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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

Our Giro d'Italia Review

With the rise of young and seriously talented riders, it has become commonplace in cycling to dub various individuals ‘the next big thing’. After both winning the Tour de France in the last two years, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar have been just that. Despite his phenomenal achievement at the Tour de France in 2019, it would be difficult to use the word dominant when describing his victory. Even though he won overall, Bernal didn’t win a stage, and was still without a Grand Tour stage win coming into the current season. Since then, Bernal has been plagued by back problems which saw him unable to defend his Tour de France title. As seems to be the way of things in elite sport, he was then written off by some on social media. This fickle nature of sport is one you would more often associate with football, but it now appears that has seeped into some aspects of cycling. Questions were being asked and doubts were being cast Bernal’s way. Had we all been wrong about the young Colombian’s talent? Was this simply a one off? Judging by his incredible overall victory at this year’s Giro, those casting aspersions in the direction of Egan Bernal were mistaken indeed.

Egan Bernal won the shortened queen stage in the Dolomites, and the images of him with his arms aloft in the Maglia Rosa will reverberate throughout Giro history. © Getty Images Sport

Unlike his Tour win, it would be appropriate to associate the concept of dominance with Egan Bernal’s Giro victory. However, it would be difficult to select just one single moment that confirmed this. Bernal’s victory was down to two big attacks and then a series of small gains of crucial seconds wherever he could. Crucial here was that at the moment others faded, be it on the gravel roads of Tuscany or the Monte Zoncolan, Bernal flourished and was able to press on when others were at their limit. Simon Yates was able to attack him on the Zoncolan and would go on to do so later in the race but, bar a few brief moments, Bernal’s control of the Giro was never truly in doubt.

There were clear early signs that whenever the race went uphill, Bernal was going to be the strongest in the GC battle, and that would become even clearer on the road to Campo Felice. He had been prominent on the front of the group of favourites on the road to Sestola where Joe Dombrowski took a long-overdue stage win, but it was on the dirt track where he would really make his mark. Gianni Moscon set it up, leading the overall favourites onto the gravel at such a furious pace that it was soon clear many riders were on the edge. Aleksandr Vlasov made a move, and, in a flash, Bernal was on his wheel and furiously thrashing his way past Vlasov and up the road. Bernal went past the two breakaway leaders like a runaway freight train. Giulio Ciccone briefly tried to stay with him, but then revealed that as he attacked, he had seen Bernal flick into the big ring on his bike. Ciccone was soon left in the dust and Bernal sailed away to his first Grand Tour stage win and with it, the Maglia Rosa.

Egan Bernal put his mountain biking skills into practice as he took his first grand-tour stage win at Campo Felice. © Bettini Photo

At the 2019 Tour de France, we weren’t introduced to the same Bernal as we saw at the Giro. It was only on the Col d’Iseran when we were given a glimpse of Bernal’s formidable ability. We will never know if Bernal could have won emphatically at the finish line in Tignes that day, as the stage was shortened due to a landslide. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that early on at this Giro, it was becoming apparent that with one kick, the Colombian’s rivals were soon left behind. The strength in depth of the INEOS Grenadiers left you wondering how on earth someone was now going to dislodge Bernal from the driving seat in the fight for pink. Furthermore, it also left the ever-nagging question of just how long Bernal’s back was going to hold up? It’s important to note and consider that this wasn’t just any old injury Bernal faced. He was, and is still, dealing with a chronic medical condition that would be completely debilitating for a lot of people in other walks of life.

As we all knew, should Bernal display any weakness, Remco the Belgian prodigy was ready and waiting to pounce. The young former footballer had become an almost celebrity like presence at the Giro, in a way which is more often associated with his previous sport. After being distanced at Campo Felice, Evenepoel was sprinting past Bernal for a time bonus the next day as if his life depended on it. The hype around Remco did, however, have substance. The Belgian isn’t just any old rider and had won every stage race he had entered prior to the horrific crash he suffered in 2020. That track record was always going to put him forward to be considered as an overall contender.

