Just 15 seconds separate the top three riders of the 103rd edition of the Giro d'Italia after a sensational shake-up on the Stelvio resulted in Jai Hindley winning Stage 18 and Sunweb teammate Wilco Kelderman fighting back to end Joao Almeida's 15-day reign in pink.
A masterclass by the Ineos Grenadiers team of Tao Geoghegan Hart saw Australia's Rohan Dennis lead his British teammate and compatriot Hindley over the snow-clad summit of the Stelvio with a noticeable gap on the struggling Kelderman after Portugal's Almeida and the other race favourites had dropped like flies on the longest and highest climb of the race.
Dutchman Kelderman hit the wall on the descent and looked to be losing his chance to take the pink jersey – but he rallied on the final climb to the Lakes of Cancano, limiting his losses to his teammate Hindley and Geoghegan Hart, who fought tooth and nail for the win as Spain's Pello Bilbao closed in.
With team leader Kelderman behind, Hindley had forced the Stage 15 winner from East London to do all the work on the succession of hairpins on the final climb of Torri di Fraele. But with the finish line gaping, the 24-year-old zipped clear to deny Geoghegan Hart a second success in a race in which he has taken on the mantle of Ineos team leader following the early withdrawal of Geraint Thomas.
Bahrain-McLaren's Bilbao came home for third place ahead of Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) before Kelderman, caught and left for dead by both riders at the start of the climb, dug deep to keep his pink dream alive.
Although he conceded over two minutes – plus bonus seconds – to Hindley and Geoghegan Hart, Kelderman did enough to hold a 12-second advantage over his teammate at the end of a fantastic stage for the ages, with the British youngster just three seconds further back.
A complete detonation in the general classification saw the battling Bilbao rise to fourth place at 1'19" while Portugal's Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step) dropped to fifth place after his superb 15-day run of leading his maiden Grand Tour came to a brutal end.
The 22-year-old Almeida was dropped early on during the interminable ascent of the Stelvio when Sunweb and Ineos combined to blow the pack of race favourites apart with 50km of the 207km stage in the Alps of South Tyrol remaining.
When the elastic snapped for Kelderman, Hindley was stuck in two worlds, but decided to press on with Geoghegan Hart and Dennis. The huge gamble paid off with Sunweb emerging from the nail-biting day with both the stage win and maglia rosa – although with Geoghegan Hart lurking just 15 seconds in arrears ahead of the decisive final weekend, the Giro is still far from over.
BREAKAWAY FORMS BEFORE THE STELVIO
News that the Italian veteran Giovanni Visconti (Vini Zabu-KTM) had abandoned before the start of Thursday's 207km Stage 18 was music to Ruben Guerreiro's ears, the Portuguese rider from EF Pro Cycling seeing his only real obstacle to the maglia azzurra removed from the equation.
Guerreiro was nevertheless one of the principal early animators as the road headed uphill from the outset with the first of four climbs, the Cat.2 Campo Carlo Magno, where he took maximum points.
But a shake-up on the long descent saw 10 riders go clear and the blue jersey miss out – leading to some tempo-setting behind on the front of the streamlined peloton by Guerreiro's EF Pro Cycling teammates. The man in blue bridged over to the leaders on the next climb with a new 15-man move forming on the Passo Castrin.
As well as Guerreiro, the break included two Ineos Grenadier teammates of Tao Geoghegan Hart – Filippo Ganna and Ben Swift – and two NTT Pro Cycling teammates of the Italian veteran Domenico Pozzovivo – Louis Meintjes and the previous day's stage winner, Ben O'Connor.
Also in the move of the day were Fabio Felline (Astana), Alessandro Tonelli (Bardiani-CSF), Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis), Daniel Navarro (Israel Start-Up Nation), Thomas De Gendt and Matthew Holmes (both Lotto Soudal), Joe Dombrowski (UAE-Team Emirates) and a Movistar trio of Dario Cataldo, Antonio Pedrero and Sergio Samitier.
