Germany's Andre Greipel took his second victory - and a third successive scalp for his Lotto Soudal team - in a fast bunch sprint at the conclusion of stage 7 at Foligno.
In the absence of compatriot Marcel Kittel, who punctured with five kilometres remaining of the 211-kilometre stage from Sulmona, Greipel reminded the world of his enduring class with an imperious display of power, panache and positioning to deny Italians Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida).
Greipel’s second win in three days came 24 hours after team-mate Tim Wellens, the coveted Belgian all-rounder, soloed to victory on the first summit finish of the race. It was the first time a single team has won three successive stages on the Giro since Movistar in 2013.
To add further icing to the cake for the Belgian team, Greipel leapfrogged Kittel atop the red jersey points standings while Wellens wrested the blue climbers' jersey from shoulders of Damiano Cunego – despite the Italian's best efforts.
Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan looked very much the favourite going into the home straight following an expert lead-out by his Orica-GreenEdge team. But 35-year-old Greipel's experience shone through as he surged through from behind to take the fifth Giro stage win of his career – a new record for a German rider.
“We knew it was going to be a tricky finish with all the corners and the crosswinds in the last six kilometres. The guys did a great job to shelter me in the approach and I really appreciate what they did for me,” said Greipel.
“I still had power in my legs but I was close to the barriers with I launched. I thought my sprint was going to be too late but I was lucky enough to find a gap.”
Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) finished safely in the pack to retain his grip on the maglia rosa after the opening week of the 99th edition of La Corsa Rosa. The only GC casualty was pint-sized Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) who lost nine seconds in a split and dropped out of the top ten.
Andre Greipel snatches win in Stage 7
BLUE BATTLE BREEDS TENSION
There was animation from the get-go as three men – Patrick Grestch (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Stefan Küng (BMC) and Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) – defied some early showers to nip ahead of the peloton on the first climb of the day, catching out the man in blue, Cunego of Nippo-Vini Fantini.
The subsequent pursuit by Cunego’s Nippo team – to protect the Little Prince’s slender lead in the mountains classification – ensured a fast and nervous start in the peloton, and riled the man in the maglia rosa.
“It was really hard today,” Dumoulin told Eurosport at the finish. “Nippo-Vini Fantini missed the break again – like every day – and then chased it down again – like every day. I think I will push Cunego into the break myself tomorrow to make it easier for everyone else.”
Dumoulin: It was a hard day, uncontrollable after the first climb
On what became a rather hapless day for the Italian veteran, Cunego’s efforts were thwarted after he was chased down in his pursuit by Wellens, Thursday’s stage winner taking fourth place atop the Cat.2 Svolte di Popoli climb to move one point ahead of Cunego in the virtual blue jersey standings.
SIX-MAN BREAK FORMS
The three leaders were quickly swallowed up after the climb before Austrian track specialist Küng instigated a fresh move alongside five other riders – Axel Domont (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF), Stefan Denifl (IAM), Ilya Koshevoy (Lampre-Merida) and Daniel Martinez (Wilier-Southeast).
With the peloton regrouping after a split on the climb that saw the likes of Kittel and other top sprinters drop two minutes off the pace, the six leaders soon built up a lead of around three minutes.
Lotto Soudal combined on the front with the FDJ team of French sprinter Arnaud Demare before the chase was disrupted by a crash involving Spaniard Javier Moreno of Movistar, who was taken to hospital with a suspected broken collarbone.
The gap had come down to 1:30 at the foot of the second climb of the day, the Cat.4 ascent to Valico della Somma, 45 kilometres from the finish. Spotting an opportunity, Cunego surged clear of the pack with the help of Nippo-Vini Fantini team-mate Giacomo Berlato.
But it was too much, too late for the Italian veteran. Despite making some in-roads on the leaders’ advantage, Cunego crossed the summit 40-odd seconds down to concede his blue jersey to Wellens.
Colombian Martinez, the youngest rider in the race at 20 years of age, beat Italy’s Ciccone over the summit before the pair started bickering on the descent. It marked the death-knell for the break, who were swept up by the pack with 26 kilometres remaining – but not before Küng had powered clear on what looked like a mad solo suicide mission.
With Kittel and some of the top sprinters distanced once again on the climb, there were scenes of agitation and nervousness as some teams looked to take advantage of the situation, most notably the Cannondale outfit of Rigoberto Uran.
Andre Greipel: I thought it was too late starting my sprint
The increase in tempo spelled the end for Küng’s brave effort, the Austrian being caught six kilometres from the finish and just moments before Kittel’s troubled day took a definitive turn for the worse when the double stage winner flatted just as the sprint trains were forming ahead of the expected fast finale.
Lotto Soudal and Nizzolo’s Trek-Segafredo outfit dictated play as the peloton entered the town of Foligno before Orica-GreenEdge muscled in for Ewan ahead of the finishing straight.
Ewan, whose early season form was so strong in the races in his native Australia, looked to have his mitts on the win but the pocket Hercules could not sustain his sprint all the way to the line. Coming from wide by the barriers, Greipel benefitted from a gap opening up between Nizzolo and Modolo before powering through to the nineteenth Grand Tour stage win of his career – just one victory behind the leading German rider, Erik Zabel.
For Nizzolo, it was his second successive runner-up spot in Foligno after the 27-year-old was beaten by Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni by a mere centimetre in the Umbrian town back in 2014.
Saturday’s 186-kilometre stage 8 features two categorised climbs including a steep and unpaved dirt track 20 kilometres from the punchy uphill finish in the Tuscan hilltop town of Arezzo. Dumoulin will be on his guard – once he’s helped settle things by pushing Cunego into the break…