The final mountain stage of the 2018 Giro d'Italia provided an opportunity for Mitchelton-Scott rider Mikel Nieve to alleviate some of the team's disappointment following the loss of the pink jersey on stage 19, with a solo win.
Nieve made his move from a breakaway that had begun with five riders, 20 kilometres in, before swelling to 27 and then splintering back down to three. He kicked with 32km remaining, building up a lead of over nine minutes at its greatest.
Whilst Nieve arrived at the finish line 2 minutes 17 seconds ahead of second place rider, Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), the battle for pink was still ongoing.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who entered the stage in second, 40s adrift of leader Froome, launched multiple attacks to dislodge the pink jersey - but none succeeded - allowing the Team Sky man to enter stage 21 in the maglia rosa.
Former third place GC rider, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was long gone, having dropped off the pace put on by Astana in their attempt to lift Miguel Angel Lopez to take his position.
Dumoulin and Froome do battle on the climb to Cervinia
Heading into the Giro, one of the things we were most excited to see was Chris Froome (Team Sky) going up against Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). Dumoulin had announced himself as the next big thing by winning last year’s edition of the Giro, and looked like a rare rider capable of challenging Froome at a Grand Tour.
Both riders did indeed ultimately finish first and second on GC, but, after so much of three weeks had been about Simon Yates’ (Mitchelton-Scott) defence of the maglia rosa, it was left until the last climb of the final significant stage for them to duke it out head to head.
It was a great spectacle, with Dumoulin attempting several uncharacteristic explosive attacks, and Froome each time closing the gap.
It was only when Froome counter-attacked one of Dumoulin’s moves that the Dutchman gave up the ghost, realising that Froome was clearly too strong and acknowledging that he was not going to gain the 40 seconds needed.
Yesterday’s pursuit between the two was more decisive, but watching the two mano-y-mano was a fitting end to what has been a terrific GC race.
Mikel Nieve lifts spirits at Mitchelton-Scott
Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott) has a history of turning around the fortunes of his team at Grand Tours.
At the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, just two days after his leader Igor Anton had crashed out of the race while in the leader’s red jersey, Nieve bounced back with a stage win in the mountains. A few years later, riding for Sky at the 2016 Giro d’Italia, the Spaniard compensated for the abandonment of GC hope Mikel Landa by again winning from a breakaway, as well as sealing the mountains classification in the final week.
Today he was at it again, immediately seeking to put the misery of Simon Yates’ collapse yesterday behind the team by getting into the break, and strike out for some personal glory having performed so admirably as a domestique.
He proved to be easily the strongest in the group, dropping every other rider on the day’s penultimate climb (the Col de Saint-Pantaleon), and remaining out of sight for the rest of the stage to win by an emphatic margin of 2-17 ahead of runner-up Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo).
For a rider today celebrating his 34th birthday, it was a welcome gift both to himself and the rest of his team.
Thibaut Pinot collapses
The only change at the top of the GC saw Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) capitulate from third place to out of the top ten completely, after he appeared to be struck by ill health.
It was a horrible sight to see. The Frenchman was dropped on the Col de Saint-Pantaleon, and it was clear from how he could be heard loudly retching, and by the way he barely seemed capable of continuing peddling, that it was more than just bad legs affecting him.
It was a bad end to what has been a topsy turvy Giro for Pinot. He started well and even looked capable of challenging for the pink jersey, before fading rapidly on the Zoncolan and in the time trial. Then he managed to bounce back on yesterday’s epic stage to Bardonecchia, only for all his hard work to come to nothing after today’s collapse.
Pinot can at least draw some positives from the race as a whole. Unlike other hotly tipped riders to collapse this Giro such as Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Fabio Aru (UAE Emirates), the Frenchman did at least prove himself capable of battling for a podium finish right up until the business end of the final week.
The ultimate outcome may render this another of many Grand Tour disappointments the 27-year old has endured throughout his career, but Pinot should take heart in how well he rode the rest of the race, and retain hope for future success.
Miguel Angel Lopez claims third place and the white jersey
The main rider to benefit from Pinot’s woes was Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), who held off a challenge from Richard Carapaz (Movistar) to take the third spot on the podium, as well a the white jersey for best young rider.
Astana signalled their intent early in the day by massing at the front of the peloton for the stage’s first two climbs, but ultimately they needn't have bothered given how easily Pinot yielded.
With the Frenchman out of the picture, all Lopez had to do was follow Carapaz’s wheel during the inevitable attacks on the final climb, which he succeeded in doing without ever looking under pressure.
Lopez has gone relatively under the radar this Giro, surprisingly given his status as one of the sport’s most exciting talents, and how he was touted as an outside contender before the race. Having lost so much time early on, he did not enter into the top ten until the penultimate weekend, and has moved up at least one position in the GC on each of the last three days.
The result is a landmark in the Colombian’s career, and proof that, even at the age of just 24, he is already capable of challenging for overall victories at Grand Tours.
Last chance saloon for breakaway riders
The big gap granted to the breakaway by the peloton gave the chance for the many underperforming teams represented in the breakaway a chance to salvage their race.
But, in the same way that Maxi Schachmann used the break a couple of days ago to win yet another stage for Quick-Step Floors, Mikel Nieve denied the other teams to give Mitchelton-Scott their fifth stage win of the race.
The escape group had been full of quality climbers from winless teams all capable of winning the stage. Trek-Segafredo, Bardiani CSF and UAE Emirates all had potential winners in Gianluca Brambilla, Giulio Ciccone and Valerio Conti respectively, EF Education First’s Michael Woods was attempting to bounce back after his GC bid had ended, and Androni did the equivalent of throwing the kitchen sink by placing four riders in the break.
But all were outclassed by Nieve, with Robert Gesink and Felix Grossschartner taking second and third while representing teams (LottoNL-Jumbo and Bora-Hansgrohe respectively) with wins already to their names.
With Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) likely to contest tomorrow’s stage in Rome, it seems likely that these teams, and the other seven yet to nab a stage, will indeed end the race winless.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.