Nieve solos to Stage 20 win as Froome locks up Giro d’Italia victory

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The general classification of the 101st Giro d’Italia has been decided, and Team Sky’s Chris Froome is the overall winner. One stage remains, an 11.5km circuit in Rome, but barring disaster, Froome will take his sixth Grand Tour victory since 2013.

While it’s a short list of riders who have won all three of professional cycling’s Grand Tours during their career, Froome holds a much more elite distinction — he now holds the title of all three Grand Tours at the same time.

The stage was won by Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), who rode away from a breakaway group on the second of three Alpine climbs and held his lead comfortably to the line. However the story of the day was about the battle between Froome and 2017 Giro champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), his only remaining challenger for the maglia rosa.

Froome started the day with a 40-second lead over Dumoulin. Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) sat third overall, more than four minutes down on the classification. After launching four unsuccessful attacks on Froome’s GC lead on the day’s final climb, Dumoulin finished second overall, 46 seconds off the winning time.

“The whole Giro has been brutal and today again, Tom didn’t give up,” Froome said. “He kept fighting. He attacked several times. Luckily, I was able to follow but it has made it an exciting racing again. We still need to get to the finishing line in Rome. After that, I’ll start thinking of my achievement but there’s no bigger goal for a Grand Tour rider than winning three in a row.”

The toll of three weeks of hard racing took its toll on Pinot, who lost contact on the second of three climbs. The Groupama-FDJ team surrounded Pinot, who was retching from the bike and as he slipped out of the top-10 overall. He lost 43 minutes on the day, dropping from third to 13th overall. The team later issued a statement sating that Pinot was suffering from dehydration and fever and was under observation at a nearby hospital.

Pinot’s nightmare was to the benefit of Miguel Angel Lopez however, as Astana’s 24-year-old Colombian moved onto the podium while also sealing the best young rider’s competition.

“It’s still difficult to believe I reached the podium at the Giro,” Lopez said. “It was a tough stage and I had to fight from the first climb until the very last meter. I want to thank my team, which did incredible work today and during the whole Giro. The white jersey was my objective as well as the top-five overall. Now I’m third and that’s amazing. I worked really hard to be where I am now.”

Three climbs, one breakaway, two major GC battles

While some referred to Stage 19, with four categorized climbs and the Cima Coppi atop Colle delle Finestre, as the race’s queen stage, Giro organizers designated Stage 20, a 214km route from Susa to Cervinia, as the most difficult of the 21-stage race.

One thing was clear — it was the final mountain stage, with the final three climbs of the 2018 Giro d’Italia deciding the GC once and for all.

The ride across the Alps featured 4,000m in total elevation gain, all packed into the final 90km, where the peloton tackled three climbs, each about 20km long — first the 16km Col Tsecore (with long stretches exceeding 12% over the final 4km), then the 16.5km Col de St-Pantaléon averaging 7.2%, and finally the 19km climb to Cervinia, averaging 5%.

The day’s breakaway began with a massive 27 riders, with sprinters Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) there, battling for two intermediate sprints, both won by Viviani. However by the time the race reached the top of the Col Tsecore with 67km remaining, only nine riders remained, holding a gap of 5:32.

In the move: Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac), Koen Bouwman and Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo), Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates), Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF). None were a threat to the general classification.

Behind, Astana set the pace, looking to set up a stage win for Miguel Angel Lopez, the young Colombian wearing best young rider’s jersey and sitting fourth overall, just 40 seconds behind Pinot.

Lopez started the day with a 47-second lead over Richard Carapaz (Movistar) in the best young rider’s competition, and in addition to the contest between Froome and Dumoulin, a showdown between the two young riders was one of the day’s most anticipated battles.

The pace set by Astana’s Luis Leon Sanchez saw Simon Yates, the man who started Stage 19 in the maglia rosa after winning three climbing stages, put into difficulty and unable to hold the pace.

Mohoric took on the Pantaléon climb with 35 seconds over the chasing group. With 43km remaining, the gap to the peloton had stretched out to 6:30. However the climb took its toll on the group, with Nieve, Brambilla, and Grossschartner catching and passing Mohoric while riding away from the others.

Next to succumb to Astana’s pace was Pinot, who struggled on the lower slopes of the Pantaléon climb. The Frenchman nearly came to a complete stop, and was surrounded by his Groupama-FDJ teammates, who pushed him along as he appeared to vomit from the bike.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) suffered badly and lost his podium position on Stage 20. Photo: LB/RB/Cor Vos.

