seen more than its fair share of late-hour reversals.
If Bernal suffers even the slightest of wobbles, things could come down to the final time trial.
Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) remains in second at 2:29 back, but it’s clearly Yates who is poised to turn the Giro upside down.
Can he do it? The odds say no.
Bernal would need to suffer a major crack. Even on his “bad day” on Wednesday, he managed to limit the losses to less than one minute. And since he’s draped behind the blue curtain of Ineos Grenadiers, it will be hard for Yates to get to him. Dani Martínez and Jonathan Castroviejo are blunting any forward thrusts, and Bernal seemed to have his calculator turned on Friday when Yates pounced for the stage win.
It’s not impossible. Yates, of course, was on the receiving end of Chris Froome’s raid over the Colle delle Finestre in 2018, so he knows how that feels.
Saturday’s climbs are stacked up in the final 100km of racing, perhaps opening the door for another trademark late-hour Giro raid. A long descent off the penultimate climb, however, will be a boon for Bernal if he is gapped if Yates and perhaps GC ally João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) try to blow things up early.
What’s sure is that Team BikeExchange will try. As one Australian commentator said, “Yates he can.”
We shall see. In what’s a bit of irony, the Giro’s final climb Saturday simply might not be long enough or hard enough for Yates to take back enough time on the Colombian climber who typically shines on the climbs.
Also read: Is the Giro set up for a late-hour reversal?
Of course, Yates doesn’t need to take the pink jersey Saturday to win it in Milano. Sunday’s 30.3km individual time trial is no cakewalk.
Neither Yates nor Bernal are TT specialists, and nearly tied in opening time trial in Torino. In a similarly flat, but shorter time trial at 10km at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, Bernal bested Yates by 4 seconds.
Simon Yates is third overall at the Giro d'Italia with two days to go, just like Tao Geoghegan Hart was last year.
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) May 28, 2021
Of course, final-day time trials at the end of three weeks with everything on the line are something very different. No one ever thought Carlos Sastre would be able to fend off Cadel Evans in 2008 nursing a lead of 1:34 in a 53km time trial, yet the Spanish rider only gave up a half-minute to win the yellow jersey.
Knowing that Yates is riding with the wind at his back right now, Bernal will want to keep pink at any cost Saturday, and race to defend it Sunday against the clock. Caruso is stronger than both, but it’s unlikely he could take more than two minutes back.
If Bernal is feeling good, expect him to try to attack to put to rest any hint of a late-race collapse.
Barring a major disaster or mistake, the pink jersey is all but his. Yates is running out of mountains.