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Filippo Zana (Jayco-AIUIa) has outsprinted Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) on stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia from Oderzo to Val di Zoldo, while pink jersey Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) has fended off attacks by a resurgent Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) to remain in the lead.
Pinot and Zana were the last two survivors on a break of seven, with the Italian National Champion outpowering Pinot, now back in the lead of the mountain rankings, in a hard-fought summit finish duel.
Meanwhile, Roglič launched an attack on the second last ascent of the day, the ultra-steep Coi, with stage 16 winner João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), previously second overall, the biggest victim.
Roglič finally went clear with Thomas around two kilometres from the finish to move up to second, proving that the Jumbo-Visma leader, having suffered badly on stage 16, is now back on the attack. Thomas, though, remains in the lead on his 37th birthday.
After a dramatic first of three final days racing in the mountains, the situation is still very tight at the top of GC, with Roglic still just behind Thomas, at 29 seconds, and Almeida, having shipped 21 seconds on the leading duo, dropping to third at 39 seconds.
On a great day for Jayco-AIUIa, Eddie Dunbar struggled a little in the finale to come home in tenth on the stage, but despite being a long way out of the podium battle, the Irishman has nonetheless moved up to fourth.
“It was a decent day – I gained time on Almeida and didn’t get dropped by Primož,” Thomas said. “Primož likes to go easy and take it hard, take it easy and go hard, so I didn’t know how he’d be going in the last two kilometres. But he was super-strong, so I was happy with how it went.”
Zana was perhaps even more delighted as he claimed his first-ever Grand Tour stage win on home soil and in his home region of the Veneto, saying, “I stuck on Pinot’s wheel in the last kilometres because it’s one of the few times when I was in a sprint like that so I had to hope I had something left in the finale. There were only two of us left, though, so I had a 50% chance.”
How it unfolded
A ferocious series of early attacks, most notably containing EF Education-Easy Post’s mountains leader Ben Healy either self-destructed or were quickly destroyed, and it wasn’t until the first category Passo della Crosetta that after a remarkably fast start, stage 18 finally began to take shape.
A move on the long ascent of the Crosetta, sparked by Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), quickly saw Healy distanced, and finally, a seven-rider break of the day formed, in dribs and drabs, over the top of the ascent and on the long drop to the valley beyond.
Alongside Pinot, former stage winner Aurelién Paret-Peintre (AG2R-Citroöen) was quick to get across as well as Zana, Marco Frigo and yet again, the ever-persistent breakaway star Derek Gee from Israel-Premier Tech. Astana Qazaqstan’s Vadim Pronskiy and Arkea-Samsic’s mountain star Warren Barguil were the last to make it across, and the seven were away.
The break contained more than enough climbing specialists to maintain the impetus over the peloton, where the notable accelerations behind by Ineos Grenadiers, in particular, all but split the bunch apart on the Crosetta, with Roglič close to the back at times and even briefly gapped. However, any theory extrapolated from that, that Roglič might subsequently crack was proved resoundingly wrong.
Pinot’s presence in the break, given he was just seven minutes down overall, meant Ineos Grenadiers could not afford to let the seven gain the same kinds of colossal gaps picked up by previous breaks on previous stages. For a good couple of hours, then, while Pinot picked up maximum mountain points on each available climb to continue closing the gap on Healy, time-wise, Ineos maintained a holding pattern of keeping the break under control.
On the first of the last three key final climbs, the Forcella Cibiana, the seven’s lead inched up to six minutes as Pinot delivered one of his trademark impulsive moves, causing Pronskiy to falter definitively in the break. Behind, Ineos stepped on the gas, courtesy of Laurens De Plus making a massive effort, and the peloton started to shed large numbers of riders behind, reducing the bunch to 20 by three-quarters of the way up.
At the summit with 26 kilometres to go, Pinot clinched maximum points yet again and moved into the provisional mountains lead, even as the gap for the break curled downwards from its maximum advantage of just over 6:00 to 4:29.
On the second last climb, as the gap plummeted more, an acceleration first by Pinot and then Zana reduced the break to just the Italian and Frenchman, who then went on to battle it out for the win.
Fighting in his last Giro, as the two tackled the last brace of second category ascents, Pinot was notably more cautious than in the breakaway on stage 13 to Crans Montana, where his overly aggressive style left him painfully exposed to the final charge for the line by Einer Rubio (Movistar). But despite his less flamboyant approach, Pinot’s one really prolonged acceleration with around a kilometre to go failed to give him any kind of advantage on the Italian and in the drawn-out sprint, Zana prevailed by half a wheel.
Meanwhile, on the same second-last climb of the Coi where Pinot and Zana had moved ahead, in the GC group, a sudden acceleration by Sepp Kuss, with teammate Roglič on his wheel, shattered a peloton already down to just 20.
In a flash, the group was reduced to Kuss, Roglič, Thomas and Dunbar, with Thomas’ gutsy young teammate Thymen Arensman bringing up the rear, if only briefly. Then another lunge by Roglič only brought a response from Thomas prior to Kuss bridging across just before the summit.
Despite a brief moment of tension for the chasers on the descent when Almeida’s Australian teammate Jay Vine misjudged a curve and almost fell, a duel of domestiques then evolved: Kuss driving like fury for Roglič ahead, Vine, in turn, giving his all for the pursuing Portuguese contender, with Dunbar shadowing the UAE duo.
Although the gap dropped to just over 10 seconds at one point, as Thomas confirmed, Roglič still had some power left in the tank to open up the throttle in the closing two kilometres of the final, very short, second-category climb. As both Vine and Kuss finally threw in the towel, the Briton and Slovenian briefly collaborated, gaining 21 seconds by the finish on Almeida in the finale.
Whether Roglič will now continue to gain in strength or Almeida bounces back remains to be seen, but with two massive mountain stages left to go, Thomas’ battle for a second Grand Tour is far from over yet.
“It’s nice to have a bigger advantage on João, but Primož had a bad day on stage 16, João today,” Thomas said. “So I have to go on being consistent.”
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