The Labour prime minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have uttered the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” in the early 1960s. Whether apocryphal or not, it’s a statement that is still applicable almost 60 years on. A week is also a long time in bike racing, and yet, after the first week of the Giro d’Italia, there is very little between the GC favourites. There might be, oddly, one more stage before the first rest day, but the general classification looks set for the first week.
Stage 9 was the first decisive GC day of this year’s Giro so far and yet it was also not decisive at all. There is less than a minute separating the top 10 and it would be difficult to argue that a knockout blow has been made on any of these contenders. All that said, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) is now in the maglia rosa and looks like the strongest rider in the race, so could this be the point at which the Colombian and his team take control of the race?
Not since the 2018 Vuelta a España has the rider with possession of a Grand Tour leader’s jersey on the first rest day gone on to win the race. That was Simon Yates after stage nine of that race, but Grand Tour’s since then have seen huge shifts in times over the second half of the race.
It is even rarer in the Giro, where there have been massive time gaps for the winner to make up after the first week and a bit. Last year, Tao Geoghegan Hart was 2:41 back on race leader João Almeida on the first race day. In 2019, eventual winner Richard Carapaz was more than three minutes behind Primož Roglič and in 2018 Chris Froome was 2:27 back on Simon Yates.
The Giro has tended to be a race that is back-loaded with climbs, and this year is no exception, with seven further stages with over 2,000m of climbing to come. Stage 16, in particular, is a monster, with 5,700m of uphill action in the Dolomites. Perhaps this is why the GC is so close: there is no need to try and put huge amounts of time into your rivals early because those opportunities will come later in the race.
However, Bernal is now in pole position, literally. His attack on the gravel at the end of stage 9 was seriously impressive and he was able to make an impact in just a few hundred metres. It may only have gained him seven to 12 seconds on his main rivals yet, with bonus seconds taken into account too, he is now 15 seconds ahead of his closest challenger, Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
It’s a pattern Bernal has followed during this opening nine stages. On stage 4 he was one of five riders to attack on the climb to Sestola, gaining 11 seconds on a number of his rivals. Then on stage 6 to Ascoli Piceno, Bernal attacked late again, with only Evenepoel, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) able to follow, taking between 13 and 45 seconds on more of his major rivals. If his back behaves, it might be the Egan show.
This is how modern Grand Tours are seemingly won or at least ridden by the favourites, à la Roglič: you take time bit by bit with help from bonus seconds on the finish line. It’s attacking and defensive at the same time as there is no need to go on knockout attacks if you can take seconds here and there and remain in control. Roglič came unstuck at the Tour de France last year, of course, but Bernal looks like the strongest rider at this Giro so far.
The lack of gaps between the GC rivals might also be because of the sheer amount of teams that have brought options to this race. The top 10 is made up from riders all on different teams, with representatives of DSM and Movistar just outside it. This means that more than half of the teams at the Giro are interested in keeping their leaders up there, strengthening the overall battle.
Bernal’s gravel attack was also a marker ahead of Wednesday’s stage, which will also feature a bit of off-roading. The wine stage, from Perugia to Montalcino, will see the peloton racing on some of the strade bianche that gives the Giro’s sister race its name. With Bernal finishing third at this year’s Strade Bianche, his rivals will hope he is unable to show the nous and power that he displayed then and at Campo Felice.
A week is, of course, a long time in bike racing. This all might be complete rubbish come the second rest day, with anyone from Evenepoel to Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) in the pink jersey. But Bernal looks the best in the race, so this could be the start of a rare long range attack for the top step in Milan. He might not have celebrated enthusiastically at the finish line of stage 9 but this could be the start of something special.
Adam Becket is Procycling magazine’s staff writer.