It’s hard to pick one moment, Egan Bernal did not launch a coup to seize control, his was a victory of small gains, of seconds gained here and there while others faded. Whether it was at Sestola, on the sterrato or the Zoncolan, he was in charge. But the most visible demonstration of this was Stage 16 when Bernal was so far ahead of the others he could peel off his rainjacket in the cobbled streets of Cortina d’Ampezzo to let the maglia rosa brighten a damp day.
The race started in Turin with Filippo Ganna getting a home win and top billing from the Italian media who need a star, although the sight of him working with the maglia rosa on his back was an awkward sell, one day a prince, the next a worker.
Stage 2 to Novara saw Tim Merlier win and Giacomo Nizzolo second, of course. There were few opportunities for the sprinters but most were well served, Caleb Ewan the fastest but so quick he left too early with either a crash at the breakfast buffet or a cleat adjustment problem cited. Nizzolo would finally land a stage win, Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria struggled to seize the opportunities and Peter Sagan won a stage and the points competition although this contest never really came alive, Nizzolo quit the race and Sagan finished with fewer points than he’d taken last year when he was runner-up. Still who’ll remember the maths, the story is Sagan collecting a new jersey.
Taco van der Hoorn’s stage win set the tone for breakaways winning, an unheralded rider on a team still searching for a win, he went in the early move and rode the others off his wheel and held on for the stage win.
Stage 4 to Sestola contained a lot of subjects that would become themes for the Giro. It was cold and wet, so much that the TV coverage dropped. The breakaway stayed away and the big story was Alessandro De Marchi claiming the maglia rosa, a reward for a thousand attacks as he put it, while Joe Dombrowski took the stage. Egan Bernal was first among the GC contenders. Simon Yates and Remco Evenepoel losing 11 seconds to Bernal looked important, and it counted as double as it suggested they couldn’t respond. João Almeida fared worst, legs frozen by the cold. Two days later on the San Giacomo summit finish, another wet day with intermittent TV signals, Gino Mäder won the stage, a relaunch move for the Bahrain team who’d lost their planned GC leader Mikel Landa to a crash. Bernal was again the best of the GC contenders, aided by a team that wielded Ganna over the Apennine plateau and then deployed Jonathan Castroviejo and Dani Martinez as pacemakers on the final climb.
Campo Felice supplied more of the same, Bernal in the lead again only this time he’d swap his Ineos jersey for the maglia rosa and if he’d dropped his rivals to appear solo at the finish it was almost an optical illusion, most rivals were at 12 seconds, some less. But this was a symbolic moment, he could distance the rest with one kick and here he was back in the lead of a grand tour. Could anyone take the pink jersey off him? It was hard to see, the last time Ineos/Sky lost the GC lead in a grand tour…was the Vuelta as in the previous grand tour, but that’s the exception. Bernal faced his rivals, but also his spine as a threat with a chronic condition, interior and exterior challenges.
One challenger was Remco Evenepoel and on the next day’s stage to Foligno the prodigy was sprinting past Bernal for a time bonus, as if every second counted. This put him just 14 seconds short of the maglia rosa, a very solid debut for anyone, although Evenepoel is not anyone. He came with great expectations, particularly from Belgium where he’s becoming a celebrity, rather than a cyclist amid the sports pages. Perhaps maintaining this hope – rather than racing him in a warm-up event – helped bring a long-term sponsorship from Quick Step over the line? Hope or hype, this wasn’t cheap talk, he’d won every stage race he’d ridden in the previous season which made him a Giro contender although we’d yet to see how he’d handle three weeks or the high Alpine climbs. Only it was the next day’s stage to Montalcino on the gravel roads that was his undoing. He was out of position on the dash to the first sector, easy to remark but hard to resolve, rubbing rims, shoulders and elbows at 70km/h in the approach is a frantic experience. Then he was struggling on the sterrato, backing off when rivals were leaning in. Perhaps it’s all a good thing for him in the long term, the hype-meter will swing back a touch and if he’s not the new Merckx – and he never should have been – he’s already a lot more than the new Kevin Seeldraeyers. Handling problems can be improved with coaching, as a former footballer he’s not got the cultural capital that rivals collected racing bikes on and off road. And we still don’t know how he’d do in three weeks, nor on the long Alpine acscents.
The same stage to Montalcino saw Mauro Schmid take a surprise win and Egan Bernal took more time on his rivals, again measured in seconds but the arithmetic was all his way and by now only Aleksandr Vlasov was within one minute.
The following day’s stage to Bagni di Romagna was a case study of the Giro. To say the 2021 vintage rewarded the breakaways is to underplay it, to get in the day’s move was usually to have more than an option on the stage win, it was a ticket to contest it. So the problem was not to stay away for the day, it was to get in the break. Ineos would deploy Filippo Ganna and Salvatore Puccio on the front of the peloton and as long as the riders up the road weren’t a threat on GC to them or others then the move got a ticket to ride but often only after waves of attacks. This made for a lively first hour but once the move was gone, the peloton would ease up. It’s the opposite of last year’s Tour de France where Jumbo-Visma deployed Tony Martin to set a tempo that saw many breakaways crushed, much to the whispered annoyance of some teams. On the day Geoffrey Bouchard did plenty to make the mountains jersey his own and in the finish Andrea Vendrame won a crafty finish as the Giro rivalled the 2016 Vuelta for the number of new names winning grand tour stages.
