Heated battle for the points jersey comes to an end
The fight for the points classification has come to a dramatic end with a change of hands on the final flat stage of the race.
Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) became locked in a tight fight for the maglia ciclamino, which involved the German criticising his rival for sprinting for intermediate points before Démare won a stage and took the lead in the competition.
With all other contenders either abandoning the race or sitting well behind on points, stage 18 proved the decisive moment in the classification.
Both riders went clear of the peloton to fight for the remaining points at the intermediate sprint mid-way through the day (Démare crossed after the breakaway and marginally extended his lead, while Ackermann sat up) to set up a tense run to the line.
Ackermann was determined to score in the final sprint stage, setting his Bora-Hansgrohe team at the front of the peloton to try and chase the three breakaway riders, with Dimension Data and Israel Cycling Academy providing some support.
But Démare's Groupama-FDJ team refused to ride as they were keen to let the break escape to the line and steal the lion's share of points, securing the classification for the Frenchman in the process.
The tables were turned in dramatic fashion, when Ackermann took the bunch sprint to finish second on the stage while Démare was blocked at the line and didn't score enough to hold onto the jersey.
Ackermann leads the points table by 13 points over Démare and is likely to hold on as long as he makes it to the finish in Verona.
The last of the easy days for GC contenders
Stage 18 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia marked the the end of the easy days for those still in the fight for the maglia rosa.
The mostly downhill parcours, with only one category four climb along the road, and the three-rider breakaway set the stage for a calm pace and a welcome recovery opportunity for the GC men.
After the monstrous Mortirolo day on stage 16 immediately after the rest day, followed by late attacks on the final climb of stage 17, the likes of race leader Richard Carapaz (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) will be suffering from the demands of a three week tour as we enter the final phase.
But the last flat stage of the race gave them an opportunity to rest the legs before we head back to the mountains, as it's now full gas from here to Verona.
The race continues with a second category summit finish in San Martino di Castozza on stage 19, culminating with a 13.3km-long climb at 5.7 per cent average.
Stage 20 is then a huge mountain day which could spark major implosions amongst the favourites on the road to Croce d'Aune.
With four categorised climbs along the 194km route, including the terrifying Passo Manghen and the final first category climb to the line, this will be the last opportunity for the strong climbers to assert themselves before the final day time trial in Verona.
The race then closes out with a 17km individual test with a long and gradual climb stuck in the middle which will suit the likes of Roglič, who needs to gain time on Carapaz if he wants to be within reach by the TT.
Doomed breakaway not so doomed
With the biggest sprinters - Elia Viviani (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Jumbo) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) - all having left the race, there was a serious lack of impetus to chase down any potential breakaways to guarantee the bunch sprint.
This played into the hands of the days three escapees, winner Damiano Cima (Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizanè), Nico Denz (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), who were clearly aware of the opportunity.
Despite being kept on a fairly tight leash by the peloton, the trio gained just over six minutes maximum but were pegged back to 2-50 inside 30km.
They then ramped up the effort and extended back out to 4-30, which caused a major panic in the bunch.
Bora-Hansgrohe gave everything to try and pull them back and when the breakaway riders began playing games in the final kilometre it looked like the moment could be ripped from them.
Fortunately for Cima, Denz blinked first and opened his sprint 500 metres from the line and faded as the Italian powered past.
Ackermann was relentless in his pursuit of Cima but couldn't get on terms at the line, leaving him slamming his bars at a podium placing.
That makes four stages in a row that the breakaway have denied the peloton, in another shining moment for a smaller Italian team.
Maiden Giro d'Italia win for Nippo-Vini Fantini
While Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec have stolen plenty of headlines from this year's Giro d'Italia, their Professional Continental rivals Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizanè have trailed in both prestige and results.
But stage 18 marked a momentous moment for the Italian squad as they took their first victory in their home Grand Tour.
Cima's celebration at the line (and after it) showed how much a Giro win means to the rider and the team.
The Italian's best result up until this point had been 96th on the Mortirolo day, never making it out into the top 100 other than that until reaching the top step.
Outstanding Giro for home riders continues
The pressure of a national tour can often hit riders hard, with the home favourites struggling to top the leaderboards under the watchful eyes of the tifosi.
But the 2019 Giro has been a different story for the Italians, as five different homegrown talents have won stages and another held the pink jersey for six days.
Things looked rocky for the home nation when their best hope, national champion Viviani, was relegated on stage three for dangerous sprinting and never looked to regain his confidence, but it was Androni's Fausto Masnada who broke the curse to take a breakaway stage win on day six, as UAE Team Emirates' Valerio Conti moved into the race lead by finishing second.
Bora-Hansgrohe workhorse Cesare Benedetti was next to hit the top step on stage 12, followed by Dario Cataldo (Astana) on stage 15 and perhaps the most prestigious, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) who won the Mortirolo stage in the mountains jersey after reaching the top of the pass first.
Cima's win is the fifth for Italy, making the home nation the most successful of the race, with Germany (Ackermann), Australia (Ewan), Ecuador (Carapaz), Slovenia (Roglič) and France (Démare and Nans Peters) all tied on two wins.
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