The battle for the pink jersey took an unexpected but well-deserved twist on Thursday as young Hungarian pro Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) claimed the maglia rosa on the summit of the San Giacomo climb ahead of pre-race favourites Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Valter had formed part of the day-long breakaway on Tuesday, placing sixth in Sestola, a result which allowed him to move into the top five of the Giro d'Italia standings.
Then on stage 6, another key part of the jigsaw fell into place for Valter after Ineos Grenadiers prolonged drive at the front of the peloton early on saw Alessandro de Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) lose contact with the main GC group.
Finally, his tenacious ride on the San Giacamo, claiming 12th, allowed the 22-year-old Hungarian to move into the overall lead, becoming the first rider from his country ever to wear the leader's jersey of a Grand Tour.
Given his strong mountain performance in atrocious weather on two stages, it is anything but a given that he will lose it as soon as the GC heavyweights fire off another salvo of attacks.
Valter said with a certain degree of irony that he was sorry to disappoint those who had only talked about Evenepoel and Bernal before stage 6, but that he had his own missions on the day.
"My goal was to stick near them and then I knew I'd have a chance of taking pink," he told reporters.
"The closer we got to the finish, the more I believed it could happen. In the last three kilometres, I told myself there was no way I was going to let it go and fought for it with my life. I'm super happy it happened."
Riding his second Giro d'Italia, after he first took part in the corsa rosa in his rookie season last year in the now-defunct CCC team and finished a very respectable 27th overall, Valter said he had virtually no idea of what he was facing on stage 6. Instead, he did it almost all on intuition and trying to stay as resolute as possible.
"Today I didn't know the climbs in detail. I wasn't watching my Garmin and I just went on my feelings because they were good. When you say out loud you want the pink jersey, then it helps you. I said this morning because I really wanted it and I had to believe it. It happened."
He said that during the stage "the conditions were very difficult, and you had to be well-placed. Wearing the maglia bianca [Best Young Rider's jersey] helped me today to get in this position and gave me the confidence to get through.
"Then on the last climb my adrenaline was so high and I was so motivated that actually it was not too hard until the last two or three kilometres when Bernal attacked. There it was really hard but I knew that I just had to survive two kilometres within 30 seconds of him and [Alexander] Vlasov and Remco, so it was a perfect day for me actually."
He dedicated the jersey "to the team and my dad" who has been his trainer. "I think we got what we came for, in the future I want to come back as a possible winner of the race of course, but now I just want to enjoy my time in the pink jersey and with legs like this I want to keep it as long as possible."
After another talented young racer, João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) became a surprise leader on the Giro's first summit finish of Etna last year, comparisons with the Portuguese rider are bound to emerge in the coming stages.
Almeida, then 22, like Valter, defied expectations to keep the jersey for over a fortnight. But for the young Hungarian, even one day in pink represents a huge advance in his career, and whatever comes after this will be a cherry on a very large cake.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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