Never has a second-place finish felt as much like a victory. Two-hundred yards or so past the finish line in Santa Maria di Sala, Pascal Ackermann stood with a small group of Bora-Hansgrohe teammates huddled around him. Ordinarily, this would have been the beginning of the post-mortem, but this was a different kind of a sprint finish.
Stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia may have fallen to Damiano Cima (Nippo-Vini Fantini), who survived from the day's break to fend off the sprinters, but another prize was still hanging in the balance in those interminable moments after the finish. Ackermann's disappointment at placing second, a mere bike length behind the doughty Cima, was being tempered by the gradual realisation that he might have moved ahead of Arnaud Démare (Grouapama-FDJ) in the points classification.
As the gruppo sped towards Santa Maria di Sala, Ackermann knew the arithmetic of the competition allowed little room for error. The first rider across the line would take away 50 points, while the second would collect 35. He trailed Démare by 14 points in the race for the maglia ciclamino. With two Dolomite legs and a time trial remaining, this was the last opportunity for him to divest Démare. Win or bust, or so it seemed.
"We were counting before that there were 14 points between us and there was a 15-point gap between first and second place, so we thought we had to win to get the jersey back," Ackermann said of the gloomy faces in the Bora-Hansgrohe huddle at the finish. "When we had just crossed the finish line and we were thinking, 'Shit, it wasn't enough.'"
A three-rider break had spent the bulk of the 222km stage off the front, but as Bora-Hansgrohe the flat and fast run-in towards the line, it seemed certain they would be swept up in time to allow Ackermann to sprint for the win he thought he needed. Instead, Cima held on to win as the bunch bore down on him in the finishing straight, and the German champion had to settle for second place.
On braking to a halt by his soigneur, Ackermann assumed that he had lost all hope of landing the points classification, but when his teammates gathered around him one by one, he began to realise that Démare had floundered in the finishing sprint. The Frenchman had only managed eighth place, and had ridden directly and disconsolately to the Groupama-FDJ bus at the finish, already certain that his presence would not be required at the podium ceremonies to put on a fresh maglia ciclamino.
Moments later, news of white smoke from the commissaires' conclave was relayed to Ackermann, who roared heartily on learning that he had done enough to move back to the top of the points classification, 13 points clear of Démare.
"I thought I was only second, and I was disappointed, because the whole team worked for me and they did an amazing job," Ackermann said in the mixed zone by the podium. "I hope they are not too fucked now because really I think it was the fastest 20k I ever did. Eventually we realised we got the jersey back and I'm very happy."
The final opportunity for the sprinters on this Giro was billed beforehand as match point in the joust between Démare and Ackermann for the maglia ciclamino. With two mountain stages and a time trial to go, it was certainly the final opportunity for the pair to compete for a full complement of points, but the battle is not quite finished.
For one thing, Ackermann must safely carry the tunic to the finish – and within the time limit – on the next two days in the Dolomites. On the 1998 Giro, for instance, maglia cicliamino Michele Bartoli was among some 34 riders eliminated after missing the time cut behind Giuseppe Guerini and Marco Pantani at Selva di Val Gardena.
On Friday's stage to San Martino di Castrozza, meanwhile, only a third category climb lies before the day's two intermediate sprints. Démare, if his morale and legs allow it, has another opportunity to seize the jersey back by notching up 15 points there before the climbers take over for good.
"I don't think it's won yet because we've seen Démare is really strong and he can also climb really well. We kept fighting and for sure he will keep fighting for it now," Ackermann said. "I think the first intermediate sprint tomorrow is the last opportunity to get some points. For sure Démare will keep fighting because he is really strong in the mountains, but we will try to keep it now."
Démare, for his part, issued a short statement via his Groupama-FDJ team, expressing disappointment at how his finishing effort had unfurled in Santa Maria di Sala. The Frenchman had been content to let the break stay clear, but his sprint train took up their positions on the run-in as Bora-Hansgrohe began to claw back the move. He started his sprint on the opposite side of the road to Ackermann and seemed to lose momentum after briefly making contact with fellow countryman Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the closing metres.
"I wasn't able to sprint like I could and I'm very disappointed with the result," Démare said. "From one to day to the next, have I become rubbish because I've lost the jersey? We've given everything for that jersey but the Giro lasts three weeks."