Ben O’Connor goes again and gets it
Ben O’Connor (NTT Pro Cycling) must have been gutted following yesterday’s stage to miss out on victory after fighting back to lone leader Jan Tratnik (Bahrain-McLaren) before being distanced on the steep ramp within the final kilometre; a victory that would have gone some way to offering a lifeline to his and his team’s future in the WorldTour.
But the Australian regrouped and made it into the breakaway again on today’s stage 17, with a finish to Madonna di Campiglio that would certainly suit his climbing talents. As the peloton allowed the 19-man break the leeway it needed to contest the stage victory, it was down to who could bide their time and save their effort enough over the three classified climbs before the summit finish.
O’Connor timed his decisive attack perfectly, powering clear with 8km to go from a now severely reduced break. Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) tried to pull him back, but it was another Bahrain-McLaren rider that came closest to spoiling his day once again, with Hermann Pernsteiner getting within 22 seconds of the 24-year-old leader in the final 5km.
Pernsteiner’s couldn’t maintain his effort though and had to eventually submit to conceding the victory to O’Connor, whose maiden Grand Tour victory will hopefully earn him a deserved contract with a WorldTour team for 2021.
Almeida stays in pink
Another stage, another pink jersey for João Almeida.
The 22-year-old couldn’t possibly have imagined he’d make it this deep into the Giro d’Italia with the overall lead – his first appearance in a Grand Tour. It’s his 15th day in pink through this race, but his lead remains at a precarious 17 seconds over second-place Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
His only real shaky moment so far has been on stage 15 to Piancavallo, where he lost contact with Kelderman, his team-mate Jai Hindley, and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos), but Almeida still clung on to pink. Today he looked much more assured, sitting in the wheels of his rivals when needed and putting his team to excellent use.
Fausto Masnada was his last remaining team-mate on the final climb, with the Italian setting enough of a pace to keep attacks at bay, with just one brief move from Hindley and Kelderman early on. But throughout the stage Deceuninck-Quick-Step looked like a well-drilled GC team, controlling the front of the bunch and keeping Almeida safely out of the wind and at the front. They’ll face tougher tests in the coming days as a team and Almeida as an individual, but with every passing stage the belief must grow that they can keep this going and take a very unexpected Giro victory.
Days are running out for contenders
If anyone does want to take pink off the back of Almeida, they’re going to have to make their move soon. Only Sunweb tried today, but their attack was short-lived as Almeida rode back to Kelderman’s wheel.
At 17 seconds behind, Sunweb’s Dutch leader has the most reason to wait until the final climb to put time into the Portuguese leader, but for everyone else, time is running out to claw back the minutes they need.
Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) in sixth at 3-20 and two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) in seventh at 3-31 are the two riders in the top-10 with the pedigree to try something from a long way out, but both could only sit in the wheels on the climb to Madonna di Campiglio.
It wasn’t the ideal climb for attacks, with a relatively shallow 5.9 per cent average gradient over its 11.9km distance. That meant most riders were taking it on in the big ring and the high speed kept drafting more in-play compared to the steeper climbs.
But riders like Majka and Nibali amongst most of the top-10 will need an advantage over Kelderman and Almeida heading into the final time trial on Sunday, so need to take every chance they can get to pull back time. Tomorrow’s stage over the Stelvio will present the biggest opportunity, but with an altered route on the final mountain day on stage 20 the chances to turn this Giro on its head are quickly running out.
Tao tries for third
It would be an understatement to say there wasn’t much action amongst the GC contenders on today’s finish. It’s been a common stalemate in much of this race, with stage 17 once again coming down to a sprint between the GC contenders to grab a few seconds on their rivals.
Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart was the most active in the final sprint, as he had the most to gain in potentially catapulting himself into third overall.
Currently, the 25-year-old sits just one second behind Jai Hindley in third and has a big opportunity over the next few days to secure a maiden Grand Tour podium to go with his first stage victory on Sunday.
Hindley will need to work for Kelderman, and has done a phenomenal job so far in helping his leader into contention for the win and holding third place for himself. But he may struggle to look after his own interests as well as Kelderman’s, with the latter unlikely to want to follow Geoghegan Hart’s every move with the Brit currently 2-42 behind him.
Geoghegan Hart was tracked all the way in the sprint by Hindley today, but certainly has the advantage in the fight for the podium if he can continue his impressive performances in the mountains and steal some second back before the time trial on Sunday.
With doubts hovering over the Stelvio’s presence in stage 18’s route because of the weather, organisers today confirmed the classic Giro climb would be taken on as the penultimate ascent tomorrow.
The Cima Coppi (highest point) of this year’s race, it’s one of the best moments of Grand Tours when we get to watch the riders battle it out over historic climbs, and they don’t get much better than the Stelvio.
This year the riders will take it on from the harder Prato side rather than the much-used Bormio side of the climb, but with a 9km summit finish still to come, any rider attacking here will need to be sure of their legs.
As mentioned, the likes of Nibali and Majka, and even Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) over five minutes down, need to do something to take back the required time on Almeida, but will always be wary of dropping out of contention completely if they go too hard too early on a climb like the Stelvio.
At the very least, let’s hope we get more fireworks among the GC contenders than we had today.