It was a day of high drama that saw Hirt emerge alone from the day's attack with 7km still to go, fight his way to the top of the category 1 Valico di Santa Cristina and then pick his way down a wet, technical descent to win the first Grand Tour stage of his career at age 31.
The maglia rosa group of Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) sprinted in for third, with Hindley edging out the race leader for the four-second time bonus.
That result reduces Hindley's gap to Carapaz in the overall standings to just three seconds, with João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) putting in a dogged performance to hold onto third at 44 seconds.
"I wanted to try to do something nice today," an elated Hirt said, then going on to explain all that he had to overcome to take his first Grand Tour victory on a brutal stage that crested the feared Passo di Mortirolo.
Hirt was one of seven riders to emerge from a high-powered breakaway that went clear on the first of three category 1 climbs on the 202-kilometre stage, the Goletto di Casino, with Bora-Hansgrohe again throwing multiple riders up the road to shake the general classification tree.
The large breakaway splintered on the Passo di Mortirolo, with Hirt fighting his way back to the leaders to become one of seven men to join together to tackle the valley roads to the final climb.
Kämna tried to anticipate the attacks and chose to jump away on the descent from an uncategorised climb ahead of the Santa Cristina, but there would be no second stage victory for the German, who was caught when Arensman attacked out of the chasing group.
Hirt wisely fought his way across to Arensman's wheel and then rode Arensman off his wheel in a show of resilience.
"Every time I hear Mortirolo I want to anticipate. I wanted to go in the breakaway today," Hirt explained. "There were difficult moments when the group split, so then we had to come back on the Mortirolo, then in the end on the last climb I had a problem with my bike, it was not shifting properly and the chain was jumping. Then I had cramps on the downhill, so I had all these problems, but I just wanted to fight all the way to the finish."
Fight he did, and despite having to navigate a treacherous descent, Hirt held off Arensman by seven seconds, making it a pair of stage wins for Intermarché after Biniam Girmay's historic win on stage 10.
How it unfolded
Despite a standing start at kilometre-zero, the race burst to life instantly and barely settled down thereafter. The stage opened with 30km of false flat, followed by a short uncategorised climb ahead of the start of the Goletto di Cadino - the first of the three major cat-1 climbs - at kilometre 40.
The first breakaway group contained an unusual figure in Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), who was simply looking to give himself some sliding room on a day when making the time cut was his only real ambition. He was joined by Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Nans Peters (AG2R Citroën), Pascal Eenkhoorn (Jumbo-Visma), and Chris Juul-Jensen (BikeExchange-Jayco).
They opened a lead of a minute over the peloton, where attacks were followed by lulls. When they hit the uncategorised climb, however, the race really ignited. Dario Cataldo (Trek-Segafredo) hit the front to help take Giulio Ciccone clear in a large group, and they rapidly caught the leaders as the peloton suddenly exploded. For a brief period, Carapaz appeared short of teammates, with riders all over the place. The chaos continued onto the Goletto di Casino - 19.9km at 6.2% - with a host of big names springing from the disorganised bunch and over to the break. Others, meanwhile, such as Cavendish, Van der Poel and De Gendt, dropped back from it during a period of flux.
In the original nine-man move with Ciccone (16th overall) and Cataldo were Alejandro Valverde (Movistar, 11th overall), Thymen Arensman (DSM, 15th overall), and Hugh Carthy (EF, 18th overall). Among the riders to then bridge across on the lower slopes of the climb were Guillaume Martin (Cofidis, 10th overall), Jan Hirt (Intermarché, 12th overall), Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe, 13th overall), Lorenzo Fortunato (Eolo-Kometa, 19th overall), and Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco, 21st overall). That made it nine riders from positions 10-21 on GC. From a tactical perspective, it was interesting to note Bora-Hansgrohe not only putting Kelderman up there but also Kämna - riders who might be useful pawns for later on, while Ineos regained almost their whole squad and set about controlling the reduced peloton.
The full composition of the breakaway was as follows: Kelderman, Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe), Hirt, Lorenzo Rota (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Arensman, Chris Hamilton (DSM), Ciccone, Cataldo (Trek-Segafredo), Yates, Juul-Jensen (BikeExchange-Jayco), Koen Bouwman, Eenkhoorn (Jumbo-Visma), Martin (Cofidis), Valverde (Movistar), Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Fortunato (Eolo-Kometa), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), Mauri Vansevenant (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Sylvain Moniquet (Lotto Soudal), Filippo Zana (Bardiani-CSF), Mattia Bais (Drone Hopper-Androni), Peters (AG2R Citroën)
The gap went out to 90 seconds as things settled into more of a pattern on the first half of the climb. However, they lit up again when Cataldo accelerated once more a few kilometres from the summit. Peters, Juul-Jensen, Eenkhoorn, Bais, and Zana were dropped. The remaining 18 continued to the top, where Ciccone launched a fierce sprint to get the better of blue jersey Bouwman and close the gap in the mountains classification.
A technical and varied 20km descent followed. Zana got back in but Bais misjudged a corner in his slipstream and crashed, before being joined by Kelderman when the Dutchman suffered a mechanical. The pair hit the valley with a deficit of one minute - a big blow to Bora’s carefully laid plans for the day. Behind, Ben Swift led Ineos down at 2:40.
From there, it was a 30km false flat before the mighty Mortirolo. Kelderman, with Bais largely in his slipstream, dragged his way back on after 15km in the valley, making it 20 in the break. However, they didn’t make it to the Mortirolo together, as disorganisation led to a key split. Up front were Arensman, Hamilton, Valverde, Bouwman, Cataldo, Rota, Kamna, Poels, and they opened a lead of a minute as arms we waved behind.