Evenepoel would lose nearly two minutes on the road to Montalcino. © Getty Images Sport

It was the gravel sterrato on the stage to Montalcino that would prove to be his undoing. Remco would lose nearly two minutes as he hung back on the gravel sectors whilst his fellow challengers went all in. Filippo Ganna sensed that Evenepoel was in trouble, and the ever-reliable Ganna would put the hammer down on the front of the Maglia Rosagroup to firmly distance Evenepoel. Perhaps with hindsight this would be a good thing. Nobody wants to see a rider of Evenepoel’s promise to suffer, but like Bernal’s withdrawal at the 2020 Tour, this will knock down the Remco hype-meter a few notches, which can only be beneficial to his development in the long run. The irony was João Almeida would then show his strength as the race would reach its almighty altitudes of the high mountains in the final week. Bernal would also once again come out on top at the finish line in Montalcino, stealing more time on his rivals. Marginal gains in their more open sense laid bare! Who needs magic pillows, right? When you have a final acceleration like Bernal’s in your locker?

In amongst Egan Bernal’s displays of power, we were treated to stage wins from the breakaway coming in the bucket load. It was a rare and welcome sight in a Grand Tour and was a phenomenon that occurred on all terrain. It would be difficult to pick one of them as a personal favourite due to so much quality being displayed by all the winners. However, in no particular order, special mentions must go to Andrea Vendrame for tactical brilliance, Lorenzo Fortunato for bravery of the highest level as he conquered the mighty Monte Zoncolan. Finally, Dan Martin for triumphing on a freakishly hard finish to seal his first Giro stage win. With stage wins at all three Grand Tours and Monument victories, Martin’s palmarès is one the likes of Fortunato would no doubt look up to in the years to come.

Lorenzo Fortunato won the Zoncolan stage in spectacular style. Not many riders can say they won their first professional bike race on a revered climb like the Monte Zoncolan. © Getty Images sport

Simon Yates had been quiet thus far and was allegedly waiting until the final week to play his hand. That would become apparent when he launched his first attack of the race to liven up the GC battle behind Fortunato on the Zoncolan. It would be to no avail, as after dragging him away from his guardian angel, Dani Martínez, Yates would only lose more time to Bernal. The stage to Slovenia with its crowds to rival Yorkshire will live long in the memory. What a time to be a Slovenian cycling fan, with the prospect of Pogačar versus Roglič being re-enacted in France in just a few weeks’ time.

Stage 16, the ‘Tappone’, would be next. This was the huge climbing day in the Dolomites, and one many of the peloton would have looked at and shuddered. The Queen stage was then shortened at the last minute due to adverse weather conditions at the course’s highest points. This had also been due to a rider protest which meant the course was abbreviated even without the usage of the UCI’s rulings on adverse weather coming into play.

When the news the stage would be shortened broke, Egan Bernal’s Instagram bore the message “It takes determination” as he referenced the shortened course. That has always been the beauty of cycling, riders have often tackled snow covered mountain passes on their way to making history and that has been something rarely seen in other sports. Although the peloton having a say in decisions such as this should be celebrated, it will be applauded even louder when there is cohesion and more future planning to avoid these situations. Determination would be exactly what Egan Bernal would show as, despite the foul weather, he blitzed the rest of the frozen challengers to ride into the final kilometre with his arms aloft once again to take his second stage win. Bernal even had time for a bit of much welcome theatrics, as he gradually removed his cold weather gear to reveal the Maglia Rosa for his victory photos.

Egan Bernal distanced Damiano Caruso and Romain Bardet on the Passo Giau, in what was a gritty and fierce display. © Getty Images Sport

By the time the second rest day came around, the vultures were circling and Bernal looked void of that magic touch from the first fortnight of racing. Bernal looked fatigued and the questions about his back began to surface again. However, given the amount of time he had held the Maglia Rosa, being fatigued was completely understandable. When asked about his physical condition, Bernal wasn’t shy in admitting his back still gave him difficulty, but was that the reason for his stutter on the Sega di Ala finish?

Simon Yates attacked him that day, but Bernal was able to swiftly follow. Yates then accelerated again and before you knew it, Bernal was distanced. Yates smelled blood and he was gone up the road in search of the stage win as Bernal was left with Dani Martínez willing him on. Martínez was nothing short of a revelation during this Giro and is already proving a case for him being the most valuable signing INEOS have made in years.

