Every team and every rider at the Giro d'Italia knew that strong wind was expected for the finale of the stage to Cagliari. Everyone had seen the forecast for 40km/h winds from the northeast and had updates from team staff that drive each stage ahead of the race.
Yet when Quick-Step Floors put down the hammer and smashed the peloton, only a handful of riders were able to stay with the Belgian blue train. Everyone else was left scattered down the road, battered by the crosswind that bent the trees on the Cagliari beach and flatted the waves of the blue Mediterranean. The opening two days of the 100th Giro d'Italia in Sardinia had been very tranquillo but the wind transformed the final 12 kilometres of the three-day visit into an exotic Gent-Wevelgem.
Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) brought home the peloton just 13 seconds back, with all the top-tier favourites managing to make into the 47-rider front group. Of the GC hopefuls, only Rohan Dennis of BMC lost significant time after he crashed in the windswept finale. The talented and ambitious Australian was determined to test his Grand Tour credentials at the Giro d'Italia but landed hard on his hip after a Bardiani-CSF rider crossed his path. He got up and chased hard but lost 5:22.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa (Team Sky) all finished safely in the 13-second group
At the end of the day, as the riders transferred south to Sicily by plane, the time lost was limited but the relief that they had made it safely to the finish was huge.
Daniele Bennati had tried to help his Movistar team leader Nairo Quintana stay out of trouble. He is an experienced Classics rider and described the wind and the Quick-Step Floors attack was stronger than he had ever seen, even stronger stages in Qatar and Belgium, where Quick-Step Floors have mastered their tactics.
"Nibali passed me on the right and tried to close the gap but he didn't do it. You needed a scooter to close that gap," he explained, summarising the predicament of everyone behind the Quick-Step Floors attack.
"We just missed that little bit to stay with them. It's not that Nairo didn't have the legs; it's just that he weighs 50kg, he did better than expected. But I couldn't ride for six kilometres at 70 kilometres an hour."
Jungels sparks the echelon
The riders had enjoyed a tailwind for much of the 148km stage from Tortoli to Cagliari, with the strong gusts a warning of what to come. The final 30 kilometres curved around the southern coastline of Sardinia, turning the tailwind first into a headwind and then into a crosswind from their right.
At first the headwind kept the riders together and spread across the road as the anticipation rose on a wide road, with riders using the footpath on both sides in the fight to move up to the front.
A huge roundabout marked the turning point, like the gates to hell.
Jungels was the first to seize the initiative and his Quick-Step Floors teammates followed him, just as the wind blew across the exposed salt flats and hit the riders full on from the right.
Jungels dragged his teammates away as everyone else floundered in the wind. Only Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Rüdiger Selig (Bora-Hansgrohe), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Bahrain-Merida) made into the select echelon while Quick-Step had seven and then six riders up there, with Gaviria, Richeze, Martinelli, De Plus and Keisse quick to join forces to move clear. It was a dramatic but beautiful moment of bike racing.
None of the big overall contenders were in the selection and were initially scattered into the win as everyone fought to limit their loses and gain something on their rivals.
Quick-Step Floor squeezed the echelon into the gutter and spat out several riders but made it onto the city streets. Haas tried a brave but fruitless late surge but Richeze jumped on his wheel like a cat and then Gaviria started his sprint early to extinguish the chances of Selig and Nizzolo.
Gaviria celebrated with a series of shouts and celebrations as he crossed the line and poured the spumante over his head and on his pink jersey on the podium. At the Quick-Step Floors bus there were lots of high fives big hugs and big smiles. Arguably the most aggressive team in the peloton had done it again. They used the wind to take a hammer to the race. Everyone else was the nail.
Jungels leads the Quick-Step Floors wolf pack
Bob Jungels is the Quick-Step Floors leader for the overall classification but was not afraid to use his speed and power to drag the echelon clear. He did several huge turns on the front, inspiring his teammates. He bought them all a special baseball cap with a wolf pack logo before the race and inspired with his leadership. He also ended up the biggest beneficiary time rise, taking 13 seconds on all his overall rivals. It was not much for his effort but the final maths in this 100th Giro d'Italia should only be done at the finish in Milan in exactly three weeks time.
"Sometimes it is better to anticipate than react," Jungels said, extolling Quick-Step Floors' mentality perfectly.
"I think everyone was nervous when the open area next to the sea was coming in the finale, we were too. But I had a plan for that part of the race."
Jungels' red, white and blue Luxembourg national champions jersey was like a beacon for his teammates. The rest of the peloton could only watch his colours disappear up the road to central Cagliari.
"Amazingly we had six men up there. That shows the spirit within our team. We are a team with experience in situations like this but you also need some luck. Today was a nice combination of the two."
Laurens De Plus explained what it was like to part of the action at just 21.
All the teams knew it would crack, but it was Quick Step who first turned onto the roundabout," 21 year-old Laurens De Plus happily told Sporza, enjoying being part of the team on such a big day.
"It was fantastic to be up there. I was lucky that I lead onto the big roundabout. Before the race we were briefed that everything would happen there because of the side wind. The I heard over the radio: 'Go! Go! Go!' I heard some shouting and Bramati said that we had gone away. There were ten in the move and seven were Quick Step Floors.
"Then we just had to drive it to the finish. I ran out of legs with three kilometres to go, as did Martinelli and Keisse, but Jungels was there and so was Richeze to lead out Gaviria. It was a perfect team game."
The lost moment
While Quick-Step Floors celebrated, everyone else recalled the moment when they saw Quick-Step Floors make their move but were simply unable to go with them. The gap opened and the echelon riding made it impossible to close it.
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) fought hard to defend his pink jersey and try to win a second stage. But his race was like so many of those who missed the echelon when Quick-Step Floors attacked so violently. A split second made a huge difference, a gap of a single bike length, a touch of wheels or a gust of wind changed everything. With the wind blowing so strongly the elastic that holds riders together snapped dozens of times.
"I was riding in the first echelon when I had to dodge a rider in front of me. At that moment my foot came out of my pedal, that's how I got dropped from the first echelon," he explained.
"That is such a pity and I am disappointed. It was the perfect situation for me because Quick-Step Floors had so many riders in that group I could have kept calm in the back. A second stage win wouldn't have been easy, considering the riders in that group and I could have maintained the pink jersey. But as a sportsman you have to be able to accept these things."