Ineos Grenadiers tear the race to pieces at the first opportunity
Egan Bernal, leader of the race since Sunday’s finish on Campo Felice, looked to be the favourite to extend his lead on the white roads and even to take a second stage victory, following his outstanding performance on the gravel last weekend, and his third place finish in Strade Bianche earlier this year.
While Ineos were happy to let the stage win go to the breakaway, they still had a clear game plan on the road to Montalcino, as they began to tear the race to pieces on the gravel with 50 kilometres left to race.
Deceuninck - Quick-step were caught out badly as the race split on the unpaved sections, with Remco Evenepoel forced to chase with his team-mates, Simon Yates (BikeExchange) also falling victim to the phenomenal pace set by Filippo Ganna for Ineos.
After that first gravel sector, the race came back together on the tarmac as teams worked together to pull back Ineos, but the moment set the scene for the time losses later in the stage.
Not content with holding position, Bernal launched a huge attack on his rivals inside the final few kilometres, dropping everyone and yet again extending his advantage and sprinting right up to the line.
Bernal now leads the Giro by 45 seconds over Vlasov, with Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) jumping up to third place, 1-12 down on the maglia rosa.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step miss key moment as Evenepoel falters
After the tactical error on the first gravel sector, things only got worse for Evenepoel who showed his first real signs of vulnerability.
Deceuninck missed out on the split caused by Ineos on the gravel but were able to escape without losing time, but into the final kilometres of the race it became clear that Evenepoel was really struggling with the effort, having not raced for nine months and having no real experience on this type of terrain.
With around 20km left to the finish Evenepoel was firmly dropped from the group of GC leaders and dangled off the back, gradually drifting further and further away from his dream of winning his first ever Grand Tour.
Matters were compounded as communication appeared to break down between Evenepoel and his team-mate João Almeida, who was still in the GC group but didn’t drop back to help his leader.
After Evenepoel was filmed tearing out his team radio earpiece, Almeida appeared to finally get the message and appeared on the horizon in front of Evenepoel to help the young Belgian limit his losses.
In the final 15km Evenepoel had slipped back a minute to Bernal, but his chase was made even tougher as Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) kicked off a stinging attack from the group of favourites to up the pace even more, with Bernal able to follow.
The seconds began to stack up for Evenepoel who looked to be in hell on the final climb to the line, and by the finish the 21-year-old had lost 2-08 to Bernal and had slipped down to seventh overall, 2-22 off the race lead.
Hugh Carthy, Simon Yates and Aleksandr Vlasov shine
While the headline battle on the road was between Bernal and Evenepoel, a number of other riders showed their mettle on the way to Montalcino.
Aleksandr Vlasov, quietly sailing along in third place after the first week, showed his ambitions in the final 10km of the stage by launching an attack to break up the group of favourites even further.
Bernal was forced to chase and was isolated from his team, while a number of other favourites also looked strong late into the race - most notably Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange).
Carthy had the support of two team-mates in the final, who set a strong pace and helped to distance both Vincenzo Nibali and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), helping Carthy shift up the GC, while Yates battled alone to hold his position in the group.
Their efforts paid dividends with both riders climbing up the leaderboard at the finish - Carthy now fourth at 1-17, with Yates fifth at 1-22.
Big teams happy to let the breakaway win the day
While this stage would be a prestigious victory for an GC contenders, and one fans are likely remember for years to come, the big teams fighting for the maglia rosa showed no interest in raising their arms at the finish.
Early in the stage, an 11-rider group make their way off the front of the peloton without too much resistance from the designated chasers back in the bunch, and the day’s breakaway was established without the fight that many may have anticipated.
With no overall threats making it into the escape, and with plenty of WorldTour talent present from the stage hunting teams, the break quickly pulled away from the bunch and were allowed to go clear.
The group quickly pulled out an insurmountable 12-minute advantage over the GC favourites behind, as it became apparent the stage winner would be decided from the break, the favourites focussing on the unpredictable battle for seconds on the white roads.
Into the final of the race, it was two relative unknowns who battled it out for the stage, with Mauro Schmid (Qhubeka-Assos) and Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates) going head-to-head on the drag to the line.
Both riders opened their sprints a long way out, grimacing as the line very slowly approached, but it was Swiss rider Schmid who took the stage after a memorable day.
At 21, Schmid took his first professional win on one of the biggest stages, during his Grand Tour debut during his first WorldTour season, and he couldn’t have won on a tougher stage.
The weather turns in the rider’s favour but the gravel still doesn’t disappoint
The last time the Giro took on the gravel roads to Montalcino was 2010, a day won by Australian Grand Tour star Cadel Evans.
Evans won that stage two seconds ahead of Damiano Cunego, caked in mud as the rain battered riders during an unforgettable day of racing.
Before the stage, former Tour de France champion Evans put the advantage firmly in Bernal’s hands, owing to his mountain bike experience and his previous showings on the gravel, and Evans was exactly right.
But the words of wisdom from the retired pro will also extend to Evenepoel, as Evans said any riders losing time shouldn’t also lose hope - in 2010 Ivan Basso lost two minutes on the gravel roads only to win the Giro by 1-51 over Vincenzo Nibali that year.
The rain didn’t fall on stage 11 of the 2021 Giro, but the stage still offered up the spectacle we had all hoped for.
With the temperature at 19 degrees in Montalcino and the sun shining down, the weather didn’t play a factor but the white roads still delivered the thrills after the first rest day.
As the stage result came down to a brutally long sprint to the line between Schmid and Covi, the GC race unfolded behind on the picture-perfect Tuscan hills.
We’re now over the half-way point in the Giro but this is shaping up to be a thrilling edition of the race...and we still have the Zoncolan to come.
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