Breakaway holds off the sprinters as De Bondt wins Giro d'Italia stage 18

The famously unpredictable Giro d’Italia transition stages more than lived up to their reputation on Thursday on a route widely viewed as having bunch sprint written all over it was won from a four-man breakaway by Alpecin-Fenix racer Dries De Bondt.

At the end of a largely flat 156-kilometre trek across northern Italy, De Bondt narrowly out-sprinted Jumbo-Visma’s Eduardo Affini with Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) in third. The remnants of a considerably shredded bunch tore across the finish line at Treviso 14 seconds later.

Overall there was no change in the top three despite a late puncture scare for second-placed Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), with the biggest change on GC coming before the stage as João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), previously fourth overall, tested positive for COVID-19 and quit the race.

The miscalculation by the sprinters' teams saw their last chance of success in this year’s race evaporate, as the Giro now returns to the mountains for two more days of heavy-duty climbing before the final time trial showdown in Verona.

De Bondt’s victory, his first in a Grand Tour and Alpecin-Fenix's third in the Giro d’Italia this year, came despite the breakaway’s lead hovering around the two-minute mark for most of the day.

But as the former Belgian National Champion explained, the four-man move had realised that if they did not want their attack to be caught by the sprinters in the closing kilometres, as had happened six days ago in Cuneo, there could be no shirking duties before the last dash for victory.

“The collaboration between the four of us was magnificent – there was no moment of doubt, nobody skipped one turn,” the 30-year-old said afterwards, “it was full, full, full to the line.”

“They predicted this was going to be a sprint stage, and for sure [Arnaud] Démare (Groupama-FDJ), [Mark] Cavendish (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, [Alberto] Dainese (DSM) or [Phil] Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious) was going to win – it was written in the stars.

“But we made a plan between the four of us and we stuck to the plan and pulled it off.”

How it unfolded

Even before the 156-kilometre stage had started, Almeida’s untimely exit was the first of several unusual developments during the day. Race-wise the biggest consequence of the UAE Team Emirates rider quitting is that barring major surprises, the three riders currently occupying the Giro’s provisional podium, race leader Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Hindley and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) will be fighting for the final top three places overall. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan), previously in fifth place overall, is currently lagging almost five minutes behind Landa, a gap too large for even a multiple Grand Tour champion like the Italian veteran to bridge.

Thursday’s surprise stage result was first shaped by the classic early break that seemed doomed to failure going clear just a few kilometres out of the start town of Borgo Valsugana.

Multiple Vuelta a España stage winner Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) along with De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix), Edoardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma) and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) quickly gained around two minutes, but the sustained pace kept behind by UAE Team Emirates left no doubt that this was a stage the sprinters wanted to capture.

As the rain began to beat down lightly on the course, the last 40 kilometres saw all the sprinters' teams throw all their riders into the mix, with DSM, Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl, and Groupama-FDJ all contributing to the chase. The question now was whether the fast men’s squads retained enough collective strength after several hard days of mountain racing to bring back the break as easily as they had done on almost every occasion in the Giro up to now.

So as the quartet headed onto the first part of a 13 final circuit in Treviso, the bunch continued to chip away at the lead, yet the sprinters' teams must surely have realised the gap was only descending worryingly slowly.

Cue yet more accelerations behind, one of which caught Trek-Segafredo leader Juan Pedro López on the wrong side of a split and which ultimately cost the Spanish GC contender the bones of three minutes on his rivals, if not the white jersey of Best Young Rider, newly inherited from Almeida.

But as the bunch lost more and more components, so the four ahead dug deeper and deeper, with their lead of a minute in the last ten kilometres only disintegrating at the slowest of paces.

The steady collaboration between the four lasted almost all the way to the line, by which time the bunch was down to less than 40 riders and the sprinters had used up almost all their resources. De Bondt timed his late charge past Affini to perfection, barely needing to throw his bike to the line to win, while the sprinters rued their misfortune and the GC riders reflected that after such a fraught stage, on Friday it’s back into the mountains again.

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