Stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia had, from the start, been thought of as the final chance for the sprinters in the race, a single flat finish in the final week which would make it worth sticking around for the likes of Mark Cavendish, Fernando Gaviria, and maglia ciclamino Arnaud Démare.
Following 156km of racing on Thursday, the trio were part of the dash for the line in Treviso, but the fight was for fifth place rather than the win, as four breakaway men instead fought to the line some 14 seconds up the road.
Before the stage, and even well into a day where the group struggled to gain two minutes on the peloton, such an outcome looked very unlikely, but heading into the final 40, 30, 20 kilometres, the belief in the break only rose.
At 50km to go, following the descent of the steep fourth-category Muro di Ca' del Poggio climb, the four men up front – Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix), Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), Edoardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma), and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) – enjoyed a 2:50 advantage.
It didn't look like enough to survive to the finish ahead of the sprint squads of Groupama-FDJ, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, and Team DSM, but at 40km to go it was still two minutes. 10km later it was 1:45, at 20 to go it was 1:15, and on the finishing circuit at 10km to go it was still 1:05.
In the end, the quartet – unusually strong for a very flat stage with little on offer for a break – made it to the finish, with Cort leading out ahead of Affini, De Bondt, and Gabburo. It was time triallist Affini who jumped first, some 250 metres out, before De Bondt edged past in the dying metres to take win number three of the Giro for Alpecin-Fenix.
"I knew Edoardo had one choice," De Bondt said after the stage, talking through the finish to Eurosport. "That was to go from far because he's not a pure sprinter but he's amazingly strong.
"He can do a very long sprint and that's the only chance to beat Magnus, I think. Everybody thought Magnus was the fastest, so he had to lead but I knew Edoardo had to go first to have a chance, so he actually did a perfect lead out for me. By playing the game like I did, I pulled it off."
Affini, who said later he hadn't won a sprint of any kind since stage 4 of the Tour of Norway almost exactly three years ago, said that he had to go long due to his characteristics as a rider.
The Italian, who hails from Mantova some two hours west of the stage 18 finish, said that his time trialling strength did not translate to winning sprints, especially against fast finishers like De Bondt and Cort.
"Unfortunately, I found Dries faster than me but chapeau to him," he said after the finish. "As I said before, I'm not really fast. Especially, I'm not really explosive in taking up sprints, so I needed a long sprint.
"It was perfect to have Cort in front of me to have a bit of slipstream. Then I decided to follow my instincts and I decided to go. Yeah, I think he was half a wheel faster."
'Always all together with good work and the same goal'
That dash for the line was the culmination of a hard day of work shared between the four riders, who jumped out into the break inside the opening 10km of the stage three hours earlier.
Groupama-FDJ and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl quickly blocked the peloton soon afterwards, happy for the move to get away, though it was something of a struggle for the move to get any sort of decent advantage out front.
They gained – or were allowed to gain – two minutes in short order, before Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) shaved almost a minute off on his own at 40km into the day. The Portuguese rider's efforts gained some questions from the likes of Démare's lead-out man Jacopo Guarnieri, though the gap eventually grew again – with some fluctuation – heading into the final 70km.
Up front the four men in the break were in clear discussions at several points during the stage. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, especially given the high pace and the somewhat erratic peloton behind, but Affini explained later.
"The first part I would say was really high power to make a break and to get a gap," he said. "Then, together, we decided to take it easily and gamble a little bit with the bunch to see what they were going to do.
"Just before the [Muro di Ca' del Poggio] we decided to speed up and try to gain time. Actually, the plan worked out pretty well. Then we went always all together with good work and the same goal, to try to win the stage."
De Bondt said that talking to each other and trusting each other was key to the consistent work and effort that saw them stay away all the way to the line.
"From the moment we started talking and trusting each other, there was not one turn skipped," he said.
"For example, after the hard descent of the steep climb [again, the Muro di Ca' del Poggio – Ed.], Magnus lost the wheel for like 20 metres, but we knew if we went full in the bottom of the descent we'd kill him.
"So, we waited for him to come back because we knew we'd have to collaborate to the finish if we had a chance to pull this off.
"It had to be the fastest guy who won today and it was like this so huge respect for my fellow breakaway companions and I'm the happy one, the lucky one today, I guess."
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