It took the dirt surfaces to clean up the GC scenario at the Giro d’Italia.
After a week of racing, the gravel climb to Campo Felice on Sunday finally sorted the “haves” from the “have-nots” in the battle for the Giro’s pink jersey.
Egan Bernal called time on Attila Valter’s breakout spell in pink with a blazing ninth stage victory, and early hopefuls like George Bennett and Jai Hindley are long gone – for the first time in the race, the GC picture has come into clear focus.
Bernal and Remco Evenepoel are living up to expectation, one-two on GC. Close behind them is a tense battle between a half-dozen dangermen, all with the potential to take any step on the podium.
From the TT tug-o-war between Bernal and Evenepoel to the shadowy figures of Alexandr Vlasov and Hugh Carthy, the GC is perfectly poised.
Here’s the lay of the land.
Different strengths, different strategies: A fascinating face-off between Egan Bernal and Remco Evenepoel
It was the face-off we all hoped for but could barely bring ourselves to believe – Egan Bernal and Remco Evenepoel punching it out for the pink jersey. Just 15 seconds separate the Giro’s young grandi in a scenario to savor.
Bernal’s rocketship move Sunday has positioned him directly at the top of the pecking order in the Giro’s tightly-coiled GC scrap. A rider doesn’t attack in the big ring on a steep, off-road climb unless they know they’re good.
“I was in his wheel [when he attacked] and tried to follow him, but he was really strong,” Ciccone said after finishing second on the stage. “When I saw him switch to [the] 53 chainring, I tried to keep my tempo, but he was on a different level today. I think he’s the best guy here. For sure it will be hard to fight him in the next stages.”
Bernal could well be back to his brilliant best.
But equally importantly, Ineos Grenadiers has been flexing hard in the race’s early classification skirmishes.
Filippo Ganna tore apart the race in the crosswinds on stage 6. Jonathan Castroviejo and Gianni Moscon backed the pack into a corner with their blazing tempo on the Campo Felice climb. And Daniel Martínez is the joker that looks just as likely to take a breakaway stage win as he does to play last man for Bernal in the high mountains.
Yet Evenepoel couldn’t be broken, even under the full force of the Ineos Grenadiers assault Sunday.
Evenepoel was caught out of position ahead of the sterrato summit Sunday, but was able to claw his way back through the group. The 21-year-old didn’t have the kick to match Bernal’s huge acceleration after moving through the 20-strong group, but had the legs to limit his losses and finished fourth on the day.
“In the end, I ‘only’ lost 10 seconds, and then the bonus seconds,” he said. “Fifteen seconds in the standings is almost nothing when you know that the big mountains are yet to come.”
Evenepoel may be looking forward to the high altitude summits of the final week, but he’ll likely be facing down an onslaught from Ineos Grenadiers when he gets there.
The British squad has been swinging between its Froome-era full press and the marauding mayhem of its 2020 incarnation at this Giro, and while it hit home hard Sunday, it’s not always proved so effective in the past week.
The team will need to find a winning formula to squeeze every second out of Evenepoel through the next weeks, because Bernal will need every advantage he’s got ahead of the stage 21 time trial.
Bernal did well to limit his losses to 20 seconds in the opening TT last weekend, but an 8km prologue is no 30km test on tired legs, as the peloton faces in Milano.
How much of a buffer will Bernal need ahead of the Giro’s final test? As big as he can get – and he looks ready to fight for it.
Taut battle for podium between pack of dark horses
Aleksandr Vlasov (+21), Giulio Ciccone (+36), Hugh Carthy (+44), Damiano Caruso (+45), Dan Martin (+51), Simon Yates: (+55)
There’s a sextet sitting close behind Evenepoel that has yet to make an impact on the Giro but has the potential to totally reconfigure the race.
Aleksandr Vlasov and Hugh Carthy have kept their heads down and their powder dry, following all the right moves and yet to falter.
Dan Martin is clawing back his early losses and has rockets in his heels when the road turns upward. Damiano Caruso hasn’t been fazed by the loss of his captain Mikel Landa and Bahrain-Victorious isn’t willing to buckle. And Giulio Ciccone – the man nobody was talking about before the Giro – could have the legs to unlock the race.
At just 36 seconds down and in fifth overall, Ciccone is the disruptor that could throw dynamite into the GC. Ciccone started as wingman to his veteran teammate Vincenzo Nibali, but with “The Shark” swimming upstream after a troublesome start to the race, it’s the young apprentice that’s taken leadership.
“I came to the Giro with other objectives in mind, not the GC, so I attacked a lot in the first week,” Ciccone told RAI last night.
“Then I understood that I was going quite well and that I had good condition, so in the last few days I’ve raced a bit differently, looking to saving myself a bit … things have changed for me in the last few days.”
Stanco. Felice. Ma anche un po’ rammaricato (perchè secondo, comunque, non è primo).
— Giulio Ciccone (@giuliocicco1) May 16, 2021
Ciccone has won stages and the mountains jersey at the Giro before, and his second-place behind Bernal on Sunday showed he has the poise and punch to make an impression on the final standings.
Could Ciccone hit the podium in his first attempt on GC? The race hasn’t even hit its mid-point yet, but at this stage, the answer’s a yes.
And what of Simon Yates, the climbing king of Tour of the Alps? The Brit may be waiting for his moment after his third-week collapse in 2018. But after repeatedly bleeding time to leave him 55 seconds back after stage 9, if Yates keeps his cards too much closer to his chest, he may never get the opportunity to use them.
Gravel stage Wednesday could turn Giro on its head
The race is tightly coiled heading into Monday’s sprint stage and the rest day Tuesday. But it could look very different after the mini-Strade Bianche on tap for stage 11.
Some 35km of dirt roads are packed into the final 70km of Wednesday’s gravel grinder, making for a day that fans will savor and riders may fear. One mistimed puncture or unfortunate mechanical could make-or-break their race.
“I think everyone is waiting for the gravel stage – it’s going to be a very special day,” said BikeExchange sport director Matt White. “I think after Wednesday, that’s when it will really start for the GC guys.”
If Wednesday is the true startline, the past week has definitely established the order on the start grid.