Italy’s Cesare Benedetti channelled his inner campionissimo to deny compatriot Damiano Caruso and Ireland’s Eddie Dunbar in a thrilling five-up sprint, winning an explosive stage 12 of the Giro d’Italia as Slovenia’s Jan Polanc took over the race lead from team-mate Valerio Conti.
Step forward Cesare Benedetti, the Bora-Hansgrohe domestique usually seen in this Giro (as in every other race) chasing down breakaways on the front of the peloton in the service of his team’s sprinter Pascal Ackermann.
But on Thursday Benedetti found himself in a large break which was whittled down to a select five riders after the first major mountain test of the race before showcasing his own sprint to take the biggest – well, the first – win of his career.
Benedetti’s victory was a triumph of bravery and belief, the journeyman getting dropped on the Cat.1 climb of Montoso and on the final cobbled ramp in Pinerolo, but fighting back on both occasions to take a win 70 years after Coppi’s legendary victory in Pinerolo in the 1949 Giro.
When Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) launched the final sprint from the wheel of Eros Capecchi (Deceuninck-QuickStep) it looked like Brambilla would bury the ghost of his third place in Pinerolo from the 2016 Giro.
But Benedetti zipped clear and banished Brambilla to fourth behind Caruso and the battling Dunbar, who came close to delivering Team Ineos a maiden Grand Tour win in his own Grand Tour debut.
“I’ve been working so far for the others in this Giro and today I got the opportunity to get in the break and I used the chance to go 100% until the end,” said Benedetti, who helped team-mate Ackermann to two sprint wins in the opening phase of the race.
The modest Italian added:
I’m not a talent, I’m not a winner. I would have been very happy with a good placement. I was never with the first guys on the climb but I kept on going. I knew I could make it back on the downhill. I did the same on the final hill. I knew that the three others would probably look at each other and hesitate a bit so I used everything I had to make it back to them.
‘I gave my teammates champagne… and they gave it back to me’
Sixth place on the day went to Slovenian Polanc of UAE Team Emirates who took over the maglia rosa from his Italian team-mate Valerio Conti, who finished over 10 minutes in arrears.
Polanc now leads compatriot Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) by 4’07” in the general classification with Conti dropping to third at 4’51”.
A fierce battle to get in the break resulted in a large 25-man move extricating itself from the pack within the first 20km of the 158km stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo – marking the 70th anniversary of Fausto Coppi’s legendary victory between the same two Piedmontese market towns.
The leaders were: Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), Dario Cataldo (Astana), Enrico Gasparotto (Dimension Data) Eros Capecchi (Deceuninck-QuickStep) Francesco Gavazzi (Androni-Giocattoli), Jan Bakelants (Sunweb) Matteo Montaguti (Androni-Giocattoli), Eddie Dunbar (Ineos), Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Merida), Manuel Senni (Bardiani-CSF), Manuele Boaro (Astana), Danilo Wyss (Dimension Data), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Tobias Ludvigsson (Groupama-FDJ), Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin), Luca Covili (Bardiani-CSF), Christian Knees (Ineos), Jenthe Biermans (Katusha-Alpecin), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Hansgrohe), Sean Bennett (EF Education First) Josef Cerny (CCC Team), Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar), Roger Kluge (Lotto Soudal) and Conor Dunne (Isreal Cycling Academy).
Polanc’s place in the break was a tactical masterclass for the UAE Emirates team of overnight leader Conti: as the gap stretched to a maximum 16 minutes, Polanc was safely riding as virtual maglia rosa whereby relinquishing his team of any obligation to lead the chase.
Twice a stage winner on the Giro, the 27-year-old Polanc posed a genuine threat to the big GC favourites: the Slovenian won at the ski resort of Abetone in 2015 and two years later on Mount Etna en route to finishing 11th in the 2017 Giro.
It was the Jumbo Visma team of Polanc’s compatriot Roglic who finally bit the bullet, coming to the front of the peloton with Vincenzo Nibali’s Bahrain Merida as the peloton passed through the finish town of Pinerolo for the first time trailing the leaders by 14 minutes.
With 60km remaining, American Grand Tour debutant Bennett zipped clear of the peloton before being joined by the Austrian Haller – the duo clearly keen to open up a gap ahead of the first major mountain test of the 102nd edition of the Giro.
But they never held more than 30 seconds over the break and it did not take long for the two leaders to be caught and spat out. A select group soon formed on the Montoso featuring Italians Brambilla, Caruso, Capecchi, Montaguti and Cataldo, the Irish 22-year-old Dunbar and that man Polanc.
Dunbar and Brambilla both put in attacks on the steepest double digit section – both of which were foiled by Capecchi as Montaguti dropped out of contention. It was Brambilla who crested the summit in pole position to take over his Trek teammate Giulio Ciccone’s blue jersey.
Back with the main favourites, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Mikel Landa (Movistar) joined forces after riding clear in separate attacks to open up a small gap over their rivals for the maglia rosa. The actual maglia rosa, Conti, went over the top more than a minute down on Roglic et al.
On the descent Montaguti and Benedetti joined the leaders with 20km remaining as a select eight-man move formed featuring six Italians, a Slovenian and an Irishman.
Cataldo soon dropped back to help pace his Astana team-mate Lopez, who was piling pressure alongside Landa ahead of the main favourites, with Roglic refusing to do any work and generally making a nuisance of himself in the select pack.
Brambilla zipped clear on the cobbled ramp in Pinerolo to be joined by Capecchi going over the summit with 2km remaining. They were joined by the industrious Dunbar on the descent before a collective hesitation inside the final kilometre reopened the door to Benedetti and Caruso.
Having finished third in a three-up sprint in Pinerolo three years previously, Brambilla was keen to make amends. But his attack on the home straight was surpassed by Benedetti who took his moment in the limelight with both hands: the journeyman finally standing on the top of the podium.
Brambilla took consolation in the maglia azzurra while British youngster Hugh Carthy (EF Education First), up to tenth in the overall standings, took over the white jersey youth classification after the Lopez and Landa group only snared 28 seconds from the favourites at the finish.
The group of GC favourites featuring the likes of Roglic, Nibali and Britain's Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) came home 8'03" down on the winner. The big losers of the day were Luxembourg champion Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Italy's Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) who were dropped on the Montoso climb and conceded two minutes to their rivals for the top 10.
The Giro now enters the Alps for back-to-back summit finishes which should set the battle for pink alight. With the likes of Yates, Lopez and Landa all around four minutes off the pace set by double time trial winner Roglic, and Nibali the best part of two minutes down, the attacks should come thick and fast.
Friday's 196km stage 13 features three climbs including the race's first ever ascent of the Colle del Nivolet for a stunning finish alongside the Lake Serru at Cresole Reale. If this Giro took a little time to get going, it'll be roaring on all cylinders soon.