Distanced three kilometres from the summit of Pian del Falco on stage 10 of the Giro d'Italia, Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep) scrambled down the descent with the recklessness of a man desperate to keep a hold of his maglia rosa.
Certainly, that was the assumption of his teammate Bob Jungels, who had started the day just a second behind on general classification. When Brambilla latched back on to the group of favourites at the base of the descent, Jungels simply presumed it would be a case of each man for himself on the final haul to Sestola.
Andrey Amador (Movistar) – third on GC, just 32 seconds back – had slipped up the road alone on the descent, however, and was now the virtual overall leader. As the road reared upwards towards the summit, Brambilla opted to take matters in hand and make the ultimate sacrifice. Without waiting to be drafted, the maglia rosa enlisted as a deluxe domestique.
For the bones of three kilometres, Brambilla pulled on the front of the chasing group, before eventually swinging off with a little over two kilometres remaining. His effort helped to stem Amador's advance, while the accelerations of the favourites in the final kilometre almost pegged back the Costa Rican altogether. Jungels hung tight to finish with them to inherit the overall lead from his teammate Brambilla.
"In the end, it was Brambilla's idea when he came back on after the second last climb. He probably saw that I was stronger on the climbs and he decided for himself when Amador attacked," Jungels said afterwards. "Nobody said anything on the radio. It was a very special decision that he took, it's something we haven't seen a lot in cycling."
Brambilla was cheered heartily as he eventually inched up the final ramps to the finish at Sestola, more than a minute down on Jungels, and some 3:27 behind stage winner Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF). On reaching the finish, a soigneur draped an Etixx-QuickStep jacket over Brambilla's shoulders, but his pink jersey was still showing as he spoke to reporters just past the line.
"You just have to be realistic with yourself," Brambilla said. "Today I was dropped three kilometres from the top of the penultimate climb. I didn't lose a lot of time but that suggested that I might get dropped on the last one, too. I got back on during the descent and when I got back on I started to pull straightaway. I didn't want to throw away all of the work that [Matteo] Trentin, [Lukasz] Wisniowski and [Fabio] Sabatini had done all day to keep the jersey."
In taking over at the top of the general classification, Jungels bridged a 57-year gap to become the first Luxembourger to wear the maglia rosa since Charly Gaul carried the precious tunic to Milan for his second Giro win in 1959, having divested Jacques Anquetil on the Piccolo San Bernardo the previous afternoon.
In the more immediate lineage of Luxembourg cycling, Jungels has long been earmarked as the successor to the Schleck brothers in flying the flag for the Grand Duchy at WorldTour level, and he has progressed steadily since joining the Leopard Trek feeder team in 2012 following a glittering junior career.
Still only 23 years of age, Jungels joined Etixx-QuickStep at the beginning of this season, and set out on the Giro with designs on holding the white jersey of best young rider all the way to Turin a week on Sunday. As the race approaches its midpoint, Jungels has a lead of 26 seconds over Amador on general classification, while the pre-race favourites, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali, lie 50 and 52 seconds back, respectively.
"We'll see how the race unfolds but the next stages should be sprint stages," Jungels said. "I want to follow the best for as long as I can. This is one of the biggest moments of my career and I want to keep the jersey on my shoulders for a few days."
A strong time triallist, Jungels has performed well in week-long stage races during his short professional career – he was third at this year's Tirreno-Adriatico – and showed encouraging signs of his abilities over three weeks by placing 27th at his debut Tour de France last summer. He was cautious, however, when asked how far he could go at this Giro, mindful that the high mountains are shoehorned into the final ten days of racing.
"The team came here with me as an option for GC, but with no pressure," Jungels said. "I'm quite ambitious, I have to say, and now I'm first on GC midway through the race. But it's also a moment where we have to take each stage as it comes and not dream too big."
For his teammate Brambilla, now 6th at 1:11, the dream is over. He will not wear the pink jersey in front of his home crowds on the road to Asolo on Wednesday, but he bore his disappointment lightly.
"I'm happy for Bob, but a bit disappointed for myself and for the tifosi from the Veneto. There'll be a lot of them there waiting for me tomorrow," he said. "I won't have the pink jersey but I'll certainly still have a smile on my face."
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