Belgian Tim Wellens made it two from two for Lotto Soudal as indefatigable Dutchman Tom Dumoulin extended his overall lead on the first uphill mountain finish on the Giro d'Italia.
One day after German veteran Andre Greipel opened Lotto Soudal's Giro account at Benevento, the Belgian team tasted their second success of the 99th edition of La Corsa Rosa when 25-year-old Wellens soloed to the biggest win of his career in the Abruzzo ski resort of Roccaraso.
Wellens made his decisive move on the second of two second-category climbs 15 kilometres from the finish of the 157-kilometre stage from Ponte Aremogna, darting clear of a four-man break that had earlier included his Dutch team-mate Pim Ligthart.
“Firstly I wanted to go from the beginning but I didn’t succeed so I went later with Pim and we joined the leaders and I felt really good so attacked on the final climb,” said Wellens.
Wellens takes solo win on Giro sixth stage, Dumoulin extends GC lead
But all the action was taking place further back down the mountain after Giant-Alpecin's Dumoulin, the towering overnight race leader, used a Vincenzo Nibali attack as a springboard to ride clear with Russia's Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and the Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
Cyclist Vincenzo Nibali of Astana team signs autographs before the start before the start of the 6th stage of 99th Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, from Ponte to Roccaraso of 157 km on May 12, 2016 in Roccaraso
Image credit: AFP
The trio joined chasing duo Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Dimension Data) before the finish to take time off Astana race favourite Nibali, who was not able to match Dumoulin's acceleration so soon after his own attack in the final three kilometres.
Crossing the line one minute and 19 seconds down on the victor, Denmark's Fuglsang pipped Zakarin in a ferocious sprint for second place to move into second on GC, 26 seconds down on Dumoulin. The rangy Zakarin is now third at 28 seconds after Dumoulin was distanced by a handful of seconds towards the finish.
Esteban Chaves, the smiling Colombian from Orica-GreenEdge, was first of the chasing pack of race favorites to cross the line a further seven second back before the likes of Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) arrived in dribs and drabs.
Despite conceding some time to Fuglsang and Zakarin, Dumoulin extended his lead over the principal race favourites – most notably Nibali, the Italian national champion, who crossed the line in a group with Spaniard Mikel Landa (Team Sky) 21 seconds down on the maglia rosa.
Nibali kept his place in the top ten but drops from sixth to ninth, 47 seconds behind a man who is having as big an impression on this Giro as he did on last summer's Vuelta a Espana.
"I felt much better than I expected today especially in the final climb when I had good legs," Dumoulin told Eurosport after his latest impressive ride.
"I asked [Giant-Alpecin team-mates] Tobias Ludvigsson and Georg Preidler to pace me at the start of the climb and then I saw the moment to attack. It was not planned but I saw Nibali going so I just went and didn't think about it."
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) - Giro d'Italia 2016
Image credit: AFP
The seeds of Lotto Soudal’s second successive win were sown when Wellens and Ligthart capitalised on a lull in the peloton to ride off in pursuit of a leading duo inside the final 70 kilometres with Luxembourg’s Laurent Didier in tow.
Belgian cyclist Tim Wellens rides in a breakaway in the last climb during the sixth stage, a 157km ride from Ponte to Roccaraso, during the 99th Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, on May 12, 2016.
Image credit: AFP
Leaders Eugert Zhupa (Wilier-Southeast) and Alessandro Bisolti (Nippo-Vini Fantini) had been part of an earlier three-man break which formed on the first climb of the day, the Bocca della Selva. Bisolti took maximum points over the summit to protect the blue jersey lead of his team-mate Damiano Cunego before the heavens opened making the long descent fairly treacherous.
The break’s lead of six minutes came tumbling down and the third man, the experienced Russian Alexandr Kolobnev (Gazprom-Rusvelo), was first to be caught by the pack at the foot of the climb.
Despite seeing their lead slashed to under a minute, Zhupa and Bisolti managed to edge further ahead on the flat middle section of the climb – soon to be joined by Wellens, Ligthart and Didier after their own counter-attack.
Ligthart worked tirelessly for his team-mate Wellens on the flat and a preliminary, uncategorised climb to help the gap balloon to almost nine minutes. His work done, Ligthart peeled off at the start of the final 17-kilometre ascent to Roccaraso.
It was Didier who made the first attack with 15.5 kilometres remaining before Zhupa closed the gap with Wellens clearly holding something back. The Belgian, who turned 25 two days earlier, then danced on the pedals before powering clear to begin his successful solo ride to the finish.
“Today was another team victory and I couldn’t have done it without Pim,” Wellens said after his second win of the season.
Once the peloton hit the final climb the Astana team of Nibali came to the front to cut the deficit to less than five minutes. Fuglsang paved the way with an attack that saw the Dane briefly move into the virtual maglia rosa before the final shake-up towards the finish.
Italy's cyclist Vincenzo Nibali (R) rides during the sixth stage, a 157km ride from Ponte to Roccaraso, during the 99th Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, on May 12, 2016
Image credit: AFP
Team Sky tried to send David Lopez in pursuit but it was a former Sky rider, the Belarussian veteran Siutsou from Dimension Data, who managed to bridge the gap and join Fuglsang as they picked off the remnants of the leading group one by one.
Then came the moment we had all been waiting for: the first big attack of the 2016 Giro d’Italia. And it was the 2013 winner Nibali who underlined his credentials with a stinging surge inside the final three kilometres. The Sicilian – known as the Shark – opened a gap but was soon reeled in by Sky’s Landa before Dumoulin responded by putting in an instant dig.
Only Zakarin and Pozzovivo could respond. The chasing trio caught Fuglsang and Siutsou in the final kilometre just moments before Wellens crossed the line and held his bike up above his head in celebration.
Dumoulin may have missed out on the bonus seconds he clearly sought, but his attack made light work of Nibali’s own throwing down of the gauntlet and showed just how much of a danger he will be ahead of Sunday’s all-important time trial in Chianti.
Before that there’s the small matter of two lumpy stages through Umbria and Tuscany that could re-open the door to the sprinters – starting with Friday’s 211-kilometre stage seven from Sulmona to Foligno.