Giro d'Italia 2021 - How Simon Yates can deny Egan Bernal and snatch the maglia rosa on the final weekend
With his victory in Stage 19 on Alpe di Mera, Britain’s Simon Yates showed that it is he – and not the Italian Damiano Caruso – who Egan Bernal should fear most in this Giro. Almost three minutes down on the Colombian, Yates still has it all to do. But can he win the pink jersey – and, if so, how?
‘Can't leave it late' - Can Yates unseat Bernal on five-star mountain Stage 20?
It was fitting that Simon Yates’ first stage win on the Giro since his three tremendous triumphs in 2018 should come on the exact corresponding stage as that which saw his own quest for the pink jersey tumble at the hands of Chris Froome three years ago.
If Egan Bernal’s pink plight was not quite as dramatic in Stage 19 of the 2021 Giro, then Yates’ continued third-week resurgence in Italy will be a timely reminder for the Colombian and Ineos Grenadiers that this race is far from over – for if anyone knows, Yates does.
Victory on Alpe di Mera saw the Briton close the gap to 2’49” in the general classification, with the Italian veteran Damiano Caruso once again losing a small chunk of time to the race leader. Caruso now, rather than thinking of pink, will no doubt be looking over his shoulder at Yates, who is just 20 seconds behind.
“The boys from Ineos were happy just to ride at tempo behind,” Yates said after the fourth Giro stage win of his career. “I had a feeling they would let me go today – I read something from Egan on Twitter about how they would be more conservative rather than trying to go with me – and so I had a feeling they would let me go. As soon as I attacked, I saw that was correct.”
‘We can start to get very excited’ - Yates attacks on final climb
Letting Yates go could well have been what saved Bernal from losing any more time than strictly necessary on Friday. Rather than react, the 24-year-old simply continued riding in the wheel of Dani Martinez, searching to find the rhythm that ultimately saw him reel in the likes of Caruso, Hugh Carthy and Aleksandr Vlasov, before riding clear in pursuit of Yates with Joao Almeida.
As Yates took his fourth win, Portugal's Almeida had to settle for his fourth second-place finish on the Giro. Amazingly, the 22-year-old, despite his long stint in pink last year, has yet to savour what a professional victory tastes like – although you get the impression it won’t be too long a wait for that to change.
“I tried to do my best today,” Yates added. “It was not the most difficult of stages even if the final climb was hard. Tomorrow is very different – it’s a very difficult stage, back at high altitude, so we’ll see what we can do. I’ll try my best but I’m happy with the stage win today.”
‘Blow to the maglia rosa!’ – Yates keeps Giro alive with two days to go
Saturday’s final road stage is indeed a whole different kettle of fish – with two climbs in Switzerland rising above 2,000 metres before a final summit finish back over the border on Alpe Motta. On paper, it looks like a brutal day awaits – especially seeing that the two harder climbs are preceded by a leg-sapping 25-kilometre ascent of the Passo San Bernardino off the back of an 80km grind up the valley.
Of course, 20 days into a Grand Tour even the smallest of hills can feel insurmountable. But, taken individually, none of the three climbs that remain are as hard as either the Alpe di Mera or the Sega di Ala – the two climbs where (relatively speaking) Bernal has struggled this week.
If Ineos Grenadiers were willing to ride more conservatively on Friday, as Yates suggests, it’s precisely because they know that they will not be able to enjoy such a luxury on Saturday’s Stage 20.
One of the key moments on Friday came where Deceuninck-QuickStep’s tempo on the first descent caused a split in the peloton which most notably caught out that man Martinez. The Colombian has been a key figure in compatriot Bernal’s push for pink – just look at that photo of him offering his encouragement on Wednesday’s final climb – and he proved that once again on Friday.
Daniel Martinez prova a caricare Egan Bernal durante la scalata di Sega di Ala - Giro d'Italia 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Distancing Martinez is exactly what Yates’ BikeExchange team needs to do if they want to put pressure on Bernal as the race enters Switzerland. But will Ineos and Martinez be stupid enough to let lightning strike twice? It’s doubtful.
That said, Martinez was able to rely on Italian powerhouses Filippo Ganna and Salvatore Puccio dropping back to pace him back to the peloton on Friday – something they won’t be able to do on Saturday should they be dropped on the long opening climb. This should be the tactic for those who wish to take the race to Ineos.
With this in mind, BikeExchange must renew their alliance with Deceuninck-QuickStep and set a hefty tempo on the Passo San Bernardino so that the engine room of the Ineos train are taken out of the equation. Remember, the Belgian team still has not won a stage yet in this Giro – so any promise of a win for Almeida could help sway things in Yates’s favour.
If Bernal is suffering with back pain – as the rumours have been saying – then he must be made to work hard early. None of the climbs remaining are especially difficult – but if the Colombian comes onto the Passo di Spluga with only Martinez, then the pressure will be very much on ahead of the final descent to the foot of the Alpe Motta. Then, as they say, anything can happen.
It’s also worth remembering that the race does not finish on Saturday. Sunday’s 30km time trial into Milan will be no formality for whoever is in pink should the gaps be under a minute. After all, riding flat out in the time trial position after three weeks of racing with a bad back would not even be Bradley Wiggins’ cup of tea.
Yates trails Bernal by 2’49” ahead of Saturday’s final road stage. He needs to oversee an alliance between BikeExchange and QuickStep on the first climb – and once Bernal is isolated, he must press on with Almeida (who could yet ride into the top five and win that elusive stage) on the final two climbs.
Baring a meltdown of mammoth proportions from the Colombian race leader, Yates will not be able to take the maglia rosa in Stage 20. But should he – or Caruso, for that matter – move to within a minute of Bernal ahead of the final time trial into Milan, then fans could be treated to a second Giro finale in six months where it all comes down to the final pedal strokes.
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