Giro Stage 20: The GC Battle Finally Hits the High Mountains
The GC contenders take their final shots as the race hits multiple high mountain passes on the penultimate stage
After 19 stages of laying low and convincing us he was simply happily riding to a podium position, Damiano Caruso went on a daring, long-range attack to win the most demanding stage of the Giro d’Italia and cut into race-leader Egan Bernal’s lead before tomorrow’s final stage. The 33-year-old silent assassin would get the first WorldTour race of his 13-years pro career, closed in on Bernal’s lead, and cemented a likely podium position in Milan with his stunning performance over three massive mountain passes.
The stage, which crossed into Switzerland for the first two mountain passes of the day, proved to be the most challenging test for Bernal and his Ineos team. Bernal was isolated briefly after the initial panic following Caruso’s attack caused his team to accidentally break up the peloton. But, despite this brief scare, he would rally behind his incredibly strong teammate Dani Martinez to finish second on the day and limit his losses to Caruso to 29-seconds, which means he enters tomorrow final stage, a 30km long time trial, with a 1’59 lead over Caruso, while Simon Yates, who many expected to mount the long-range raid, lost contact in the final kilometer of the stage and slipped down to 3’23 back on Bernal.
To get a feel for what stage 21 will hold, I spoke with Caruso’s personal coach and SimonYates’ BikeExchange Performance Director Marco Pinotti on the latest BTP podcast.
Stage 20 Notebook:
76km: The peloton hits the bottom of the extremely long first climb, the Passo San Bernardino. It is the longest climb of this year's Giro: 23,2 km@6,3%. It's more like an Alpine climb from TDF, not steep and super long, we rarely see these in the Giro. The best might climb it in under one hour if there are attacks from the peloton.
Deceuninck–Quick-Step (DQS) has one rider on the front Iljo Keisse, with the entire BikeExchange team behind him.
The first 10kms of this climb are the hardest, so if a long-range attack is coming, it has to go there. But, I think anyone wanting to go will wait until the Splugenpass, which is coming up next.
72km: Simon Yates’ BikeExchange (BEX) team is coming to the front, perhaps to set up a long-range attack from the rider in third place overall.
58km: The break’s gap is down to less than a minute as they approach the summit. We can see from the aerial shot just how high up these climbs are. These are the first real high multiple mountains we’ve hit in the race.
57km: Bardet’s DSM team masses at the front as we approach the top of the climb, which means they might try something on this descent.
53km: On one of the endless switchbacks on the descent, Bardet and two DSM teammates slip off the front. They quickly bridge the gap to the breakaway.
48.7km-44km: Caruso and his teammate Pello Bilbao also rip down the descent and bridge up to the DSM trio and just after they make the bridge, it starts raining. This is great for Caruso, he has pulled out half a minute on the descent without expending any more energy than the chasers behind.
40km: Ineos is forced to chase through the valley and use up riders, this is great for everyone else who doesn’t have to make the race hard. Meanwhile, Caruso gets a 40-second start on the climb.
37km: Louis Vervaeke from Alpecin Fenix is pulling hard at the base of the Splugenpass in the lead group for DSM. On its surface, this makes no sense, since Vervaeke has no incentive to work for Caruso or Bardet here, but he was on DSM last year and possibly still has a good relationship with the team. Also, there could very well be some money changing hands here. Hiring out your services to teams with skin left in the game can be a good way to make some extra money after your team’s leader leaves a race.
35.8km: Ineos is pacing hard but the gap is actually growing and has gone out to 38-seconds. If Simon Yates wants to have a shot to win this race overall, he has to attack soon.
29.5km: By the summit of the Splugenpass, the Caruso/Bardet lead group has increased their lead to 46-seconds despite Ineos putting a lot of work into the chase. Notice Caruso has gotten a jacket at some point and is bundled up, which is key on these cold Swiss descents.
25km: Ineos panics slightly on the descent when Vlasov attacks. Jonathan Castroviejo takes Bernal off the front to chase him down, but they accidentally drop the rest of the team. This is a slight disaster since Dani Martinez is Ineos’ secret pacing weapon for the final climb to keep the gap to Caruso under control.
22.7km: Bernal and Castroviejo have to sit up and wait for Martinez, who has to pull the dropped group back even with them. He uses a lot of energy doing this and this is the second time in two days he is dropped and they have to wait.
8km: As soon as they cross the border back into Italy, the weather significantly improves. At the start of the final climb, Caruso, Bardet, and Bilbao are still out front with a 40-second gap. This is really good for Caruso, he is spotted 40-seconds on the final climb and hasn’t had to do that much work to get it. Worst case scenario, he has given himself a nice buffer to Yates.
7.4km: Bernal still grinding but looking like he is ticking over the big gear better than yesterday. Yates is spinning away and looks comfortable, but must not have enough to attack since the time has passed for him to try to win the race.
6.5km: Bilbao, who has been pulling for a long time at this point pulls off the front and Caruso gives him a pat on the back to thank him for his work. He settles in to ride the hardest 6km of his life. If he can hold off the chasers, he will get the first WorldTour win of his career and have a chance to win the overall tomorrow. Hard not to cheer for this guy.
