One day after being denied in San Daniele del Friuli, NTT’s Ben O’Connor finally claimed his first Grand Tour victory on stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia as the bright sun began to set atop the Madonna di Campiglio.
The Australian, part of a large day-long breakaway, attacked the remains of the move with eight kilometres to climb to the summit and held off a furtive chase by Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain McLaren), who tried but failed to close down what started as a 22-second gap but expanded to 31 at the line.
“Yesterday was so close and to pull it off today in the mountains that I dream of, it maybe hasn’t sunk in yet but when I crossed the line I was full gas crying so it means a lot,” O’Connor said.
Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), unable to respond to O’Connor’s attack on the steepest section, battled for the final stage podium spot, with De Gendt coming out on top as the maglia rosa group was still on the lower slopes of the 12.5km climb.
When he attacked, O’Connor said, “I could see everyone was really struggling at the time, there was no real pace between the guys, everyone was looking at each other. I felt good and thought, why not, if someone joins me then we would swap and I would try again. The aim was just to win today and I can’t believe I’ve done it.”
Even having spent two long days off the front of the Giro d’Italia, O’Connor still had enough left in the tank to seal the deal and win NTT’s first Giro stage. It might have ended quite differently had the breakaway been brought back as O’Connor and teammates Louis Meintjes and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier went into the move both as foils for team leader Domenico Pozzovivo and to take a chance for the stage win.
“Yesterday it wasn’t the plan to be in the breakaway, but when there’s 30 guys you have to be there,” O’Connor said. “Today the plan was to be in the break and if a team decides to come and chase us, we’re up front for Domenico and we can play our cards. It’s always a win-win situation. For the three of us to be up there it really helped. We could share the load a little bit. In the end it was a perfect day.”
With snow and COVID-19 restrictions likely rewriting the upcoming mountain stages, those hoping to unseat João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quickstep) missed their chance on the day, with the Portuguese rider marking the few moves that went on the climb and coming across in the group of GC favourites, 5:11 behind O’Connor.
Almeida remains in the lead with a 17-second advantage on Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) with Kelderman’s teammate Jai Hindley third at 2:58, a single second ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers).
“Today was a hard day, there were long, hard long climbs. Yet again the team was perfect, they did a good job,” a relieved Almeida said. “I’ve still got the maglia rosa and its thanks to them.
“I was expecting Kelderman to attack and he tried but I felt good and tomorrow is another day. I feel that everyone is getting stronger even if we’ve still got the Stelvio to climb. I hope not to struggle and ride well. I want to win the Giro. We’ll see. Tomorrow will be hard, harder than today.”
Thanks to his lead in the breakaway, Pernsteiner moved up to 11th overall 5:07 behind Almeida.
How it unfolded
The Giro d’Italia headed into its first foray into the high mountains in the final week and the riders were lucky to find clear skies and pleasant temperatures in the valleys between the massive climbs of the Forcella Valbona, Monte Bondone and the final ascent to the cooler but still clear conditions on the Madonna di Campiglio.
With three category 1 climbs the first thought in the mind of the peloton on the roll-out from Bassano del Grappa was the blue mountains jersey, which had been on the shoulders of Giovanni Visconti (Vini Zabu-KTM) with a 30 points lead over Ruben Guerreiro (EF Pro Cycling) at the start of the stage.
There were a couple of attacks in the flat first 40km but with the roads tilting up the Valbona the front of the race came back together while the sprinters joined forces for survival in the gruppetto behind.
After his big day out on stage 16, Visconti missed the move, with Guerrerio going clear with the race’s most attacking rider Mattia Bais (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and a large group also containing Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale), Óscar Rodríguez (Astana), Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain McLaren), Victor de la Parte and Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team), Jesper Hansen (Cofidis), Kilian Frankiny (Groupama-FDJ), Thomas De Gendt, Harm Vanhoucke (Lotto Soudal), Héctor Carretero, Dario Cataldo, Eduardo Sepúlveda (Movistar), Louis Meintjes, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier, Ben O’Connor (NTT Pro Cycling), Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers) and Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates).
The group was strategic for the general classification contenders, with O’Connor, Meintjes and Ghebreigzabhier hoping to remain out front to help Domenico Pozzovivo, Pernsteiner for Bilbao, Dennis for Geoghegan Hart and Rodriguez for Fuglsang. Deceuninck-Quickstep declined, as did Nibali’s reduced Trek-Segafredo team and Kelderman’s Sunweb teammates.
The group slowly carved out a gap of almost five minutes over the maglia rosa group, with Guerreiro taking the lead of the mountains classification with maximum points on the Forcella Vabona. As Iljo Keisse, Davide Ballerini, James Knox and Fausto Masnada patrolled the lead of the peloton, the breakaway enjoyed a lead of seven minutes heading up the Bondone where, at the top, Guerreiro once again claimed top honours to build a solid lead of 50 points in the mountains classification.
On the descent, the breakaway came apart with Cataldo forcing the pace and – surprisingly considering his reputation for descending, the Italian was joined by Zakarin, with Carretero, O’Connor, Vanhoucke and Ghebreigzabhier scrambling across. Soon Pernsteiner and De Gendt rejoined and then Villela, leaving Rodriguez, Bouchard, De la Parte and Frankiny chasing up the penultimate climb, the Passo Durone, where De Gendt claimed the points at the top. Meintjes, Guerreiro and Sepúlveda, were the third group on the road and the EF Pro Cycling rider missed taking any points on the climb.
With the gap to the leaders up to eight minutes with 40km to go, Pernsteiner climbed onto a virtual podium spot as the best-placed rider in the move. But by the time the race reached 24km to go the Deceuninck-Quickstep-led bunch began lining out the peloton and steadily chipping away at the gap, which went under the seven-minute mark and kept falling.
It didn’t help that the front two groups came back together and there was a brief hesitation while they decided who would do the work. CCC Team and Pernsteiner were the most motivated to keep the attack on the rails, while Movistar and took a back seat. De la Parte, motivated to give Zakarin a chance at a stage win, held the maglia rosa group to six minutes on the false flat leading to the base of the Madonna di Campiglio.
The leaders had 5:45 as they hit the base of the final climb with 12.5km to go – a long climb but not especially steep, averaging around six per cent with an easing of the gradient at the top. De la Parte forced the pace going into the ascent then dropped off with De Gendt then taking over to jettison Carretero first then Villela, Bouchard, Hansen and Cataldo. The remaining riders stayed together for several kilometres until De Gendt attacked with 9km to go, briefly shattering the group before it came back together.Advertisementhttps://5f0a352012a6c39b12c998634369d273.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Rohan Dennis put in a counter-attack, drawing out Zakarin and Pernsteiner but the move proved a perfect set-up for O’Connor who hit out with 8km to go on the steepest section. De Gendt, Pernsteiner and Zakarin forged an alliance as Dennis faded back. With six kilometres to go, Pernsteiner hit out from the chasing group in a solo effort to shut down the 25 second gap to O’Connor but never could quite claw back time on the Australian, who after being shut out on stage 16 at the hands of Jan Tratnik would not be making the same mistake twice.
Ineos Grenadiers and Deceuninck-Quickstep went head-to-head leading out into the climb in the peloton behind but it was Sunweb that really forced the pace, with Chris Hamilton lining out the maglia rosa group on the lower slopes of the Madonna di Campiglio, bringing down the advantage of the leaders to 5:15 as the pink jersey went under 10km to go. Almeida kept a close eye on Kelderman, at one moment physically reminding Castroviejo of the pecking order when the Ineos rider got in between.
The fight for the overall heated up in the steep section as Jai Hindley attacked and then was strangely closed down by a surge from Kelderman. Regardless of team tactics, Almeida marked the move and then with much neck-craning the maglia rosa group ground to a more controlled pace.