Bouwman was first at the intermediate sprint at Edolo with 90km to go and a few kilometres to the start of the climb, with Cataldo then dropping back to give one final effort for Ciccone. That made it 45 seconds between the two groups as the 12.6km climb began, with the peloton at 4:45 after a slow-down for a Carapaz stop.
On the Passo del Mortirolo (12.6km at 7.2%), the breakaway started to reshuffle once more. Rota was dropped from the lead group, while Ciccone attacked behind with Carthy, and Hirt. Martin and Kelderman fought behind them, followed by Fortunato and Yates, and then Vansevenant. The rest of the break were effectively ridden out of the game.
Hamilton continued to sacrifice himself for Arensman and set the pace on the climb, but the chasers closed in. Carthy and Hirt made contact 4km from the summit but Ciccone was dropped and began to slip away. Arensman then finished his final turn and fell away, before Bouwman took it up in the final 2km before helping himself to the maximum haul of KOM points to reassert his dominance in the mountains classification.
Back in the peloton, the race came to life, with Astana taking it up in the peloton on the lower slopes. Nibali’s team put six riders on the front in usurping Ineos but didn’t look to be doing any real damage, either to the riders in the bunch of the breakaway’s advantage. However, 3km from the top, that all changed. A big turn from David de la Cruz led to an even bigger one from Joe Dombrowski, and suddenly the ‘bunch’ was down to 15 or so riders, with 40 seconds wiped off the gap to the break. There were worrying times for Carapaz, who was suddenly down to one teammate in Sivakov, with Porte puncturing near the top.
When Nibali hit the front in the final few hundred metres, it was clear the stage was being set for a shark attack on the descent. True enough, the Italian used his downhill skills to sail clear, forcing Carapaz into a panicked chase. With valley roads to follow, Nibali perhaps didn’t want to be alone but his forcing did put pressure on his rivals, and a mistake was forced out of fifth-placed Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché), who crashed out and had to descend alone.
By the time the riders were spat out into the valley, only nine riders were left in the pink jersey group: Carapaz, Sivakov, Nibali, Hindley, Buchmann, Landa, Bilbao, Almeida, Formolo. However, the group soon sat up, allowing plenty of riders back in. Among them were four Ineos riders, giving Carapaz five teammates who once again took control on the flatter terrain.
There were 20km of valley roads before the uncategorised climb and intermediate sprint in Teglio. Despite Carthy nursing his way down, the leading seven (Valverde, Arensman, Hirt, Carthy, Bouwman, Poels, Kamna) took it on with a lead of five minutes once more over the peloton. In between was an expanded group of seven breakaway remnants but they only drifted further back towards the bunch.
Bouwman was dropped early on the uncategorised climb, which was still steep with plenty of double-digit gradients and an average of 8.2% over 5.6km. Bouwman was soon dropped as Carthy dictated the tempo, before Kamna led over the top with 30km to go to collect three bonus seconds ahead of Valverde and Arensman, who took two and one respectively. Back in the bunch, Vadim Pronskiy reasserted Astana’s presence but then Bahrain Victorious took it up en masse and markedly lifted the pace. On the short descent to the foot of the final climb, where Kamna attacked and went clear, the gap had been reduced to just over three minutes.
Valico di Santa Cristina
The final climb of the Calico di Santa Cristina measured 13.5km at 8%, with the steeper stuff coming in the second half. The ascent was made famous by Marco Pantani back at the 1994 Giro and the route to his famous raid in that race was replicated with the 5km drop down to Aprica and then the final-kilometre kick-up to the line.
Kamna took a lead of 30 seconds onto the climb and took it out to almost a minute, appearing on course for a second stage win at this Giro. Meanwhile, Poels was called back from the lead group to work in the GC group behind. Poels came back as Santiago Buitrago finished his turn, giving Bahrain four riders in a group that was rapidly losing numbers. Soon, domestiques like Castroviejo and Dombrowski were gone, plus top-10 riders like Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Juan Pedro Lopez (Trek-Segafredo) and, a little further up, Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché).
7.5km from the top, Arensman attacked and began to make his way over to Kamna, who started to fade. Hirt then attacked and left Carthy and Valverde as the steep stuff started on the second half of the ascent. When the GC group hit the steep section, the damage intensified, with Porte dropped for Ineos as only nine remained, Bahrain the only ones with numbers. They did, however, almost ruin their own hard work when Bilbao and Landa inexplicably tangled going uphill and crashed. It took the wind out of their sails but only briefly, as Bilbao and Poels offered final turns before Landa accelerated and opened the GC fight 5km from the top. Carapaz was swiftly on it and Hindley too as the trio went clear of the rest. Almeida chased with Nibali before dropping him.
Up front, Hirt reached Arensman and they both then reached Kamna and left him behind immediately 2.5km from the top. Arensman did the initial surge but Hirt responded with a counter-attack and went clear. From there he went to the summit with 15 seconds in hand and 6km to go. Down the mountain, the GC group were closing to around 90 seconds, with Hindley, Landa, and Carapaz all putting in accelerations as Almeida dangled 10 seconds off the back but never dropped definitively.
The drop down to Aprica was made treacherous by the wet but Hirt and Arensman both descended as gingerly as each other and the Czech rider took 10 seconds onto the uphill final kilometre, riding most of it out of the saddle to seal the biggest win of his career. Arensman trailed in second, leaving four bonus seconds for the GC group. Hindley hit out from range and, despite Carapaz being in the wheel and drawing up alongside on the line, managed to hang on to take a small but significant step closer to the pink jersey.
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