The Zoncolan came but via the easier eastern side, a clever ruse as the brand name alone spikes interest but without provoking such big time gaps. Still this was the first Alpine stage and behind Lorenzo Fortunato’s surprise win, Egan Bernal again took more time. As the chart below shows, every GC contender was losing ground to the Colombian and come Stage 14 and the Zoncolan everyone fell away.
After a fun stage to Slovenia – almost the new Yorkshire with the crowds – with another breakaway and the GC riders huddling, we came to the tappone, the big day in the Dolomites. Only it was shortened at the last minute apparently as the change the route mid-way in case of snow would be even more awkward. True but to introduce an Italian word, this was dietrologia, that there was more to the story than the official version. There’d been an inscrutable rider protest, no rider wanted to say aloud they wanted an abbreviated course but that was what they got, even without the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol being used. And behind comes other things such as a rider union keen to prove itself as the peloton’s voice although sampling phone messages from riders on the eve of the stage leaves many questions. Some will say it was just wet, the passes were rideable and that’s true, but the peloton gets a say these days and the sport isn’t worse off because of it. There just needs to be more planning and with time we’ll get precedents to establish what is on and off. Cycling might be softer today but society as a whole has got much, much softer. The former is often derided while the latter is progress. Still cycling’s unique selling point though is the rider as Hercules or Maciste, heroes doing things others cannot and it can’t compete as a speed contest with MotoGP or Formula 1 so striking the balance is crucial to the sport’s future direction.
Egan Bernal did plenty to silence any post-stage polemica. This was compounded by host broadcaster RAI again dropping the coverage so many were grateful to get brief images from the Passo Giau, they couldn’t tell if the riders or the weather had nixed the Gavia and Pordoi. Bernal won the stage with time to spare, peeling off his rain jacket to show the maglia rosa and if he took is a relative newcomer to road cycling, his time in Italy seems to have given him not just the Italian language but a window into road cycling’s culture. It was a bit of theatre and he could afford it, by now the unheralded Damiano Caruso was in second place overall but two and half minutes down and obviously delighted with this. The Sicilian almost needed mirrors on his bike as he needn’t worry about Bernal, it was those behind him like Carthy, Vlasov and Yates that threatened his podium place.
After a rest day the Sega di Ala finish on the Passo Fittanze saw Bernal for once in trouble, Simon Yates attacked once and Bernal followed, Yates went again and Bernal was stuck, as Dani Martinez cajoled him, a signing so vital that Ineos appeared to have bought him out of his contract with EF. But with over four minutes to spare on Yates Bernal didn’t have to panic. Still this helped enliven the racing, what if Bernal was on the slide, his back going into spasm? Dan Martin won the stage with a very fast ascent, one of the rare times the breakaway was constantly harried by the chasers in the finale and, along with the Montalcino gravel stage, it was one of the best days of the race.
The Alpe di Mera was where Bernal could start to think about where to place the Trofeo Senze Fine in his Monaco apartment because Simon Yates won but only by a few seconds, with João Almeida now making a remontada. After being iced by the rain on the stage to Sestola, then working for Evenepoel on the Montalcino stage Almeida was beginning to rise up the GC again. Only this was more because others like Bardet, Vlasov and Carthy were losing ground, Almeida’s gains on Bernal were more modest. Still he’s younger than Bernal, is superior in a time trial and might be back as a team leader next year once he’s got his kitchen refurbished with a new cooker extractor and some taps.
Damiano Caruso’s always been around, he’d made headlines for the wrong reasons to start with, then he’d been in the top-10 of grand tours several times and can match the best riders on the climbs which is why he’s been a premium helper for others all his career in the service of Vicenzo Nibali, Richie Porte and Mikel Landa. Still his rise up the rankings was even a surprise to him, when Landa crashed out Caruso joked he could target the Strava KoM on the Forca Caruso during Stage 9. He went for a lot more thanks to steady riding, until the Passo San Bernardino where he saw Team DSM launching a move down the descent for Romain Bardet and jumped on it out of instinct. He could have sat tight but gambled and got the stage win that transformed his Giro.
All that was left was the time trial in Milan and Filippo Ganna took a second stage win, neither towing the peloton for weeks, nor a puncture in Milan could stop him.
Back in May and all the better for it. If it often rained, this Giro still looked brighter than last October’s version thanks to the verdant vegetation, and felt cheerier too as Italy reopens. It was enjoyable edition although this Giro was more a collection of short stories than a novel for the ages. Billed to commemorate Dante, the racing was more Italo Calvino with daily episodes of the worker triumphing, starting with Taco van der Hoorn and finishing with Damiano Caruso on the podium. Each day’s stage was interesting thanks to open tactics and an engaging route but the three weeks lacked a genuine contest for overall classification. Ganna, De Marchi and Valter all did well but were clothes horses for Egan Bernal who took the maglia rosa and then kept on adding to his lead as many others fell away, helped by a strong team. Although not the steamroller of the Sky days, and Simon Yates was able to put on a late challenge, although he never recovered from losses and a problem in the first week he didn’t want to expand on.
It’s a big win for Bernal who is back to his best and as thoughts inevitably turn to the Tour de France, the 2022 edition feels almost more exciting already if we imagine Bernal and Tadej Pogačar and a cast of others.