“I wanted to do something special. I wanted to show I am back in the game,” said Egan Bernal after riding to a sensational solo victory atop the Passo Giau on stage 16 to all but seal Giro d’Italia victory.
The Colombian’s 22-month struggle with his back - an issue which has plagued him ever since his Tour de France triumph in 2019 - appeared to be quite literally a weight off his shoulders as he reasserted himself as one of the most feared Grand Tour riders in the world.
The 24-year-old took victory by one minute and 29 seconds from Damiano Caruso, with Britain’s Simon Yates in third a further 2:46 back.
But the Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque ‘I am back’ statement has more significance than just Bernal’s return to form. It is also the first three-week stage race that Team Ineos Grenadiers have dominated since their one-two at the 2019 Tour. THEY are back.
True, Tao Geoghegen Hart did win them the Giro last year with the help of a brilliant Rohan Dennis. And they also claimed seven stage victories at that race.
But, as great as that was, when it came to the general classification it had an air of the stars aligning more than it did an Ineos masterclass.
Seven months on, there were times when this Italian tour felt like a return to the Team Sky days. The era of peak Chris Froome when his team’s steam-train would wrestle control of the race and refuse to let go.
That Froome-led era brought Dave Brailsford’s outfit eight Grand Tour victories in seven seasons (between 2012 and 2018).
And there was a stark resemblance in this Giro to nine years ago when the Team Sky ‘empire’ flapped its wings for the first time.
Super-domestique Dani Martinez towing Bernal almost all the way up the final climb on stage 20 was strikingly similar to the job Froome did for Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 Tour.
At last year’s Giro, Brailsford claimed Ineos had changed their style and were willing to ‘race’ more than before, seemingly marking an end to the ‘train’ that had nullified attacks for the best part of a decade.
But the so-called death of the monotonous pace-setting lasted a matter of months as Ineos returned to Italy with Jonathan Castroviejo, Gianni Moscon, Filippo Ganna, Jhonatan Narvaez and Salvatore Puccio, all of whom were ready to set a punishing tempo at the beginning of any stage which, on the face of it, threatened excitement.
By design, Ineos’ domination of Grand Tours over the last decade has come with a level of spectator boredom required to ensure they keep on winning. They control the variables to such an extent that for the casual observer it becomes tediously predictable.
But it is important to stress that is in no way the fault of Ineos or Brailsford, more a reflection of the other teams’ inability to compete - an uneven playing field exacerbated by financial power.
What’s more, Ineos have branched out with not only their depth of squad but also their willingness to focus on every Grand Tour, rather than just three weeks in France. They are now dangerous all year round, not just in July.
Look at the 2012-18 Sky/Ineos success, five of those eight victories came at the Tour and there is an argument to say they were fixated on the Champs-Élysées until Froome climbed to the top step of the podium at the 2017 Vuelta a España. Back then they were a Tour de France team more than a Grand Tour superpower.
Now, they have won three of the last four Giros and have within their squad the winners of five of the last nine Grand Tours.
They have gone to the first 21-day slog on the 2021 calendar without Tour champion Geraint Thomas, Giro winners Geoghegen Hart and Richard Carapaz, Tour podium placer Richie Porte, Grand Tour contender Adam Yates and former world time trial champion Dennis.
And what have they done? Won with relative comfort.
They now enter every Grand Tour with - at the very least - two men that can win the race. At the Giro that was Bernal, early abandoner Pavel Sivakov and the supremely impressive Martinez, who placed fifth overall. At the Tour that will be Thomas, Geoghegen Hart and Carapaz. And at the Vuelta it is likely to be Yates and Bernal.
That’s before you even mention 21-year-old Tom Pidcock, who could yet become not only a Grand Tour challenger but also Ineos’ first real superstar in the Classics.
The advantage the Jim Ratcliffe-funded empire has can be seen in Bernal’s ability to hold off Yates in Italy.
Simon - twin brother of newly-signed Ineos rider Adam - may very well have been riding at a similar level to the Colombian throughout the race.
But his Team BikeExchange outfit simply could not compete with the ruthless, emotionless men in black and red.
The one minute Yates gained on stage 17 was met with no panic from the Ineos camp, despite rumours Bernal’s back was playing up yet again.
The Bury-born rider would go on to win stage 19 and put a little more time into the pink jersey. No panic. Brailsford and Ineos are all too experienced by now to know a Grand Tour is not won by one brilliant display but through unparalleled consistency.
Stage 20 was a perfect example of that as they stuck to their game plan even when second place Caruso made a potentially worrying move 50 kilometres from the finish.
The confidence oozing out of Ineos from this Giro triumph will be chilling to every other team heading to the Tour, which gets underway in less than four weeks time.
And while last year’s Slovenian pairing of Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic remain the favourites for cycling’s grandest prize, the empire’s leader Thomas will be buoyed by the re-emergence of Ineos as undoubtedly the team to beat.