Up ahead, Nieve, who was celebrating his 34th birthday, struck out on his own midway up the Pantaléon climb, with Grossschartner chasing alone. Three riders from the breakaway —  Ciccone, Gesink, and Brambilla — came together to form the second chase group.

Over the top of the Pantaléon, Nieve’s lead over Grossschartner was about 30 seconds, with the three chasers at 1:38. His lead was nearly eight minutes over the maglia rosa group — and over 20 minutes to a distraught Pinot — meaning all time bonuses would be taken by the breakaway.

The final climb of the 2018 Giro d’Italia

Nieve hit the base of the 19km climb to Cervinia alone, with Grossschartner chasing. At 10km to go, his lead was over Grossschartner was 1:40; the Spaniard was on his way to his third Giro stage win, adding to victories in 2011 and 2016. Movistar led the maglia rosa group, setting a hard tempo for Garapaz, the Ecuadorian breakthrough rider of this Giro.

Behind, Froome had Sky teammates Wout Poels, Sergio Henao, and David De La Cruz by his side, while Dumoulin had only Sam Oomen for help.

Dumoulin attacked first at the bottom of the Cervinia climb, drawing a swift reaction from Froome, and prompting a counterattack from Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe). Oomen then jumped, and Lopez and Carapaz followed. Once back together, Dumoulin attacked again, and while he opened a slight gap, the maglia rosa, now isolated, slowly pulled back the 2017 Giro champion.

As the gradient let up, Poels regained contact; each GC contender now had one superdomestique alongside him. A third attack from Dumoulin saw Froome follow and then counter. Carapaz then jumped, taking Lopez with him in the fight for the white jersey as Froome followed. Isolated, Dumoulin rode his own tempo, seemingly realizing his bid for a second Giro title over.

“I felt very much in control, and capable of following attacks,” Froome said. “I think everyone had such a hard day yesterday, no one had any extra legs to go anywhere today.”

Up ahead, Nieve crossed the line alone, boosting Mitchelton-Scott’s morale after Yates’ implosion 24 hours earlier. Gesink crossed 2:17 later, in second.

“It’s hard to say which one of my three victories at the Giro is the best,” Nieve said. “The first one [in 2011 at Gardeccia] was an extremely hard race, but today being my birthday, it’s a very special one. We wanted to make it up after the sadness of yesterday.

“It was a good stage for me. Roman Kreuziger came with me in the breakaway and paved the way for my victory. I realised straight away that there were other climbers in the front group. We had to make the race hard. Cervinia has some hard sections, but also easy ones, so it was better to go solo before. I don’t often have the opportunity to break away for myself. I’m delighted to get the feeling of winning again.”

Though Dumoulin regained contact, as did Oomen, the Sunweb pair were simply out of steam, and out of road, to threaten Froome’s overall win. Instead, Dumoulin went to the front and drove the pace, helping ensure Oomen moved from 11th to 10th overall, 58 seconds ahead of Formolo.

“I’ve had a great three weeks here with the team,” Dumoulin said. “I have to thank all of my teammates. I wanted to return the favour and help Sam Oomen at the end there. I was tired today but I would have blamed myself if I didn’t try. I tried everything that I could and Froome was just the better rider. I wasn’t sure if I would have the legs in the final but I knew that I would always regret it if I didn’t try. Now I know that I have no regrets. I’m super proud of the team and super proud of myself.”

As expected, at 3km to go Carapaz attacked Lopez, but he was unable to shed the Astana rider, who would seal up the youth competition as well as a podium finish.

As the GC group crossed the line six minutes behind Nieve, Poels and Froome clasped hands while Dumoulin finally relented, losing six seconds, the GC differential growing to 46 seconds.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Froome told Eurosport after the race. “I have to say a really big part of being able to do what I was able to do yesterday was everyone believing me and everyone buying into the one plan we had. A lot of times when things don’t work out on the general classification for a rider, they lose a few minutes and you can see the team falls apart. Guys start going in the breaks and doing their own thing a little bit more.

“With us it just felt like the guys got behind me everyday. They were like ‘listen, you’ve had a tough day but don’t worry you’ll be back tomorrow. You’ll get better we believe in you.’ It just feels amazing to be able to repay them after three weeks of hard work. To finish it off today is just amazing.”

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