Alberto Bettiol put in a storming performance to win stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia alone from the breakaway.
The Italian made it into the day's 23-rider break and was forced to chased down a surging Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), who had attacked solo 25km from home.
But Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo) was untouchable, kicking off the pursuit 15km from the line, catching Cavagna on the final climb and riding him off his wheel.
The Tour of Flanders winner pressed on hard in the final 5km alone to take another huge victory.
How it happened
The profile of stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia 2021 will have come as a massive relief for the general classification contenders, as the day looked like a prime opportunity for the sprinters or a breakaway.
Starting in the city of Rovereto in northern Italy, riders faced the longest stage of this year’s race, 231km to Stradella in the Lombardy region.
After a lumpy opening 70km, the peloton then had a pan-flat ride through the middle sectors, before the decisive hills began around 40 from the finish.
Those climbs started with an uncategorised ramp, followed by a fourth-category climb to Castana (5.3km at 3.9 per cent), then two final uncategorised ascents, stretching to 1.4km and 2.6km respectively.
After the final climb, the stage closed out with a 6km downhill run to the line.
Racing started early in the day with a fierce battle to establish a breakaway, as the stage hunters knew this was a strong opportunity to escape the bunch and make it to the line.
It took a long time for a break to form, but after 30km a leading group was finally established, with 23 riders from 16 different teams represented
That break included a number of serious stage contenders, including Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo), Patrick Bevin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Nicolas Roche (Team DSM) and Remi Cavagna (Deceuninck - Quick-Step).
Very quickly it became clear that the GC and sprint teams were happy to chalk this stage up to a breakaway day, and after 120km the escapees had built up an insurmountable 11-minute lead.
With the decision to let the breakaway win the day made, the stage remained quiet until 30km from the finish, as Samuele Battistella (Astana-Premier Tech) kicked off the attacking in group one, with Bevin launching his own attack shortly after.
Then on the ramps of the category four Castana climb, Cavagna launched a devastating attack and immediately pulled clear of his breakaway rivals to establish himself out front, alone.
Roche and Bettiol tried to pursue, but Cavagna only extended his advantage over the next climbs.
With 16km left to race, Cavagna had pulled out a 30-second advantage, with 12 riders in the chasing group behind, including Bevin and Roche.
Meanwhile, the peloton let the gap slip out to 18 minutes, as they cruised through the stage, relieved for an easy day after the brutal Sega di Ala the previous day.
At the 15km mark, Bettiol launched his move and was followed by Roche, with the pair working together to try and bring back Cavagna and with 10km they’d knocked the gap down to 17 seconds.
Into the final kilometres, Bettiol had 20 seconds over Roche behind, riding to the line to take another huge victory after his 2019 win in the Tour of Flanders.
Simone Cosonni (Cofidis) led in the minor placings, with Roche taking third.
The peloton then cruised into the finish around 20 minutes down on the winner, with Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) safely holding onto the maglia rosa for another day.
The Giro returns to the mountains on stage 19, with a 166km summit finish from Abbiategrasso to Alpe di Mera.
Giro d'Italia 2021 stage 18, Rovereto to Stradella (231km)
1. Alberto Bettiol (Ita) EF Education First-Nippo, in 5-14-43
2. Simone Consonni (Ita) Cofidis, at 17 seconds
3. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team DSM
4. Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team DSM
5. Diego Ulissi (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
6. Samuele Battistella (Ita) Astana-Premier Tech
7. Filippo Zana (Ita) Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè
8. Natnael Tesfatsion (Eri) Androni-Giocattoli Sidermec, all at same time
9. Rémi Cavagna (Fra) Deceuninck-Quick-Step, at 24s
10. Jacopo Mosca (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 1-12
General classification after stage 18
1. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, in 77-10-18
2. Damiano Caruso (Ita) Bahrain Victorious, at 2-21
3. Simon Yates (GBr) Team BikeExchange, at 3-23
4. Aleksandr Vlasov (Rus) Astana-Premier Tech, at 6-03
5. Hugh Carthy (GBr) EF Education-Nippo, at 6-09
6. Romain Bardet (Fra) Team DSM, at 6-31
7. Daniel Martínez (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 7-17
8. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, 8-45
9. Tobias Foss (Nor) Jumbo-Visma, at 9-18
10. Dan Martin (Irl) Israel Start-Up Nation, at 13-37
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