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Giro starts properly on Saturday as Monte Zoncolan looms and Bernal faces first real test

There have been few major flashpoints in the battle for pink so far in the 104th edition of the Giro d’Italia. In fact, you could arguably say that Mikel Landa crashing out in Stage 5 has had a bigger effect on the GC picture than any of the actual racing.

Thirteen days in and the only real summit finish has been on the gentle climb of San Giacomo above Ascoli Piceno, while the two forays onto gravel have provided the entertainment and – so far – made the difference for Egan Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers.

If Bernal made some small time gains over his rivals at Ascoli Piceno, it was his winning ride to the ski resort of Campo Felice which put him in pink (off the back of a belated maiden Grand Tour stage win) and then his mastering of the Strade Bianche on Wednesday which consolidated his lead and knocked Belgian rival Remco Evenepoel down a few pegs.

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But even Evenepoel, in seventh place, is only 2’22” down on Bernal – although you would expect that gap to be far bigger after Saturday’s first high-altitude finish of the race, on Monte Zoncolan.

It will be a real baptism of fire for the Belgian tyro, who is making his Grand Tour debut off the back of zero race days since his horrific fall in Il Lombardia in October. His inexperience and lack of practice really showed in the gravel stage to Montalcino, where Evenepoel plunged down the standings under the pressure of Bernal and his Ineos super-domestiques. If that’s the effect of a bit of dirt roads, then the Zoncolan could see the 21-year-old fall out of the pink picture completely.

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The 204km Stage 14 from Cittadella gets going with a long section of flat where the nerves will run high as riders jostle and scrap to be part of the day’s break. The Castello di Caneva and Forcella di Monte Rest climbs then precede the final legendary steep ascent. It’s Monte Zoncolan – but not as we really know it.

The seventh finish on Monte Zoncolan in Giro history will be the first since the race’s inaugural visit in 2003 when the mountain was tackled from the alternative eastern approach from Sutrio. This is supposedly ‘easier’ than the usual approach from Ovaro but an average gradient of 8.5% over 14km is no picnic – and that rises to 13% over the final three kilometres with a pitch that hits a savage 27% at one point.

Italy’s Gilberto Simoni won in 2003 having attacked immediately after the steepest final 3km had begun. Generally, it’s a climb where the main protagonists play a waiting game for the first half hour before the gradient forces them to fight or fall.

That inaugural ascent in 2003 was also the last time that the late, great Marco Pantani was seen fighting for victory in a Giro stage, the Pirate eventually taking fifth, forty-two seconds behind Simoni. Simoni won again when the west side of the Zoncolan was used in 2007. This was followed by victories from Ivan Basso (2010), Igor Anton (2011), Michael Rogers (2014) and Chris Froome (2018).

When Froome won three years ago, many viewed it as a consolation triumph for the Team Sky rider. It put him up into the top five after a troubled opening fortnight – but he still trailed the pink jersey of Simon Yates by 3’10” going into Stage 15. We all know what happened next.

As such, it’s fair to say that Saturday’s showdown on the Zoncolan, while it won’t decide the final outcome of this race, it will certainly give us a proper idea of who Bernal’s main contenders are – and if, indeed, the Colombian is the real deal himself this year.

The 24-year-old has been struggling with a bad back since his Tour de France victory in 2019 and it is precisely these longer, tougher climbs which will test his mettle more than the shorter ones or the gravel segments that clearly suit his strengths.

On Saturday, in front of a 1,000-capacity sell-out mountain-top crowd (tickets for the cable car have been sold for 10 euros each to keep numbers down in line with the ongoing pandemic), and on a climb which still has a fair bit of winter snow covering its summit, Bernal will face his first real test of his pink jersey credentials.

Only 45 seconds down, Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) is a solid, rangy climber who has a win on Mont Ventoux on his burgeoning palmares. Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) is 1’12” down in third place, and while he’s a relative veteran, he will have support from the Basque climber Pello Bilbao.

But the most intriguing pairing comes with the British duo from Lancashire, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), who are sitting in fourth and fifth at 1’17” and 1’22” respectively.

They have both been riding this Giro under the radar, cautiously keeping their cards close to their chest while limiting their losses. If Bernal has already played the strong cards in his hand at Montalcino and Campo Felice then he may find himself a busted flush if this duo are riding with their best poker faces. The truth is that we don’t know how they are going right now – but we will after the Zoncolan.

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Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) is at 1’50” and getting stronger while Italy’s Giulio Ciccone, at 2’24”, could come into his own in the final phase of the race – especially if he can ride effectively in tandem with his Trek-Segafredo teammate Vincenzo Nibali.

Two-time Giro winner Nibali tested his legs on Thursday and forced Ineos into making a mistake when Gianni Moscon hit the deck on the final descent. Seven seconds was a small return for the Shark, but he’s a canny rider who gets stronger as races progress. He should be relishing the chance to play a role in the destiny of this pink jersey.

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