Britain’s Chris Froome is one day away from a Grand Tour grand slam after all but winning the Giro d’Italia following a captivating tussle with Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin on the final climb of Stage 20 to Cervinia, won by the Spaniard Mikel Nieve on his birthday.
Froome and the defending champion Dumoulin traded blows on the third and final climb of the 214km stage in the Alps – but the Team Sky rider had all the answers en route to finishing in seventh place with a final kick to distance his resigned rival from Team Sunweb by six seconds.
Thirty-three-year-old Froome will now ride into Rome on Sunday with a 46-second gap on Dumoulin and will become the first British rider to win the Giro d’Italia.
Having secured his remarkable comeback through emphatic wins on Monte Zoncolan and at Bardonecchia on Friday, Froome will become the third rider in history to complete a consecutive grand slam of cycling’s Grand Tours following Eddy Merckx in 1973 and Bernard Hinault in 1982.
Victory on the day went to the Spanish veteran Nieve who soloed to glory on his 34th birthday to gift his Mitchelton-Scott team its fifth win of the race and something to smile about after leader Simon Yates’s remarkable capitulation in the maglia rosa in Stage 19. It was Nieve’s third career win on the Giro.
Nieve wins Stage 20 with brilliant breakaway
Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) secured the white jersey ahead of Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and moved into the third spot on the podium following an almighty collapse from Frenchman Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ.
With Yates already dropped on the first climb of the day, Pinot hit the wall on the Col de Saint Pantaleon to finish more than forty-five minutes down and plummet out of the top 10.
Despite a late rally from Italian youngster Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF) – who finished fourth in the stage behind Nieve, the Dutchmen Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the Austrian Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) – Froome also secured the blue king of the mountains jersey.
Meanwhile, Italian Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) battled into the day’s 27-man break and picked up maximum points in both intermediate sprints to establish an unassailable lead in the maglia ciclamino points classification ahead of Sunday’s processional Stage 21 into Rome.
With just 40 seconds separating Chris Froome and the defending champion Tom Dumoulin going into the last of three gruelling stages in the Alps, the 101st edition of La Corsa Rosa was always going to come down to the wire.
An early break of 27 riders – including the eventual winner, Mikel Nieve – established a large lead over the flat opening 130km and ensured drama on multiple planes at the finish.
If Simon Yates being dropped on the Col Tsecore was not too unexpected given the plight of the former race leader just 24-hours earlier, the sight of Thibaut Pinot pedalling squares, coughing and retching on the Col de Saint Pantaleon added another twist in the tail.
The Frenchman had leapfrogged Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain Merida) into the final berth on the virtual podium on Friday, but plummeted down the standings to 16th one day later after a huge bonk on the second of three climbs.
Pinot’s demise bought the Astana team of Miguel Angel Lopez onto the front of the pack, with the Colombian eyeing the third spot on the podium but mindful of the threat posed by Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz, who trailed his white jersey rival by just 47 seconds.
If it was the two South Americans who led the charge on the final climb to Cervinia, it was Dumoulin who played his cards early with an attack 9km from the summit. Supported superbly by team-mate Sam Oomen, Dumoulin put in a flurry of accelerations but was unable to shake Froome, who himself had recovering team-mate Wout Poels to lean on.
Dumoulin put in a last-ditch attack entering a tunnel with 5km remaining – but when Froome caught and passed his rival, the Dutchman shook his head in the knowledge that the task was just too big.
Showing trademark tenacity, Dumoulin nevertheless rejoined Froome as the select GC group came back together with 3km remaining before Carapaz and Lopez rode clear in their own personal battle. But the two young riders were reeled in on the home straight before Sky duo Froome and Poels kicked clear to finish ahead of the others – and shake hands once crossing the line.
Behind, Dumoulin sat up, his shoulder slumped as he crossed the line to concede his crown to the new king of Italy.
“I tried everything I could but Froome was a better rider,” Dumoulin said graciously. “I’m super proud of the team and myself. It is what it is – second. I was just too tired today and I wasn’t sure if I had the legs. I would have always regretted it if I hadn’t attacked but I couldn’t finish it off.”
Focus Froome: The Brit's remarkable Giro
As for Froome, the 33-year-old put his on-going salbutamol troubles aside to secure both the pink and blue jerseys – and a place among the cycling greats, Merckx and Hinault.
“It’s an amazing feeling – amazing,” said Froome, who took the maglia rosa after a pulsating attack on the Colle delle Finestre 80km from the finish of Friday’s Stage 19.
Image credit: Getty Images
If Froome’s individual brilliance shone through during a race in which he started on the backfoot following a crash in training ahead of the opening time trial in Israel, Froome was also quick to praise the efforts of his team-mates at Sky.
I think that was a really big part of being able to do what I did yesterday. Everyone believing in me, everyone buying into the one plan we had. The guys really got behind me every tough day and it feels amazing to be able to repay them after two-and-a-half hard weeks.
Mikel Nieve, Mitchelton-Scott, Giro 2018
Image credit: Getty Images
Birthday boy Nieve completes his hat-trick
Riding in a break that held a maximum advantage of nine minutes over the peloton, the former Sky rider Mikel Nieve ensured his Mitchelton-Scott team would finish the Giro on a high following the disappointment of seeing Simon Yates lose his grip on the maglia rosa three days from Rome.
Nieve made his move with 32km remaining, soloing clear of Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) and Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) near the summit of the Col de Saint Pantaleon and never looking back.
Dutchman Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) overtook Grossschartner on the final climb but only after seeing his chase stalled by an untimely mechanical, meaning Nieve had the luxury of being able to ride his own pace en route to a third career win on the Giro.
The Spaniard beat Gesink by 2’17” with Grossschartner taking third place ahead of Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF) and Brambilla. Ciccone, who had taken maximum points over the Col Tsecore, was unable to add enough points to dethrone Froome in the KOM standings – with the Briton ending up with a 17-point advantage.
Brambilla was the last of the initial 27-man break to avoid being caught, with Poels leading team-mate Froome over the line in sixth place at 6’03” alongside Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), Pozzovivo, Carapaz, Sam Oomen and Lopez – with Dumoulin coming home six seconds back for a symbolic thirteenth place.
The Giro d’Italia concludes on Sunday with the processional 115km Stage 21 in Rome which should finish with a traditional bunch sprint and a chance for Elia Viviani to secure his fifth stage win in the race. For Froome, it will be a case of staying out of trouble and savouring the feeling as he rides through Rome as Britain’s first Giro champion.