Jai Hindley sprinted to an unforgettable victory over Tao Geoghegan Hart on stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia 2020, after a fascinating battle over the Stelvio.
The general classification race finally exploded on the road from Pinzolo to Laghi di Cancano as race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) was finally dropped on the Stelvio.
Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) was also dropped by Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ineos Grenadiers but fought relentlessly to take over the race lead by the finish, but with only a handful of seconds to spare.
But the stage victory came down to a dual between Kelderman's team-mate Hindley and Geoghegan Hart on the final climb, with the Australian Hindley sprinting to take the stage.
How it happened
After the changes to the final mountain stage on day 20, many predicted that stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia 2020 would emerge as the queen stage.
Covering 207km from Pinzolo to Laghi di Cancano, the stage featured four categorised climbs, including the dreaded Stelvio as the penultimate ascent.
Climbing started immediately as the flag dropped with the Campo Carlo Magno (14.2km at 5.8 per cent gradient, followed shortly after by the Passo Castrin (8.6km at 8.9 per cent), which topped out 66km into the stage.
Then after a long run through the valley floor and a seemingly endless false flat came the biggest hurdle of the day - the 24.8km-long, 7.4 per cent average Stelvio, with the summit arriving 35km from the finish.
After the nervous descent from that climb, riders then face one more test in the form of the 9km long Torri di Fraele, which averaged 6.8 per cent.
A breakaway slowly emerged after 40km of racing, with 10 riders making the escape including Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Ben Swift and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and stage 17 winner Ben O’Connor (NTT Pro Cycling).
But as Sunweb smelled blood in the GC race, the break was only allowed a four-minute advantage, which began to tumble as the Stelvio approached with Nico Denz putting in a phenomenal ride on the front of the peloton.
At the foot of the Stelvio, the escapees had around two minutes over the bunch, as De Gendt attacked right at the foot of the climb, which was followed up by an attack from O’Connor, but behind the peloton was surging up the climb.
The GC group began to split on the climb, as race leader João Almeida lost contact with 48km to race and slowly began to ship seconds, while Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) were also dropped under the pace still being set by Sunweb, with Rohan Dennis, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman the only riders still in the fight on the climb.
O’Connor, the last of the breakaway, was then caught by the Ineos and Sunweb group 45km from the finish, as Sunweb continued to ride to distance Almeida.
But soon Ineos took over the reigns with Rohan Dennis setting the pace on the climb, which quickly put Kelderman into danger.
Dutchman Kelderman then lost contact with the front group, leaving just his team-mate Hindley alone with Dennis and Geoghegan Hart.
Both Hindley and Kelderman struggled to get their rain jackets on near the summit of the climb, with Hindley almost falling while trying to reach his sleeve.
Over the top of the Stelvio, Geoghegan Hart, Dennis and Hindley led the race with Kelderman 43 seconds behind, while Almeida’s hopes of a podium finish overall also diminished as he was 3-38 behind the leaders at the top, and at the bottom of the Stelvio descent the gaps remained much the same.
But on the valley floor, Dennis found himself on his preferred terrain as he went into time trial mode and suddenly Kelderman started to suffer badly, the gap slipping out to 1-41 with 10km to race, which is the exact moment Dennis exploded, setting up a fascinating dual between Geoghegan Hart and Hindley on the final climb.
With 9km of uphill left, Kelderman was passed by the chasing group of Fuglsang and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) but he found something left in the tank and was able to close the gap down to 1-36 over the next 3km, keeping himself in the virtual race lead.
The fight for the stage came down to the final 150 metres, as Geoghegan Hart and Hindley were side-by-side into the final sweeping left hander.
Both opened their sprint out of the corner as Hindley edged in front 50m from the line, taking the biggest win of his career at 24-years-old.
Kelderman fought all the way to the finish to finish 2-18 down on Hindley and Geoghegan Hart - enough to take the pink jersey, but with just 12 seconds spare to Hindley and 15 to Geoghegan Hart.
Almeida did himself proud once again, finishing seventh on the stage, 4-51 down on the winner, which puts him in fifth place overall.
The Giro d’Italia 2020 continues with the final sprint opportunity on stage 19, with a flat 258km from Morbegno to Asti.
Giro d'Italia 2020, stage 18: Pinzolo to Laghi di Cancano (207km)
1. Jai Hindley (Aus) Sunweb, in 6-03-03
2. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at same time
3. Pello Bilabo (Esp) Bahrain-McLaren, at 46s
4. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 1-25
5. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 2-18
6. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 4-04
7. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 4-51
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Trek-Segafredo
9. Hermann Pernsteiner (Aut) Bahrain-McLaren, at same time
10. Fausto Masnada (Ita) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 4-55
General classification after stage 18
1. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 77-46-56
2. Jai Hindley (Aus) Sunweb, at 12s
3. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 15s
4. Pello Bilbao (Esp) Bahrain-McLaren, at 1-19
5. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck- Quick-Step, at 2-16
6. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 3-59
7. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 5-40
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 5-47
9. Fausto Masnada (Ita) Deceunicnk - Quick-Step, at 6-46
10. Hermann Pernsteiner (Aut) Bahrain-McLaren, at 7-23
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