Guerreiro found opposition for KOM points going over the summit from the Belgian De Gendt who, in Visconti's absence, had moved up to second place in the maglia azzurra standings. But even in denying the Portuguese maximum points on the Passo Castrin, De Gendt still trailed his rival by 112pts in the standings.
Following a long descent, the break forged ahead in the valley towards the foot of the day's major test as Team Sunweb controlled the tempo in the maglia rosa group three minutes further down the road.
SHOWDOWN ON THE STELVIO
The advantage of the breakaway was down to under two minutes by the time De Gendt zipped clear to take the intermediate sprint in Prato at the foot of the defining climb of the day. It was a last hurrah for the Belgian, whose hopes of emulating his 2012 victory on the Stelvio quickly evaporated as the rivals for pink closed in behind.
O'Connor – in the day's break for the third day running – kicked clear in an ambitious bid to contest a second successive stage win, and soon all his fellow escapees were swept up after Ineos lit the torch paper behind.
If Sunweb had done most of the work leading to the foot of the climb, it was the Ineos Grenadiers who took things up when the gradient pushed into the double digits on the early hairpins of the mythical Alpine peak. By the time Ganna and Swift were caught, Dennis and Geoghegan Hart were on the rampage, having distanced the likes of Almeida, Fuglsang, and the veteran Italians Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling) and Vicenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).
A powerful quartet of Dennis, Geoghegan Hart, Kelderman and Hindley ate up the climb – and by the time they passed O'Connor on the head of the race, the Dutchman had been distanced on two occasions. Rather than drop back to pace his team leader, Hindley stuck to the task in hand, crossing the summit as Dennis took the prestigious Cima Coppi prize with Kelderman 47 seconds in arrears.
Both Hindley and Kelderman struggled to get their jackets on going over the summit, the Sunweb duo left with their coats flapping in the wind on the long, chilly descent towards Bormio.
Kelderman's decision to remove his offending garment looked to have backfired when the Dutch chaser emerged from the descent in what looked like a world of pain. Struggling to find his rhythm, and no doubt chilled to the core, the 29-year-old saw his deficit grow to two minutes as Geoghegan Hart struck a psychological blow on Hindley by edging ahead of the Australian on the virtual standings thanks to three bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint.
SUNWEB'S FIGHT BACK
The impressive Dennis peeled off the front when the leaders hit the start of the final climb to the Lakes of Cancano, the Australian having buried himself for the Ineos cause.
With Kelderman fading after being passed by Fuglsang and Bilbao, it looked like Sunweb's day would end in tears. But Hindley, in the white jersey that would become his outright at the end of the day, kept his cool and stuck in the wheels of Geoghegan Hart up the switchbacks of a climb being used for the first time on the Giro.
Sensing a second stage win – and a sixth for his team – Geoghegan Hart crested the summit in pole position and then led out the sprint on the inside of a bend. But his companion had more left in the tank, Hindley coming round the Ineos rider to snare the biggest win of his career – and the bonus seconds that put him back above Geoghegan Hart in the standings.
All eyes were then on the clock to see which Sunweb rider would be in pink come sundown. Bilbao came home 46 seconds down and Fuglsang 1'25" down before a grimacing Kelderman gave his all to take fifth place, 2'18" in arrears.
The Dutchman was rewarded with a career-first maglia rosa, with the outgoing incumbent, the Portuguese tyrpo Almeida, fighting all the way to seventh place, 4'51" down, and just ahead of the double Giro champion Nibali, who witnessed a changing of the guard after another difficult day in the shade of the new generation.
Friday's Stage 19 reopens the doors to the sprinters before a decisive final weekend that includes a triple ascent to Sestriere on Saturday and then the all-important time trial into Milan on Sunday. With just 15 seconds separating first from third, we could be in for the tightest finish to a Grand Tour in recent history.
Only time will tell if Thursday's Stage 18 and the dramatic fireworks on the Stelvio marked the day Sunweb won or lost, the Giro.
All the action from GIRO D'ITALIA Stage 18 Morbegno – Asti be LIVE on Eurosport and Eurosport HD from 4:00 PM IST onward on October 23, 2020.