Break is put into a world of Hirt
Not many Czechs have won stages of Grand Tours. Eight in total, actually. Jan Hirt became the eighth, and the fifth at the Giro d'Italia, with his victory in Aprica on Tuesday.
It was an inspired ride from the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert rider, who did not take being dropped to mean he was out of the race, and patiently worked his way back to the front. Last time the Giro tackled the Mortirolo, Hirt finished second, so this time around, he knew he had to go one better. His ride meant, in fact, that he returned to the top 10, and now sits in ninth.
He was a member of the huge 22-man break which was eventually established ahead of some terrifying climbs, but he was one of the less heralded climbers in there. For company, there was Thymen Arensman (Team DSM), Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange-Jayco), Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) among others.
Hirt was initially dropped on the Mortirolo, but worked his way back to the leading seven, with the help of Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost). When Kämna attacked on the Valico di Santa Cristina, lesser riders would have wilted, but Hirt, with Arensman, worked his way back, before dropping his Dutch and German rivals as the road got tough.
He marshalled the break expertly, and was able to continue Intermarché's wonderful Giro with his nous and climbing prowess. It all could have come unstuck on the final descent - the Czech revealed he had cramp and couldn't shift his bike properly - but it didn't, so a fairytale race continues for the Walloon team.
But, Domenico Pozzovivo ended his challenge for pink
It was an unfortunate day for Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), who crashed while under pressure over the top of the Mortirolo, managed to catch the group of GC favourites, but then could not hang onto the pace on the final climb of the Valico di Santa Cristina.
The 39-year-old has fought valiantly at this Giro to date, the 22nd Grand Tour of his career, surprising the doctors who said he would never race again. He has been one of the many success stories of an Intermarché team that has been punching above its weight all season.
The crash appeared to take it out of him, further injuring his dodgy elbow, and he ended up losing just under three minutes to his GC rivals. He still sits in sixth, however, and will hope to bounce back in the coming days. Sixth place is still an incredible result, but there is no doubt that the Italian will be frustrated that he could not keep up his challenge on for the pink jersey.
Vincenzo Nibali and Astana-Qazaqstan roll back the years
Heading up the Mortirolo, there was an unexpected team at the front of the peloton. It wasn't Ineos Grenadiers setting the tempo, it was the men in light blue, Astana-Qazaqstan. They were doing this to set up their leader Vincenzo Nibali up for an attack on the descent of the famous climb.
The move did happen, with Nibali clipping off the front over the top and stretching the maglia rosa group, however, it didn't stick, and the group of favourites was soon back together again. What did it show was the intent of the 37-year-old, keen to still make an impact at his last Giro d'Italia.
He might still be far behind Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), trailing by 3-40, but he is now the top Italian on general classification, leapfrogging Pozzovivo, and will hope to attack some more in the coming days.
With Astana clearly working together for Nibali, perhaps we will see some more clever teamwork in the three mountain stages left to try and set Lo Squalo up for a stage win, or to better his fifth place.
Almeida limits losses, despite being dropped
It could have been race over for João Almeida (UAE-Team Emirates). The Portugese rider looked like he was out of it multiple times while following the wheels up the Valico di Santa Cristina. He slipped out the back, with the general classification looking like it might be decided by Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Carapaz, but managed to stay in touch.
At the finish, Almeida was just 14 seconds behind the trio, and is still within touching distance - 44 seconds - of the maglia rosa. With his time trial abilities well known, and a final stage against the clock in Verona beckoning on Sunday, those around him will want to have more of an advantage heading into the last weekend of the Giro.
It does not help for the viewer that the UAE rider often looks uncomfortable climbing, even when he is in perfect control of the situation; there are flashbacks to his spell in the pink jersey in 2020 here. Fortunately for him, this has no real impact on his ability to ride a bike.
Almeida was wise beyond his years in being able to limit his losses and not blow up on the final climb, and as a result is still very much in contention across the next five stages.
Jai Hindley makes the GC race even tighter
We did not expect to see a sprint among the GC favourites in Aprica, just as the sprint atop Blockhaus a week and a half ago among the pink jersey contenders was strange. Both times, Jai Hindley came out on top, and both times, the Australian gained time by doing so.
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider is obviously in good form, and spoke confidently of his chances on the final rest day on Monday, and backed this up again on stage 16. He never looked in trouble, despite the massive amount of climbing across Tuesday's race. While he did not manage to distance his rivals, he did manage to gain a crucial bonus at the end, finishing fourth, and thus grabbing four seconds on Carapaz.
This means the gap between first and second is now just three seconds, which could be whittled away in an instant. Obviously, as the pink jersey wearer, Carapaz is still in the box seat, but Hindley is incredibly close, looks in good form, and is ready to pounce.
His Bora team have proved that they can work together and to a plan to help his chances, and now Emmanuel Buchmann is out of contention, he should have another excellent domestique. It might just be a battle between the squads of Bora, Ineos Grenadiers, and Bahrain-Victorious in the coming days, and there really is not much between them all.
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