Amazing effort from Jan Polanc
If you’ve got a particularly good memory then you could have mistaken today for stage five of the 2015 Giro d’Italia.
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Two years ago, on the first mountain stage of the race, Jan Polanc got himself into the day’s breakaway before holding on on the final climb to take the stage win as the general classification contenders failed to make the catch.
Once again the Slovenian produced a brave ride, going solo on the early slopes of the brutal final climb to Mount Etna, and holding enough of an advantage to make sure that he was able to raise his arms in victory even as the pace ramped up behind in the final few kilometres.
Phoney war among the GC contenders
As is so often the case on the first summit finish of a Grand Tour, today’s summit finish to Mount Etna provided very little action as none of the big GC names in the race were ready to truly roll the dice.
There were a few attacks early in the climb from the likes of Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac) and Jesper Hansen (Astana), before Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) made an acceleration in the last few kilometres.
However this was not a whole-hearted effort – more of an attempt to see how his rivals would react and give his home Sicilian fans something to cheer, eventually easing up and appearing content to follow the wheels and roll in with the main group of contenders.
Mikel Landa breathes a sigh of relief
One rider who must have had a few more nervous moments than most on the road up Mount Etna, was Mikel Landa (Team Sky) who somehow managed to puncture on the perfect road surface with 11km to go.
Thankfully for the Spanish rider, he had team-mate Sebastian Henao close at hand to swap front wheels, but the wheel change seemed to take an age, meaning he had a long chase to get back on.
Team Sky‘s strength and depth again came to the fore as Philip Deignan dropped back to help Landa back to the group of main contenders, where, despite being sat towards the back, he looked comfortable and relatively fresh, eventually rolling in without losing any time.
Ilnur Zakarin steals a march
While Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) picked up a few bonus seconds, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) was the only one of the GC contenders to be able to gain any time thanks to an attack.
The Russian rider’s move was perfectly executed with 1.5km to go as he first attacked out of the saddle, forcing Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) to follow, before sitting down, easing up, and then once again ramping up the power to ease himself off the front.
For a few moments it looked as if Zakarin could catch Polanc and take the stage win, but in the end he had to settle for second, gaining 10 seconds on the main GC group, plus six bonus seconds.
It may not seem like much, but the Katusha-Alpecin team managers must be all the more satisfied after having had their hearts in the mouths just a few kilometres earlier when Zakarin was brought down in a crash.
Quick-Step Floors work hard on the front
You had to feel sorry for the Quick-Step Floors domestiques for much of today’s stage, as they dutifully set tempo on the front of the peloton in defence of Fernando Gaviria’s pink jersey which he would inevitably lose on the final climb.
Despite only having Bob Jungels, a GC outsider, in their ranks, the men in blue plugged away for most of the day, only receiving a small amount of help from Bahrain-Merida to stop the break going out to ten minutes with 100km left on the stage.
This was a good way of ensuring that the team and the pink jersey got a decent amount of publicity, but you couldn’t help but a little sorry for the riders, especially when Gaviria sprinted for zero points at an intermediate sprint with 40km remaining.
However in the end all that effort wasn’t for nothing as Jungels was able to stay with the front group on the final climb to move into pink by six seconds ahead of Thomas.