Dani Martínez urges Bernal on as Damiano Caruso watched on. © Getty Images Sport

With hindsight, Bernal had no need to panic. At this point he had a healthy lead over Yates but nevertheless, did not want to allow Yates to become too confident as he saw the Maglia Rosa under pressure. Yates knows all about losing a Grand Tour right in the closing stages, and the fireworks on the Sega di Ala were arguably one of the best moments over the whole three-week race. Dan Martin took a well-deserved stage win that day, and after dropping out of GC contention earlier on, it was wonderful to see him get a stage win.

The following day, Simon Yates would finally get a stage win at Alpe di Mera. Although his winning margin of just a few seconds meant time was running out for him. João Almeida continued his performances of climbing brilliance as he took second and managed to move himself up the GC. Almeida’s talent has been overlooked this year in favour of the Remco hype-train, but the Portuguese rider continued to show in the final week just what he can do when the race goes uphill. Almeida is younger than Bernal, can time-trial reasonably and will certainly be back at the sharp end of a GC battle again in the future.

Simon Yates would fall short in the hunt for the Maglia Rosa this year. However, a stage win and third place overall are certainly not to be frowned upon. © Reuters/Jennifer Lorenzini

It would seem unfair to not include Damiano Caruso in a summary of the general classification competition. Caruso is a rider that has been predominantly deployed at Grand Tours as a super-domestique in service of the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Mikel Landa. It is worth pointing out though, that in that time he has finished in the Top-10 of Grand Tours on numerous occasions. He’s no slouch and can keep pace with the best riders in the world on mountain stages, so his progression to adopted team leader in the unfortunate Mikel Landa’s absence was a long overdue bit of career progression.

After Landa had crashed out, Caruso was whimsical when asked how the rest of his race would develop. Thanks to clever and conservative riding, Caruso was able to maintain a Top-10 position in the GC, slowly creeping towards the upper echelons and the podium. His performance on the Passo San Bernadino took his Giro d’Italia to the next level, as he reacted to a move by Romain Bardet and suddenly found himself in the breakaway and with a real shot at a stage win which he then took in stunning fashion. Caruso was majestic that day, but once again the other plaudits can rightly go to Dani Martínez. Martínez’s performance in which he carried Egan Bernal to the 1km to go marker, was nothing other than selfless and another reminder of his own individual brilliance.

What’s left to say about the final time trial into Milan other than Filippo Ganna? It seems fitting that the whole race began and ended with a Ganna victory. Cycling’s a team sport, but Ganna and Dani Martínez are undoubtedly two of the main reasons Egan Bernal was able to wrap up Giro d’Italia victory.

Egan Bernal celebrates his Giro d’Italia victory with second placed Caruso and Simon Yates. © Getty Images Sport

Finally, it was great to see the Giro back in its rightful place in the cycling calendar. It had a slightly celebratory feel to it with gradual signs of Italy opening back up again after the COVID-19 shutdown, and it was fitting that Caruso’s stage win saw Italian fans lining the road cheering him to victory. The battle for the general classification never seriously took off. Bernal and his teammates were simply too strong for anyone to contest them and considering how sharp the Colombian looked from the get-go, there was only going to be one winner. Despite them regularly deflating the battle amongst the overall favourites, the large number of breakaway wins at this Giro rightly made it special. Each day we were treated to brilliant and thrilling stage wins, often with great displays of clever racing tactics, Dan Martin’s victory being a notable highlight. There were also fantastic displays from numerous super-domestiques who did everything within their power to help their team leader. Alberto Bettiol and the already mentioned, Dani Martínez, to name the two main protagonists here.

All in all, it was a stunning victory for Egan Bernal. It was a real pleasure to witness him showing the world just what he could do at a Grand Tour. His Tour de France win was significant, but this win will really catapult his career to the next level. Bernal has already said he won’t be present at the Tour de France in 2021, but the prospect of him coming up against Tadej Pogačar at a future Grand Tour is a stunning thought indeed.

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