With sixty kilometres remaining in this first, true mountain stage in the Apennines, Team Ineos were leaving us in no doubt. Golden boy Filippo Ganna was on the front, mullering the opposition, a dark train of Grenadiers in tow and an entire bike race behind hanging on for dear life.
With the rain battering down for added atmosphere, the race traversed a dip between the two high summits of the day, and for Pink Jersey Alessandro De Marchi it was too much. Distanced, on the wrong side of a split in the peloton, he watched the race rattle off down the road, and with it his stint in Pink.
With this, we learnt two things.
First, Filippo Ganna is a freak. Second, Egan Bernal, Ganna’s team leader, presumably happy with the scorching pace set by his man, was feeling good. With a fifteen-kilometre climb and the summit finish of Ascoli Piceno awaiting, his rivals had been given a tip off.
If you haven’t got the legs today, lads, Egan Bernal is going to drop you in about two hours’ time. Okay? Good.Embed from Getty Images
Onto that climb, and Ineos resembled a 2016 vintage Team Sky, lined up like storm troopers in service of leader Chris Froome. Castroviejo, Moscon, Martinez, and Narvaez sat solid in the slipstream of that man Ganna, for kilometre after kilometre, while Bernal assumed the Froome role.
When Ganna finally pulled the pin with ten kilometres to go the next carriage on the Ineos train took the wind and kept things rolling. The pace far too high for anyone to consider anything so daft as an attack. By this point, likeable Kiwi and Jumbo-Visma leader George Bennett was yo-yoing tenuously off the back.
Already, by Stage 6, perhaps not his race.
Those of you who were watching bike racing back in 2016 will remember what happens from here. Somewhere towards the summit of this climb Bernal, show of menace from his team over, will attack. Maybe not in the spinny-spinny style of peak-Froome, but rather more languid, and Bernal-esque.
The latest torrential downpour of the day trickling from his Roman nose.
With three kilometres to go, teammate Dani Martinez flagged it up with a lone snipe off the front. A further mile down the road and Bernal pounced. With him went Italian Ciccone and deadpan Belgian wonderkid Remco Evenepoel, to be joined quicky by nodding dog Dan Martin.
A split. These four, strongest of the day, and a gap to Carthy, Vlasov, Yates, and the rest. This was not a moment to falter.
Chris Froome, I imagine, plonked back home in front of the TV, glued to the screen, legs twitching and spinning with muscle memory, like a sleeping dog dreaming of a field of rabbits.
By now the rain is a sloshed bucket from the sky, the riders digging in for the finish. Bernal and his four-man crew cross, and the seconds tick back to almost twenty for the chasers, and a little further still to Nibali. Nothing terminal, but a statement from Bernal.
“If my dodgy back can hold up, you might be in trouble here chaps.”
Amongst all this, the stage win, from the breakaway, went to young Swiss Gino Mader. He clung on as Bernal bore down for the biggest win of his young career; a trend in this year’s race, with Merlier, Van der Hoorn and Dombrowski having done similar.
And in Pink?
The twenty-two-year-old Hungarian Atilla Valter. Mr Consistent thus far in his second Giro d’Italia, and I’m going out on a limb to say the first ‘Atilla’ ever to lead the Giro. Keeping the jersey warm until one of the favourites assumes that mantel, we assume.
Egan Bernal, on today’s form, perhaps the man most likely?
(Top Image: by Flowizm via Flickr CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/flowizm/48757721311)