Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ineos Grenadiers enjoyed a day of mixed emotions on stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia, dominating the racing over the Stelvio and moving within the grasp of the maglia rosa, but missing out a prestigious stage victory and the race lead.
Geoghegan Hart was beaten by Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb) in the two-rider sprint near the Laghi di Cancano above Bormio and across from the summit of the mighty snow-covered Stelvio.
After snatching three seconds at an intermediate sprint at the foot of the final climb, Geoghegan Hart could have pulled on the maglia rosa if Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) had given up more time and if he had won the stage.
However, Geoghegan Hart became caught up in Team Sunweb's double-goal tactics. He also seemed to focus a little too much on the stage victory, was distracted by Hindley's refusal to work with him, and then Kelderman came back from the ropes to take the maglia rosa.
Geoghegan Hart finished second on the stage and is now third overall, 15 seconds down on Kelderman. He is only three seconds behind Hindley with just three stages of the 2020 Giro d'Italia left to race. He could still win the maglia rosa if he can distance the Team Sunweb duo, but immediately after the finish Geoghegan Hart was disappointed about failing to finish off a superb team strategy.
Ineos Grenadiers' Ben Swift and Filippo Ganna got in the early breakaway, and then Rohan Dennis used his power and time trial skills to drag him and Hindley over the Stelvio while distancing all of their rivals, including Kelderman, long-time race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and anyone else who had started the stage with hopes of a good overall result.
"I just wanted to win. I don't think I did the best sprint but c'est la vie," Tao said after quickly pulling on a cape and descending to the Ineos Grenadiers team bus.
He was neither angry nor happy with Hindley sitting on his wheel on the climb to the finish.
"It's racing. You chose your own tactic and I guess they didn't want to lose too much time for Wilco, so fair enough," he said. "Congrats to Jai, he's a super nice guy and a friend of mine."
Geoghegan Hart was also complimentary of his Ineos teammates.
"In hindsight, it was a crazy stage. We set out to take time and we did that. I can only really thank my teammates. I didn't do much in the end. It was 90 per cent their work," he said.
"I think Rohan rode 99 per cent of the race off his wheel. It was super, super impressive. In the finale, it was tricky to know how the situation was behind and how everything would be after such a hard stage."
The Giro d'Italia descends to Asti on Friday and then climbs to Sestriere on Saturday before Sunday's final 15.7km flat time trial to central Milan.
Geoghegan Hart is still in the game but remains unsure of his chances of the final victory.
"I haven't seen the times, I don't know anything. We will see. I don't know," was his initial, evasive reaction before revealing how a possible podium was so unexpected at the start of the Giro d'Italia when Geraint Thomas was Ineos' designated team leader.
"It's really unexpected, especially if you look at the first stage of the race, I was pretty far behind after the first few stages. We can almost smell Milan now. We'll stay focused and see what happens."
No pressure on Geoghegan Hart
Ineos Grenadiers Directeur Sportif Matteo Tosatto was also careful not to raise expectations too high or load Geoghegan Hart with pressure.
"The podium is possible. Team Sunweb are strong and we've only got six riders but we'll see on Saturday," told Cyclingnews before descending from Laghi di Cancano.
"This is the third week and I think mental strength will make the difference. It's the third week of the Giro and it's the first time he's leader so we'll have to be careful.
"Congrats to Team Sunweb. We're on the podium and so we'll see what happens. I think the race will be more open and more aggressive now. The Agnello and Izoard were scary climbs. The new stage isn't easy and it's the final Saturday too, so we'll see what we can do but we'll decide our plan after tomorrow's stage."
Like Geoghegan Hart, Tosatto took time to praise Dennis after his huge performance and supporting role. After his fallout with Bahrain Merida last summer during the Tour de France and subsequent contract dispute, Dennis seems to be happy at Ineos and performing at his very best, even when riding for others.
"We spoke to Tao and we knew he was riding well, so we decided as a team to try something," Tosatto revealed. "We put Swifty and Ganna in the break. It didn't get a lot of time but they could have been useful. Having Dennis up there on the Stelvio was great and so we attacked the race.
"Rohan was incredible and Tao went with him. We saw he was strong in the time trial and showed he's got a huge heart and a strong mind. Rohan has fitted in the team really well. There's a real good group of guys and I think people can see that in how we ride."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.