By Ian Parker, PA
Egan Bernal stands on the verge of Giro d’Italia glory after surviving Saturday’s brutal mountain stage with almost two minutes of an advantage to take into the closing time trial in Milan.
Damiano Caruso, Bernal’s closest challenger in the general classification, celebrated a fine stage victory – his first individual Grand Tour stage win – to increase his hold on a surprise second place, but victory by 24 seconds was not the sort of margin needed to shake the Ineos Grenadiers rider.
And Simon Yates, who had taken almost 90 seconds out of Bernal’s lead in the last three days, could make no further impact as he lost the Colombian’s wheel two kilometres from the summit of the final climb of the Alpe Motta, conceding 27 seconds in the process.
💗 Giro d’Italia 2021 – Stage 2⃣0⃣
📌 Verbania – Valle Spluga (Alpe Motta)
🥇 @CarusoDamiano 🇮🇹
🥈 @Eganbernal 🇨🇴
🥉 @danifmartinez96 🇨🇴
🇨🇴 @Eganbernal keeps the Maglia Rosa#Giro pic.twitter.com/3wO0tVOboj
— Giro d’Italia (@giroditalia) May 29, 2021
That leaves the Lancastrian one minute 24 seconds behind Caruso as he looks likely to settle for third place overall.
Although there are 30 flat kilometres still to negotiate, with a lead of one minute 59 seconds few will bet against Bernal adding Giro glory to the Tour de France title he took in 2019, further confirmation of the 24-year-old’s prestigious talent.
“I’m satisfied with the result,” Bernal said. “I think we managed well the situation finally. We have two minutes of an advantage for tomorrow’s time trial so I think we are in a good position.
“It’s not the best to have the rider second in GC in front you by almost one minute but having three team-mates, I tried to use them to arrive as fresh as possible into the last climb and also tomorrow.
“I think we did well but it was difficult to manage the situation.”
A Bernal win would also deliver a second consecutive Giro title for the Grenadiers after Tao Geoghegan Hart’s win last October.
What an amazing team ride to cap off the mountains at this year’s #Giro@Eganbernal comes home second on stage 20, just 24 seconds back on Caruso, with @danifmartinez96 third after his final climb heroics 🙌🙌🙌
One. Time. Trial. To. Go! pic.twitter.com/YaMiHD8neY
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) May 29, 2021
Bernal came into this brutal day – 164km with two passes at more than 2,000 metres of altitude before the final climb – under considerable pressure after seeing his lead whittled down by Yates on the last two summit finishes, showing signs of weakness as his long-standing back injury gave him grief.
But, just as he had done in the moments when Yates rode away, he handled Saturday’s test with calmness and maturity, not to mention the considerable help of team-mate Dani Martinez as the Grenadiers marshalled their resources to control the race.
Though all eyes were on Yates after his recent exploits, it was Caruso who tried his hand. The 33-year-old came to the race as a domestique for Mikel Landa, but since the Spaniard’s stage five crash Caruso has grasped his opportunity to lead the team and ride his way onto the podium.
His attack would certainly have worried Bernal as a 10-man group formed and built an advantage of around 50 seconds. But gradually the group whittled down before Caruso’s Bahrain-Victorious team-mate Pello Bilbao pulled off with 6.5km to go, leaving him alone with Romain Bardet.
The Frenchman proved unable to offer much help however, allowing Bernal to slowly ride his way back at a pace which proved too much for Yates.
#Giro 🇮🇹@SimonYatess maintains his 3rd place in the general classification 👍
Here’s how things stand heading into the final day time trial tomorrow… pic.twitter.com/abWAwlUrAE
— Team BikeExchange (@GreenEDGEteam) May 29, 2021
Though the pink jersey proved beyond him, a stage victory in his home Grand Tour was no mere consolation for Caruso, who has enjoyed a race beyond his wildest expectations.
“I thought about a thousand things in the last meters before the finish line,” Caruso said.
“All my sacrifices, my training, and all the work done by my teammates.
“We rode in an exemplary way today, Pello Bilbao in particular did an incredible job and he played a fundamental role in this victory. Today I realised a dream, I think I am the happiest man in the world!”