CORTINA D’AMPEZZO – Colombian Egan Bernal confirmed his return to form on Monday winning stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia atop a Dolomite summit, crossing the line solo, his arms aloft and the overall leader's pink jersey on his back, positioning himself for victory in the final week of the race.
Any fears over Bernal's class following a 2020 flop on his Tour de France defence, have been allayed with the way he has so far lit up this Giro.
"This is a great victory, winning wearing the Maglia Rosa is special and I wanted to show it," said Bernal.
"It was a hard stage also because of the weather, but I had the right mentality from the beginning. I was ready to suffer and we did it."
The Ineos leader crossed the line alone in the ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo to finish 27 seconds ahead of Frenchman Romain Bardet and Italian Damiano Caruso.
The 2019 Tour de France winner now leads suprise package Caruso by 2min 24sec with Britain's Hugh Carthy third at 3min 40sec.
Tuesday is a rest day before four more climb stages, a flat one and a time-trial to end the race in Milan on Sunday.
"Today I wanted to do something special, to show I am back in the game and the team too," said Bernal, who has been wearing the pink jersey since winning stage nine eight days ago.
It is Bernal's first Giro and comes nine months after his difficulties on the 2020 Tour de France where he pulled out after slipping out of contention.
"The team believe in me and I've proven that they can count on me," he continued.
"The (time cushion) allows me to manage things if I had a difficult day."
The stage had been shortened because of rain and freezing weather with two of the days' climbs scrapped and the distance cut back to 153km from the original 212km.
The final climb of the day, the Giau Pass, the highest point in this year's race at 2,233 metres altitude, was kept on the route, along with the opening one, up La Crosetta.
The main risk to riders would have been on the slippery descents, during the 'Queen stage', considered the hardest of the race, to Cortina d'Ampezzo, which will host the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Yates drops off
Bernal was wearing a rain jacket over the leader's pink jersey as riders headed out for the day 40 minutes late.
A single climb covering 9.9km and with a gradient at 9.3 percent was enough to wring out the group of favourites.
The 24-year-old Bernal attacked, breaking clear 4km from the first summit and arriving at the top with a 45sec advantage on Caruso and 1min 13 sec ahead of Bardet.
Bardet powered back on the descent to catch Caruso, but could not reach Bernal, who took off his jacket to show his jersey as he triumphantly crossed the finish line.
Pre-race favourite Britain's Simon Yates dropped from second overall to fifth after losing over two-and-a-half minutes on the day.
Belgian rookie Remco Evenepoel also slipped behind in the final 30km and the climb to the Giau Pass, with the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider now half an hour behind Bernal.
Before the stage Lotto Soudal's Belgian Thomas De Gendt pulled out with a knee problem.
De Gendt finished third in the 2012 edition and has won stages on all three Grand Tours, the Giro, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana.