Tears of sadness on Sunday turned to tears of joy on Wednesday as Santiago Buitrago picked up a maiden Grand Tour stage win with a fantastic solo effort in Lavarone.
Three days after agonisingly missing out to Guilio Ciccone in Cogne, the 22-year-old Colombian bounced back on an explosive Stage 17 in the Italian Alps as Bahrain-Victorious team-mate Mikel Landa moved into the podium positions at the expense of Portugal’s Joao Almeida (UAE Team Emirates).
Buitrago picked himself up from a nasty crash with 80km remaining before reeling in a leading Dutch duo of Gijs Leemreize (Jumbo-Visma) and the indefatigable Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) on the final climb, the latter having ridden clear of the day’s breakaway on at least three occasions in a bid to secure a second stage win in his debut Giro.
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Keeping his cool on the descent to Lavarone, Buitrago, with his jersey and shorts scuffed from his earlier spill, pointed to the sky as he crossed the line to take an outstanding win by 35 seconds on the impressive Leemreize, another 22-year-old Giro debutant who himself came close to victory in Genova in Stage 12.
Czech climber Jan Hirt, the Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert rider who won Tuesday’s Stage 16, continued his fine purple patch with third place ahead of Britain’s Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) as the last two riders from the initial 24-man break held on before the GC favourites battled tooth and nail in their wake.
A succession of attacks from Bahrain Victorious duo Landa and Wout Poels had decimated the maglia rosa group on the decisive ascent of Monterovere – most notably dropping the white jersey of Almeida on the second of two successive first-category climbs at the end of the 168km stage.
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Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) did his best to distance pink jersey rival Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the uphill sprint to the line but the Australian stuck to his rival’s wheel as the two came home together almost three minutes in arrears – skipping past Van der Poel on the home straight, the Dutchman having led the race entering the final 10km before Leemreize’s and Buitrago’s stirring comebacks.
Despite falling six seconds further behind Carapaz and Hindley, Landa jumped above Almeida into third place in the standings after the Portuguese came home over a minute back. Italian veteran Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan) lost yet more time but retained his fifth place in the general classification despite the pressure from Hirt, whose showing in the break saw him rise two places to seventh with just four stages remaining.
Leemreize’s disappointment for missing out on the win will be tempered by his Jumbo-Visma team-mate Koen Bouwman strengthening his grip on the blue jersey. Bouwman took maximum points over the first two summits to increase his KOM tally to over twice that of his nearest rival, the Italian Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo).
For the first time in this year’s Giro, the stage started under dark clouds and heavy rain in Ponte di Legno, the moves coming thick and fast as the road headed straight uphill on the uncategorised ascent of the Passo del Tonale.
A large break of 24 riders formed including Buitrago, Britain’s Carthy, Dutchmen Van der Poel and Leemreize, blue jersey rivals Bouwman and Ciccone, the previous day’s winner Hirt, and the man the Czech climber had beaten in Aprica, Thymen Arensman (Team DSM).
A two-minute gap over the summit stretched to over five minutes on the long and gradual 70km descent towards the foot of the first categorised climb of the day, putting Hirt above Nibali and into the top five in the virtual general classification as Carapaz’s Ineos Grenadiers team seemed content to keep a lid on things ahead of the finale.
Bouwman kicked clear of Ciccone to take maximum points over the Cat. 3 climb to Giovo before a turn of pace from his team-mates Leemreize and Sam Oomen caused a momentary split in the break and got rid of some of the dead wood.
In a bid to bridge back over to the leaders, Buitrago misjudged a dangerous chicane and skidded to the ground with 80km remaining, landing on his right-hand side and bashing his elbow.
Buitrago fought back on after a bike change as the breakaway reformed ahead of the first of numerous attacks from Van der Poel, who went clear with 65km remaining on an uncategorised climb ahead of the intermediate sprint.
Van der Poel was joined by Austria’s Felix Gall (Ag2R-Citroen), France’s Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and Italy’s Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates) as news filtered through of the withdrawal of British double stage winner Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco).
The leading quartet were caught by Carthy, Bouwman, Buitrago, Hirt, Leemreize and Mauri Vansevenant (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) on the Cat.1 Passo del Vetriole with 35km remaining. Bouwman took the KOM points over the summit before Van der Poel threw caution to the wind with an attack on the wet descent.
Leemreize caught his compatriot and then piled on the pressure, forcing Van der Poel into an uncharacteristic mistake on a tight left-hand bend where he lost control of his back wheel and almost rode into the barriers.
‘Woah, woah!’ – Van der Poel almost tumbles over barrier on mountain descent
With a lack of cohesion in the chase behind, tempers soon flared between Carthy and Hirt as the Dutch duo opened up a commending ninety-second lead going onto the final climb of the day to Monterovere.
The Cat.1 ascent was making its first appearance in the Giro and played host to a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between the two Dutch animators on the front: when Van der Poel went clear with 15km remaining, his counterpart kept him in his sights before finally drawing level halfway to the top.
Buitrago, meanwhile, had lost his patience with the chase group and kicked out alone in pursuit of the win he came so close to taking on Sunday. The Colombian caught Van der Poel and then danced past Leemreize, for whom the elastic snapped in the painful last two-hundred metres of the climb when the gradient pitched up to an unforgiving 15 per cent.
With Buitrago doing the business on the front and riding to his second, but biggest, win of his career, it was left to his Bahrain Victorious team to dictate play behind as the fight for pink intensified. Ineos Grenadiers had reduced the gap from over six minutes to four minutes ahead of the final climb before whittling down the select group in trademark fashion.
But once Dutchman Poels and Spain's Pello Bilbao came to the front for Bahrain Victorious, the likes of Almeida and Italian veterans Nibali and Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) soon felt the pinch. An attack from Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers) swung the pendulum back in favour of Carapaz near the summit, but Poels battled back to keep the Ecuadorian and his Australian foil Hindley under pressure.
While Landa would cross the line five seconds down on the duo, the Basque climber was one of the big winners of the day as he cemented his place on the virtual podium. Now 1:05 down on Carapaz, Landa is 49 seconds clear of fourth-place Almeida who, once again, was left isolated on the final climb and had to battle to limit his losses.
A tough day in the saddle saw Pozzovivo drop four places to 10th at 12:30 while Spain’s Juan Pedro Lopez – the Trek-Segafredo rider who enjoyed 10 days in pink earlier in the race – reentered the top 10 at the expense of Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Carapaz should be able to protect his three-second lead over Hindley in Thursday’s Stage 18 which reopens the doors to the sprinters and breakaway artists over a largely flat 151km percorso ahead of the final two days in the mountains.
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