Italy's Gianluca Brambilla soloed to stage 8 glory in Arezzo and moved into the maglia rosa after Dutchman Tom Dumoulin cracked spectacularly on the decisive climb of a dramatic day on the Giro d’Italia.
Giant-Alpecin’s Dumoulin – who up until this point has looked so assured in his new-found role as race favourite – plummeted out of the top ten after struggling to keep up with his GC rivals on the steep gravel climb of the Alpe di Poti in the business end of the 186-kilometre stage from Foligno to the Tuscan Medieval hilltop city.
Etixx-QuickStep’s Brambilla attacked from a breakaway of 13 riders at the start of the brutish gravel section and held on to win the stage by 1:06 over fellow Italian Matteo Montaguti (Ag2R-La Mondiale). The 28-year-old then faced a tense wait to see whether or not he had done enough to take the famous maglia rosa.
With Dumoulin at this stage well distanced by the chasing pack of main favourites, the focus switched to the finishing position of Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) – second overall on the overnight standings. And when Zakarin came home 1:41 in arrears in a select group alongside the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) it was confirmed: Brambilla was the new leader of his national tour.
Brambilla now leads Zakarin by 23 seconds in the overall standings with Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) up to third place a further 10 seconds back. Valverde, whose initial stinging attack on the dirt-track climb distanced Dumoulin, is fourth at 36 seconds while Nibali completes the top five at 45 seconds.
Dumoulin cut a sorry figure as he crossed the finish line 2:51 down on Brambilla to drop to eleventh place on GC, 1:05 down on the pint-sized Italian.
WATCH: Final stages of Brambilla's Stage 8 victory
“It’s difficult to believe what has happened. It’s unbelievable,” said Brambilla after notching the second win of his season. “I knew today’s finale was one for me and from the start of the Giro my focus has been on this stage. I don’t think that I will hold onto the pink jersey for long but I’m just going to enjoy it while I can.”
How the stage was won
A baker’s dozen of riders broke clear of the peloton on the descent of the uncategorised climb to Assisi around 20 kilometres into the stage. With rain falling and the peloton driving a fast pace, the break took a while to establish itself before the gap eventually grew to the two minutes required to make Brambilla the virtual maglia rosa.
Trailing Dumoulin overnight by 1:56, Brambilla’s presence in the break could have jeopardised its chances of going the distance had the circumstances been different. But as it was, Dumoulin’s Giant-Alpecin team seemed content to let the gap stretch out to a maximum of five minutes.
Joining Brambilla and his Etixx-QuickStep team-mate Matteo Trentin on the long road up the Tiber valley was Montaguti and Blel Kadri (both Ag2R-La Mondiale), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Jaco Venter (Dimension Data), Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal), Jose Joaquin Rojas and Jasha Sutterlin (Movistar), Giacomo Berlato (Nippo-Vini Fantini), Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) and Alexey Tcatevitch (Katusha).
Trentin won both intermediate sprints at Umbertide and Indicatore while De Bie crested the summit of the third-category climb to Scheggia 65 kilometres from the finish to protect the blue jersey lead of his Lotto Soudal team-mate Tom Wellens, winner of Thursday’s sixth stage.
By now the sun had returned and Giant-Alpecin had come to the front of the peloton to increase the pace and slash the break’s advantage to 3:30 ahead of the Alpe de Poti, which the rider’s tackled 26 kilometres from the finish and having passed through Arezzo ahead of a final loop through the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Emotional Brambilla is presented with maglia rosa
Montaguti made the first attack and was joined by Berlato on the gentler tarmac section of the climb and then De Marchi. But once the smooth road gave way to the six-kilometre uneven and dusty gravel section Brambilla came to the fore, catching and passing his fellow escapees before making light work as the road peaked out at a wheel-spinning 14 percent gradient.
But all eyes were on the chasing peloton as it swung onto the climb at a ferocious pace and thinned out considerably on the initial tarmac apron. As soon as the smooth surface gave way to the gravel, Valverde attacked to open up a small gap. Nibali led the chase alongside Astana team-mate Jakob Fuglsang and not only were they able to reel the Spanish veteran in, they managed to put the maglia rosa in apparent difficulty.
Isolated and in obvious discomfort, Dumoulin struggled to find his groove as was soon dropped alongside Spaniard Mikel Landa (Team Sky) and Italy’s Domenico Pozzovivo (Etixx-QuickStep). But while Landa and Pozzovivo were able to ride back into contention, Dumoulin was only going one direction – and that was further backwards.
Valverde rode the entire climb aggressively as the select group of race favourites gobbled up remnants of the break, one by one. But it was Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) who led the chasing pack over the summit in pole position ahead of the likes of Valverde, Nibali, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Zakarin.
Brambilla had 25 seconds over Montaguti at the summit, with the favourites passing two minutes further back and Dumoulin pedalling squares at 3:30. The Italian’s back wheel locked up on one tight bend on the twisting descent but it was the only heart-in-mouth moment for Brambilla, who held on to take the biggest win of his career and the third for Etixx in this year’s Giro (following Marcel Kittel’s bullish brace in the Netherlands).
Brambilla: It’s difficult to believe I have won
Montaguti secured second place ahead of Moser in an all-Italian podium, while South Africa’s Venter and Italy’s De Marchi completed the top five from the break. Then came Valverde, who drove the main pack home 1:41 down on the winner and with Kruijswijk, Landa, Chaves and Zakarin on his wheel. A small split saw Majka, Nibali and Uran concede three seconds – but it was small fry compared to the 1:10 lost by Dumoulin when he eventually came home.
The 25-year-old’s loss of the pink jersey, however, may be short lived: Sunday’s undulating 40.5-kilometre time trial through the Chianti vineyards will see Dumoulin down as the stand-out favourite, with the potential time gains far larger than the not-insignificant chunk he conceded on the Alpe di Poti – provided he can recover from his Saturday strade bianche setback...