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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: All eyes on Egan Bernal ahead of Monte Zoncolan

Defending the pink jersey is paramount for Egan Bernal in the first major mountain stage at the Giro d'Italia.

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Which Egan Bernal will show up Saturday for Monte Zoncolan at the Giro d’Italia?

The giant-killer of the 2019 Tour de France? Or the hobbled version of last summer?

The Ineos Grenadiers could catch his breath a bit in Friday’s sprint romp ahead of Saturday’s climber stomp.

“We had some time to recover a bit today, and tomorrow we have a hard day,” Bernal said. “It would be special to, but that would mean to control the break and the peloton, but I would be happy just to keep the pink jersey. I will do my best.”

Also read: Monte Zoncolan a key test

Bernal will ride into the 2021 Giro’s first major mountain stage up the feared Monte Zoncolan with a promising lead of 45 seconds to Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech).

Another half-dozen riders lie within two minutes, including Remco Evenepoel at 2:22.

All eyes will be on Bernal, who so far is racing a near-perfect race in the first half of the Giro as he chases his second grand tour victory.

If the stakes are not already high enough, forecasters are calling for bad weather to blow in, with wind, rain, and cold. Just in time for the Giro’s first major mountaintop finale.

“We are already thinking about the stage tomorrow, which is going to be very hard. There’s talk of a storm blowing in, so it will be cold, with rain. It’s going to be difficult,” he said. “We have to prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.”

Also read: Can anyone challenge Bernal in second half of Giro?

There couldn’t be a more dramatic setting for Bernal and what some are calling a career crossroads.

After struggling with a back injury and an early departure from his yellow jersey defense last summer, Bernal bounced back in this Giro. The Colombian won his first grand tour stage victory and then dispatched rival Evenepoel on the gravel stage two days later.

https://twitter.com/Eganbernal/status/1395428386156290053

Monte Zoncolan presents a chance for Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers to tighten their grip on the pink jersey. Though the course climbs from the “easy” side of the already legendary climb, it’s steep and hard enough to produce important differences.

Three of the six stage-winners since the Zoncolan was introduced to the Giro in 2003 went on to win the pink jersey in Milano.

The chance of dancing away from the peloton wearing the pink jersey must be tempting, but it appears Ineos Grenadiers isn’t putting the stage victory at the center of their tactical plans Saturday.

Bernal said his mind is made up: the most important thing is to defend pink.

“It will be a tough stage. It will be harder with the weather. It will be an important factor. We need to be really focused, and be ready for it,” he said. “I just want to keep the jersey. It’s difficult to control all the riders and the breakaways, so we need to stay calm, and control the race to keep the jersey.”

That could open up the race for stage-hunters like Thomas De Gent (Lotto-Soudal) or Larry Warbasse (Ag2r-Citroën).