Ruben Plaza (Israel Cycling Academy) threw everything he had at the Giro d'Italia's 18th stage on Thursday, infiltrating the day's main breakaway and then surviving to be among the final three fighting for victory on the summit finish at the Prato Nevoso ski resort.
The 38-year-old Spaniard came up just short of adding a Giro d'Italia stage to his collection of Grand Tour stage wins, however, finishing second to winner Maximillian Schachmann (Quick-Step Floors) with a gritty performance that saw him twice come back to the leaders after losing the pace in the closing kilometres.
"I finished completely dead," Plaza said after the line, still catching his breath from the effort.
Plaza previously won stages in the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France, and he said before the race that he wanted to add a Giro win to his palmares. He put in a mighty effort to complete his Grand Tour set on the climb to Prato Nevoso at the end of the stage. Plaza had been fighting to stick with the slowly shrinking breakaway since the road began to climb after a long day of flat terrain, but he jumped from his rivals with 8.7km to go as the leaders' advantage on the pink jersey group remained above 12 minutes.
Schachmann quickly put the clamps on Plaza's first acceleration, bringing across a group of five that included Androni-Sidermac's Mattia Cattaneo and Bora-Hansgrohe's Christoff Pfingsten.
The Spanish rider's second move only launched Schachmann and Cattaneo into a duo move, with the pair trading attacks but unable to drop one another. Plaza lingered just a few seconds back, but he wasn't done yet.
"I know myself very well, and I knew I had to keep my own tempo on the climb," Plaza said. "I tried twice to go alone, but two or three of the riders were super strong."
Inside the final 2km, Cattaneo put in one last attack but could not shake Schachmann or distance Plaza any further. Plaza then summoned his strength one more time to try for the win, briefly digging into his pedals before Schachmann shut the door for good, attacking with 700 metres to go. Cattaneo dropped first, while Plaza stuck in for second as the Quick-Step rider pedalled away.
"I caught the two riders in the last kilometre, and then I tried to breathe a little bit, to recover and wait for the sprint, but when Schachmann attacked, to be honest, I couldn't keep his wheel," Plaza said. "I tried until the end. It's an achievement for the team but, still, we wanted the win."
Israel Cycling Academy had set a stage win as the goal for the team's first-ever Grand Tour - and one that started in Israel, no less. So far over 18 stages the team has come up short of that goal, but Plaza came the closest. Now there are two climbing-stage opportunities on Friday and Saturday, with Sunday's stage into Rome set up for a final sprint.
Despite Plaza coming up short on Thursday, Israel Cycling Academy manager Kjell Carlström was proud of his veteran rider's effort.
"Ruben did a great race today," Carlström said. "He was super motivated and gave his maximum effort, as you saw. This was what we had been talking about for a long time. We knew the last week of the Giro would be the best week for Ruben."
Carlström hinted that Plaza could be on the attack again before the finish on Sunday.
"If he recovers well today, I think he'll try again. Tomorrow? I don't know, but maybe Saturday," Carlström said. "Honestly, anything can happen in the last week of a Grand Tour, especially for a rider Iike Ruben. He's a great professional."
Plaza was more circumspect as he rued a missed opportunity to complete his Grand Tour collection with a Giro stage win.
"I didn't win. The first of the losers," he laughed before turning serious. "I lost a super good opportunity to win here at the Giro. Maybe I won't get another chance."