6km: Almeida is slipping off the back. Martinez is keeping the pace too high for anyone to attack. If he wouldn’t have caught back on this would have been a different climb. Yates hasn’t made a move, so we have to assume he just isn’t on a good day.
4.2km: Caruso has 33-seconds, this gap really hasn’t changed from the initial gap on the descent around 40kms ago.
3.7km: Martinez is the MVP of this race. Nobody can attack off this pace and he is pulling back Caruso. Almeida has been barely hanging on for a few kms at this point and finally looks like he is about to crack. Carthy is being dropped. The gap to Caruso is down to 25-seconds.
2.3km: Martinez has to scrub speed on an uphill corner, wow.
2km: Bardet is dropped like a stone. Caruso will win this stage.
1.8km: Yates is being dropped. Martinez might be the strongest rider in this race.
1.2km: Caruso’s lead starts to actually go up to 23-seconds. He is showing just how strong he is to take time back on Bernal and Martinez.
1km: Martinez’s pacemaking is still very high even this late in the stage and we can see Almeida and Yates struggling in his wake.
Final km: Martinez finally has to pull off and Bernal is left alone to finish it off. Bernal is standing and turning over the gears much better than yesterday.
Finish: Caruso wins the biggest (and only) world tour race of his career.
Stage 20 GC Gaps With Time Bonuses:
Stage 20 Overall Classification:
This was an incredibly impressive performance for a journeyman domestique who before today had only won a single professional road race in his entire career. He has been very conservative the entire race, but he looked like a different man today.
And remember, he is only leading the team due to his Bahrain team leader Mikel Landa crashing out on stage 5.
Caruso sat up to celebrate and really milk this win, which shows his mind is clearly on the stage win and getting 2nd overall, not coming from behind to win the overall tomorrow.
What is most impressive to me is that Caruso knew he couldn’t out-climb Bernal and Martinez, so he found another way to win.
The planned Bahrain attack on the descent of the Passo San Bernardino was an absolute tactical masterclass that allowed Caruso to use his superior technical skill to pull out a sizable advantage without having to expend more energy than the chasers. His teammate Pello Bilbao’s descending skills came in incredibly handy here.
This attack put Ineos in a real bind, and the initial panic nearly saw them accidentally isolate Bernal for the final climb.
This is what aggressive racing is all about. You use the nuances of the parcours to take time on a team/rider that is physically stronger in an unexpected place, then put them in a position to make a forced error.
While tactical planning created the initial gap, Caruso’s performance to hold it on the final climb was truly impressive. He lost only 11-seconds on the entire final climb despite Ineos setting an infernal pace.
What also stood out on the stage was the composure of Bernal. He appeared to be fading on stage 17, and he looked off at times on stage 19, but he looked completely in control today, and while he never really dazzled with raw power, he impressed me with his ability to stay calm and simply sit in his teammates wheel no matter how dicey the situation got.
The past two days showed there is a real delineation between Yates, Almeida, Martinez, Bernal, Caruso, and the pretenders like Carthy and Vlasov
Martinez also deserves some massive credit. He has been the most important rider for Ineos this entire race. His strength meant Bernal only had to ride in the wind for a total of around 3km for the last two stages.
On top of this, he will likely finish 6th overall, which will be his best-ever grand tour result. He has improved drastically since coming over from EF in the offseason.
Simon Yates was expected to attack from a long way out, but the move obviously never came. However, we saw why on the final climb. He was on the rivet due to the furious pace of Ineos and was doing all he could to hang on.
This is part of why Ineos wins so many grand tours. Their extremely deep and strong teams are able to keep the pace so high, near terminal velocity, that nobody can attack on the climbs. This is why getting inventive and attacking on the descents is so key.
Stage 21 Preview & Predictions
Tomorrow’s final stage continues the recent tradition of concluding the Giro with a time trial from the outskirts of Milan to finish in the city center.
The announcers are saying this is over, but did we learn nothing from the Tour last year? Tadej Pogacar put nearly two minutes into race-leader Primoz Roglic to take a shocking overall win on the final time trial.
It would of course be very unlikely, especially with the shorter and much-flatter parcours tomorrow, but we have to remember that Caruso is a very good time trialist.
Also, Bernal has only finished two grand tours in his career, while Caruso has finished 13.
The argument against any comeback is that Caruso took seven seconds from Bernal in the opening stage 1 TT, which works out to .8 seconds per kilometer. If we extrapolate that out over 30km, it works out to a 24-second difference. This isn’t close to overturning his nearly two-minute deficit.
But, one last thing to note is that Bernal has to race the time trial in the race-provided pink skinsuit, while Caruso gets to race in his own much-faster team-issued skinsuit. This may sound silly, but it can make quite the difference at the high speeds this TT will be raced at.
Prediction: Filippo Ganna dazzles with his mix of raw power and incredibly aero position to win the Milan time trial for the second consecutive year. Egan Bernal wins the overall, with Damiano Caruso and Simon Yates rounding out of the podium in 2nd and 3rd.