Opinion: Have Egan Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers gone too deep, too soon?
Ineos Grenadiers and their Colombian leader managed to knock Remco Evenepoel down a few pegs – while apparently sowing seeds of discomfort in the Belgian’s Deceuninck Quick-Step ranks – but Egan Bernal’s time gains on the gravel in Stage 11 to Montalcino were not huge. There were, indeed, echoes of Simon Yates’s fiery yet flawed 2018 Giro d’Italia campaign…
Gianni Moscon pulling Ineos Grenadiers leader Egan Bernal in the pink jersey during stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia 2021 to Montalcino
Filippo Ganna made utter mincemeat of the peloton when, trailing the breakaway by a quarter of an hour, the main field swung a sharp left and climbed up a narrowing ramp onto the first of four sections of Tuscan strade bianche.
Riding through the dust storm caused by the preceding TV motorcycle, the Italian powerhouse cut through the gravel and haze like a breadstick through ragu, splintering the pack and giving Giro debutant Remco Evenepoel his first major scare in one of cycling’s Grand Tours.
Ganna took huge risks when the dirt road headed downhill, the winner of the opening time trial in Turin almost skidding out on a tight bend, needing to unclip to style it out unscathed. Dropping back, Ganna gave the reins over to Peter Sagan who buried himself on the front – not for the stage win (the break were far too ahead despite Ganna slashing their lead by five minutes on the first section) but ostensibly to pave the way for his Bora-Hansgrohe leader Emanuel Buchmann after the German had helped set him up for Stage 10 glory on Monday.
Buchmann would repay Sagan later in the stage when he rode clear on the Passo del Lune Spento before finishing with Bernal to jump up the standings to sixth. Out of contract at the end of the season, the Slovakian, however, might as well have been auditioning for a rumoured switch to Ineos Grenadiers – for there’s no denying that Sagan slipped into the relay with aplomb.
Giro d'Italia : Highlights stage 11 - Bernal tightens grip on pink jersey
Salvatore Puccio, the increasingly dependable Jhonatan Narvaez, and the impressively consistent Gianni Moscon, all took things up for Ineos once Ganna was dropped on the climb during the second gravel section, with Bernal’s GC back-up Dani Martinez keeping his powder dry and out of trouble.
It was a remarkable all-round performance from Sir David Brailsford’s team – all the more so considering they are down to seven riders following the opening week withdrawal of Pavel Sivakov. You get the impression that, on terrain like this – as on the flat – they could go at it day after day after day, tapping out tempo for the cause and teeing up their man Bernal for minor time gains here, there and everywhere.
But could this bullish riding – from both Ineos and Bernal – be papering over some cracks?
Bernal in pink looks even stronger than the regular Bernal who ripped up the gravel climb to Campo Felice with Moscon on Sunday to take over the race lead while winning a belated maiden Grand Tour stage. It doesn’t take a genius, however, to note the similarity between those two stages: the gravel.
It’s no surprise Bernal fared so well on the off-road surface given his third place in Strade Bianche earlier this year. Could it be possible that Bernal was putting in such a huge effort on both the Giro’s stand-out gravel stages because that’s exactly where he had seen his best chances of making time gains over his rivals? And with his ongoing back issues not, for the moment, coming to the fore, the 24-year-old is clearly, and quite rightly, making hay while the sun shines.
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But that’s it for gravel. Thursday’s stage is an undulating, potential banana-skin of a slog from Siena to Bagno di Romagna ahead of a flat ride up to Verona to keep the sprinters keen. Then it’s Monte Zoncolan – and that’s where the real fight for pink will begin. And then only on Stage 16 will the race finally rise above 2,000m with a succession of peaks in the Dolomites ahead of a fast, technical descent to Cortina. Two more climbs above 2,000m feature in the penultimate stage before the decisive 30km final time trial to Milan where Bernal will need a cushion – certainly if he wants to hold Evenepoel at bay, should the Belgian still be in the mix (there's no guarantee).
All in all, Bernal’s ride in this 104th edition of the Giro so far is reminiscent of Simon Yates’s swashbuckling yet ultimately flawed ride in 2018.
Like Bernal this year, Yates had won Stage 9 after finishing in second place three days earlier on the race’s first uphill finish (for Etna in 2018 we have the less explosive San Giacomo climb above Ascoli Piceno in 2021). Yates then doubled up his stage tally while in pink in Stage 11 – effectively what the Colombian did on Wednesday, powering home in Montalcino ahead of all his rivals and only behind a breakaway which his team allowed to leave.
Yates took his first pink jersey that year on Stage 6, three days before Bernal. But both would represent an early moment for the eventual winner to seize control of the race. After all, the last rider to win the Giro while in pink as early as Bernal was Alberto Contador in 2015 – and even the Spaniard had a slight wobble along the way, conceding the jersey after a bad day on the Colle delle Finestre.
Don’t talk to Yates about the Finestre: it was here where the wheels of his 2018 push for pink came off the bus. Pedalling squares and going backwards just two days from the finish in Rome, Yates crumbled as Chris Froome soloed to glory, falling to eighteenth place in the process.
Simon Yates en difficulté lors de la 19e étape du Giro 2018
Image credit: Getty Images
Nobody expects Egan Bernal to have such a dramatic collapse – especially while in such seemingly indomitable form. But then we didn’t expect it of Yates, either. And if, as Bernal has us to believe, he still feels pain in his back on a daily basis, surely he’s always just one bad day away from imploding like he did on the Grand Colombier in last year’s Tour?
And if Ineos look firmly in control now, then what about when we enter that mountainous phase of the race when the watts of Ganna and Puccio may count for very little. Rohan Dennis was instrumental in protecting Tao Geoghegan Hart and setting up the Hackney Eagle for his pursuit of pink last October – but who, now that Sivakov is watching from his sofa at home, will do Dennis’ dirty work when the oxygen thins?
That man Yates, meanwhile, rose to fifth place in Montalcino after a day pretty much spent incognito at the back of the group of favourites. Distanced early on by Ganna’s fireworks, the 28-year-old calmly fought back into contention and then limited his losses at the end. Yates is still only 1’22” down and Bernal’s already played both his trump cards; that’s not a bad place to be for a rider who is the complete antithesis of the attacking livewire he was three years ago.
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If Yates has unfinished business with the Giro, then he’s going about it the right way and playing the long game. Both he and compatriot Hugh Carthy – up to fourth – and the rangy Russian Aleksandr Vlasov, Bernal’s nearest challenger at 45 seconds, should come into their own as this race progresses.
As for Evenepoel – his two-minute loss over the gravel will continue to confound, just as the apparent breakdown in communication with teammate Joao Almeida will continue to confuse while adding much grist to the rumour mill. Perhaps, simply, this was a young rider’s adverse reaction to his first ever post-rest day performance? This being the Belgian’s debut Grand Tour, he’s never ridden a Stage 11 before.
We can all forgive a 21-year-old debutant who hasn’t raced all season a slightly off day halfway through his first Giro – especially on a day as technical and challenging as one posed by 35km of gruelling gravel, including many treacherous descents which may have had him recalling his terrible crash during Il Lombardia in October.
When Bernal was the same age as Evenepoel riding his own first major stage race, he finished a nevertheless admirable fifteenth in support of both winner Geraint Thomas and third-place Chris Froome – almost half-an-hour down in a domestique role, and not as a leader. That Tour was his sixth stage race of the season. In short, their experiences are incomparable. So let’s just enjoy the show they’re putting on right now – for there’s no way of knowing how things are going to pan out.
Just don't be surprised if Bernal's bad days are still to come.