Were Egan Bernal riding for any other team but Sir Dave Brailsford’s Ineos Grenadiers, the talk now would be whether he will start the Tour de France on 27 June, assuming – as seems highly likely – that on Sunday he wins the Giro d’Italia, a race that he and his colleagues have had a total stranglehold since day nine.
There is no arguing with the Colombian’s lead on Tuesday’s rest day of 2min 24sec over home hope Damiano Caruso and 3min 40sec over the Briton Hugh Carthy, just as there has been no getting around the collective strength of Ineos, marshalled by the world time-trial champion Filippo Ganna since the start in Turin on 8 May. Bernal’s victory is not guaranteed, but it looks inevitable.
Most squads would look at the possible headlines, weigh up the PR benefits, and embrace the chance of sending a Giro d’Italia winner to attempt the mythical double in July, no matter how unlikely Tour victory might be following a Giro win. But not Ineos. Their line-up of galacticos means they can afford to keep Bernal at home in July rather than risk aggravating the back problem that put him out of last year’s Tour and they can still field three former Grand Tour winners: Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan-Hart and Richard Carapaz.
At every turn since the Giro left Turin, Bernal has stamped his strength on the race, looking arguably stronger than he did in winning the 2019 Tour de France. There have been three significant uphill finishes, at Ascoli Piceno, Campo Felice and Monte Zoncolan; he gained time in all three, winning at Campo Felice and finishing in the top four at the other two. On the demanding stage across the dirt roads of Tuscany on day 11, he again left the other contenders trailing, and it was the same picture on Monday’s truncated Alpine stage into Cortina, where he made a point of winning in the pink leader’s jersey.
The pattern has been constant: at each key moment, Bernal has gained seconds rather than minutes over the likes of Caruso, Carthy and the other big favourite Simon Yates, who lies a disappointing fifth going into the race’s final phase. It has been inexorable if not drama worthy of the likes of Hinault or Merckx; reminiscent of the incremental way Chris Froome structured several of his Tour de France wins.
None of the other favourites has put Bernal under anything that resembled pressure, and none has ridden with consistency apart from Caruso, who has finished three times in the top 10 at Grand Tours but has never troubled the headline writers in a 14-year professional career. Yates rode relatively poorly – by his own admission – in the first two weeks, looked promising at Monte Zoncolan on Saturday, but crumbled in the high mountains on Monday.
While the Frenchman Romain Bardet and the Russian Aleksandr Vlasov can still hope for the podium – from different ends of the experience spectrum – Carthy can, as of now, hope to achieve a second Grand Tour podium finish in the space of two races, following his third place in the Vuelta last year.
To a man, the sprinters had voted with their feet and quit the Giro by last Saturday, because there is not a single flat stage for them in the final eight days of racing. There are, however, plenty of chances for the top 10 to be reshuffled in the next few days, and for bad weather to give the organisers sweaty palms. There was controversy over Monday’s decision to cut out two mountain passes due to wet weather and cold, but the organisers probably wanted to avoid a potential repeat of last year’s strike over racing in difficult conditions.
There are three more summit finishes, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, although crucially there are only two passes over 2,000m altitude, both on Saturday, the day before the final flat time-trial into Milan. At the back of all minds at Ineos, however, will be one single memory: Chris Froome’s against-the-odds victory for the team’s previous incarnation as Team Sky in 2018, evidence if it were needed of how a stage race can seem lost, yet turn upside down on a single mountain.