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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: Metal fatigue in the Ineos Grenadiers bludgeon

Was stage 17 the beginnings of cracks in Egan Bernal's grip on in the maglia rosa, or just some tarnish after a tough day?

It looked to be bludgeoning business as usual for the Ineos Grenadiers sledgehammer. Dani Martínez and Gianni Moscon were sent to make the pace in the final five kilometres of the climb to Sega di Ala, the first of a triptych of summit finishes which will pepper up the final five days of the Giro. Egan Bernal was to sit tranquilly in the wheels of his two teammates as the front group dwindled and then make a characteristic late jump to snaffle a few more seconds on anyone who had managed to stay in touch.

Already, two dangermen were struggling: Alexandr Vlasov had begun swinging as soon as the climb started; Hugh Carthy was in trouble when the maglia rosa group hit the steepest slopes, and was being tended by his teammate Alberto Bettiol — better known as a classic specialist than a mountain domestique. Ineos could congratulate themselves on a perfect tactical operation; Moscon had made it into the day’s break and had sat up to slip back at the right moment to support his leader when the going got tough. This was how it had been since the race left Turin, with Filippo Ganna in pink: Sir Dave Brailsford’s team in charge.

The first sign that there might be a bit of metal fatigue in the sledgehammer and a bit of woodworm in the handle came when Simon Yates pressed on the pedals as the group struggled through a wooded area. Eight years ago, I watched as Yates made a high-speed attack to win a world points race title on the velodrome in Minsk. This was different, it was a grinding acceleration from slow to a bit quicker, but it ripped the shrinking group apart; Bernal was rapidly on to the Lancastrian, as he should have been, but Martínez simply flew across the gap. Already, he looked better than his leader.

Yates’s third acceleration did it for Bernal. Mostly, the best riders don’t blow up, but drop gradually off the wheel, listening to what their body is telling them: stick there for much longer and you are in trouble. Self-preservation kicked in. By the look of the rate at which he lost ground, Bernal had gone through that phase already; it was too late, as he admitted later on. Usually, when attacking, riders fire off the front of a mountain group led by Ineos – or previously Team Sky – and a gap opens slowly. The opponent pushes hard; behind, the Ineos riders go slightly less hard.

It was a way of riding that won Bradley Wiggins the 2012 Tour de France, and it is impossible to counter because to gain any meaningful advantage, a rival has to go unfeasibly deep. This was different. Very different. Bernal was shipping seconds like water pouring into a leaky bucket. It’s rare indeed to see a gap open so quickly when Ineos are involved. There were two particularly telling moments: firstly, when Martínez began to gesture to his leader as if to say, “hurry up old chap, the pub’s going to close”, and secondly when Diego Ulissi caught up. Ulissi was clearly on a spectacularly good climbing day, but still…

With a stage 1 win at the 2021 Giro d'Italia, Dan Martin now has stage wins in all three grand tours.
With a stage 17 win at the 2021 Giro d’Italia, Dan Martin now has stage victories in all three grand tours. Photo: James Startt

The GC battle highlighted one other matter. Dan Martin, 34-years-young and in his 15th season as a pro, was flying, because in the final five kilometres he lost nothing to Yates and the other counter-attacker, a rejuvenated João Almeida. Mostly, if the “morning” break gets to a finish climb with only a couple of minutes in hand, it’s doomed. Martin has gradually built one of the best palmares in the WorldTour; belief has played a strong part in that. His reward was to join the group who have won stages in all three grand tours. Nine and a bit years after the first grand tour stage win, at the Vuelta in 2011, when Bernal was all of 14 years old, he got his stage win at the Giro.

By the line, Bernal had lost 53 seconds to Yates, which meant there were two ways of looking at the outcome. On the one hand, Yates’s collapse over the snow-hit Passo Giau 48 hours earlier had left the Colombian with a comfortable cushion of time, the more so as apart from Damiano Caruso, all the other contenders lost ground. Bernal had had a bad five kilometres; Carthy, Bardet, Vlasov and Giulio Ciccone all had a bad six or seven. So the margin was still manageable, the race remained Ineos’ to lose. This might well be a mere hiccup, a reminder not to take things for granted. A flake of metal had been cracked off the sledgehammer, but the core was still strong.

On the other hand… Both Yates and the management at Team Ineos had a front-row view of how the boot can rapidly move from one foot to the other in the final week of a Giro, specifically, the 2018 race when – with then Team Sky – Chris Froome spectacularly disposed of Yates with three days remaining. As for whether this was a mere blip on the road to Bernal’s second career grand tour win, or the start of a gripping two-way battle, the next mountain finish would shed some light on that.