Tao Geoghegan Hart took the biggest win of his fledgling career on stage 15 of the Giro d'Italia 2020, as João Almeida clung to pink after the first cracks emerged.
The general classification race exploded into life on the final climb to Piancavallo, as Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) emerged as the strongest of the overall contenders, dropping Almeida (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) inside the final 10km, while Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) was the only rider capable of sticking with Kelderman.
Into the final kilometre, it was Geoghegan Hart, Kelderman and Jai Hindley (Sunweb) who reached the top of the climb out front, with the 25-year-old Brit outsprinting his rivals to take the win.
Almeida still leads the Giro, with a 15 second advantage to Kelderman, while Jai Hindley moves into the final podium spot, almost three minutes behind the leader.
How it happened
The 185km-long stage 15 from Rivolto to Piancavallo looked to be the toughest climbing stage of the 2020 Giro d’Italia so far, with four categorised climbs on the route.
Climbing started early with a gradual rise to the foot of the first climb 54km into the day, the Sella Chianzutan (9.6km at 5.6 per cent gradient), which topped out 120km from the finish.
Then it was onto the Forella di Monte Rest (7.4km at 7.7 percent) 98km into the stage, before the penultimate climb, Forcella di Pala Barzana, 143km into the stage.
After the descent from that climb, the peloton then faced a huge test to the finish, the 14.3km, 7.9 per cent average to Piancavallo, which served as the first category summit finish for the day, 1290 metres above sea level.
In the first 10km of the stage a 12-rider group managed to pull out a gap on the peloton, eventually establishing themselves as the day’s break.
The group included some huge talent, including Thomas De Gendt and Matt Holmes from Lotto-Soudal, former world time trial champion Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers) and Giovanni Visconti (Vini Zabu-KTM).
Over the next 40km the break extended their advantage out to beyond six minutes as they hit the first categorised climb of the day, with NTT Pro Cycling and Sunweb doing most of the work back in the peloton.
With 80km of the stage remaining as riders took on the Forcella di Monte Rest, NTT’s leader Domenico Pozzovivo suffered another awfully timed puncture, but he was able to get assistance quickly and his team paced him back onto the bunch.
As the lead group descended the climb, they still had just over 4-30 on the bunch, but with two big ascents still to come the stage win still hung in the balance.
At the foot of the penultimate ramp of the day, 50km from the line, 11 riders were still clear of the peloton, including the Lotto-Soudal pair and Dennis, with just over three minutes back to the reduced peloton.
Sunweb were still riding hard in the main bunch while Deceuninck - Quick-Step had numbers at the front for Almeida.
The Forcella di Pala Barzana took its toll on the breakaway almost immediately, with De Gendt and Dennis powering clear of the rest, pulling out a 40 second gap before the summit.
Despite a a brief trip off -oad on the climb, Dennis emerged the stronger of the two at the front of the race, dropping De Gendt comfortably and riding alone over the crest of the climb with around 30 seconds back to De Gendt, 4-39 to the peloton, and 41km left to race.
At the foot of the final climb, Dennis had extended his lead to almost a minute over De Gendt and four chasers from the breakaway, but the peloton was closing in on the escapees, the gap down to under two minutes with the 14km of climbing left to the finish.
The main bunch was still surprisingly large, with Sunweb still having plenty of riders supporting Wilco Kelderman, while Deceuninck also had three riders assisting the race leader at the sharp end.
Dennis finally cracked with just under 10km left of the climb and was caught as Sunweb rode hard at the front, and before long the GC race had exploded into life.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) lost contact on the steepest gradients with 8km left, as the lead group was whittled down to just seven riders, including Almeida, Kelderman and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers).
After 12 stages in the lead, Almeida then began to show the first signs of weakness and lost contact with the front of the race, as Jai Hindley carried Kelderman away up the climb, with Geoghegan Hart the only rider able to stick with the pace of Sunweb.
Almedia put in a heroic effort to try and keep his race lead, holding the gap at around 15 seconds with 5km left to the summit, but into the final 2km and the gap had extended out to 30 seconds.
The trio of Geoghegan Hart, Hindley and Kelderman rode into the final kilometre together, with Hindley suffering after leading for most of the climb while Kelderman was focused on taking as much time as possible, with Geoghegan Hart sprinting for the line in the final 100m to take the first Grand Tour victory of his career.
Almeida leads the race heading into the final rest day, with another climbing stage from Udine to San Daniele del Fruili to come on stage 16.
Giro d'Italia 2020, stage 15: Rivolto to Piancavallo (185km)
1. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, in 4-38-52
2. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 2s
3. Jai Hindley (Aus) Sunweb, at 4s
4. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 37s
5. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 1-22
6. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 1-29
7. James Knox (GBr) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 1-36
8. Pello Bilbao (Esp) Bahrain-McLaren
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana
10. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, all at same time
General classification after stage 15
1. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, in 59-27-38
2. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 15s
3. Jai Hindley (Aus) Sunweb), at 2-56
4. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 2-57
5. Bilbao Pello (Esp) Bahrain-McLaren, at 3-10
6. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 3-18
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 3-29
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) NTT Pro Cycling, a 3-50
9. Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 4-09
10. Fausto Masnada (Ita) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 4-12
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