The sight of Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) going on the attack over a mid-race climb and then sprinting for bonus seconds on stage 8 at the Giro d'Italia Femminile might have put a question mark in everyone's minds. After all, the maglia rosa has a nearly unassailable lead of more than four minutes with two stages to go over world champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans), who has already resigned to racing for second place.
The eighth stage of the better known Giro Rosa was relatively flat and expected to be one of those days that the general classification favourites had to get through, and so not ideal for offensive moves. It is the next day's stage 9, with its mountaintop finish at Montasio, that will be much more critical for the overall classification.
And yet the maglia rosa herself went on the attack, and with over 70km to go on the longest stage of the race, 133.3km from Vittorio Veneto to Maniago.
Van Vleuten attacked on the first climb of the day, the Forcella di Pala Barzana, cresting the climb solo and keeping a gap to a chasing group of GC favourites for some time.
"To attack is the best way to defend," Van Vleuten explained after the stage.
"I won a stage with this climb in 2017, so I knew the course and that the descent was quite dangerous. I attacked about two kilometres from the top, but not super hard."
Considering her four-minute buffer in the general classification, Van Vleuten does not have the absolute need to go on forays like this. But, despite her team being in control of the race, the experienced Dutchwoman wanted to be safe rather than sorry.
"Other girls could take it fast and take more risks down the descent to put me or the podium under pressure, so I wanted to go down the descent in front to be safe. Once I had a gap, I was actually eager to continue. But I know that tomorrow is an important day, and it wasn't the plan for today to get away."
Even after waiting up and being reabsorbed by the peloton, Van Vleuten was not done. In the intermediate sprint of Meduno, she was first over the line, picking up three bonus seconds to add to an already-impressive lead.
Another breakaway sticks
In the final, a select breakaway went on the second climb of the day and contested the stage win. Some of the ten attackers had a second motivation apart from a possible stage victory as they are also relatively well-placed in the general classification.
As the peloton finished 2:56 minutes behind stage winner Elizabeth Banks (Bigla) and 2:26 minutes behind the rest of the breakaway, the escapees moved up several places with only two stages left to race.
Sofie De Vuyst (Parkhotel Valkenburg) was part of the breakaway and first over the Clauzetto climb to take maximum points there. The 32-year-old Belgian has been collecting mountain points from stage 2 and wore the green mountain jersey for two days.
On stage 8, De Vuyst was back in the green jersey – but this time, it is only on loan as maglia rosa Van Vleuten also leads the mountain classification (and the points classification). On paper, De Vuyst could still win the mountain jersey outright, but defending her now 13th place overall and helping her young teammate Demi Vollering will probably be more critical.
Soraya Paladin (Alé Cipollini) also profited from the breakaway. She is now seventh overall, one place behind Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), who wears the prestigious blue jersey for the best Italian rider in the Giro Rosa. Only 20 seconds separate the two Italians; if Paladin can recover well from Friday's efforts, she has everything still to play for on Saturday's mountaintop finish.