On the day when GB's remaining GC hope, Simon Yates, had to withdraw from the Giro following his Covid-19 diagnosis for Mitchelton-Scott, Alex Dowsett flew the flag for British racing with a solo victory on Stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia.
Seven years after Dowsett last struck gold in the Giro, the 32-year-old proved he was more than merely a time trial specialist by coming out on top of a six-man break that also featured his Israel Start-Up Nation teammate Matthias Brandle.
Dropped on the first of two ascents of the tough ramped climb on the finishing circuit in Vieste, Dowsett battled back into contention with Brandle before riding clear of his fellow escapees with 18km remaining.
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Six-time national time trial champion Dowsett opened up a 55-second gap as compatriot Matthew Holmes (Lotto Soudal) struggled to combine with American Joey Rosskopf (CCC Team) and Italy's Salvatore Puccio (Ineos Grenadiers) in the chase behind.
His advantage was halved on the climb with 10km remaining, but Dowsett was able to TT himself to only the second road stage victory of his career, some nine years after the first.
The victory was a first in Grand Tours for Israel Start-Up Nation and may help father-to-be Dowsett, who is out of contract at the end of the season, prolong his stay at the newly formed WorldTour team.
"It's a big relief for the team to get that first win under their belt," Dowsett said. "The team can end this year pretty content with how things have gone.
It's such a tough year with all the uncertainty – trying to work out how I'm going to get to next year, still be racing and doing what I love, working out how I can put food on the table for the three of us, as it will be next year.
Puccio won the sprint for second place ahead of Holmes and Rosskopf as the trio came home 1'15" down before Dowsett's Austrian teammate Brandle was all smiles crossing the line ahead of the sixth member of the break, the Italian rookie Simone Ravanelli (Androni Giocattoli).
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There were echoes of Stage 6 of the 2014 Tour of Britain in the victory for Dowsett, who recalled how he and Brandle – who then rode for Movistar and IAM Cycling respectively – combined to thwart their breakaway companions.
"There were some strong guys in the break. The fella from Androni [Ravanelli] was an unknown. But we knew we had our work cut out," Dowsett said.
The last time I was in a stage with Matthias, he won a stage in the Tour of Britain and I rode into the yellow jersey. Only good things happen when I'm in a break with Matthias. We knew we could use our advantage.
The peloton rolled in a huge 14 minutes in arrears with Australia's Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) pipping Colombia's Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) for the consolatory sprint for seventh place.
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A stalemate in the battle for pink sees Portugal's Joao Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step) enter Sunday's mountainous Stage 9 with a 43-second lead over his nearest challenger, the Spaniard Pello Bilbao of Bahrain-McLaren.
Israel's historic day: how it happened
The 200km stage hugged the Adriatic Sea for a pan-flat opening half which saw the six man break of Dowsett, Brandle, Holmes, Puccio, Ravanelli and Rosskopf go clear shortly after the start in Giovinazzo.
After a couple of hours of little drama, the six-man break started the major climb of the day, the second-category Monte Sant'Angelo, with a gap of 10 minutes over the pack as the race entered the picturesque and isolated Gargano national park on the Puglian coast.
British debutant Holmes took maximum points over the summit with the break combining well to ensure the victory would be contested between the six riders out ahead.
Behind, a flashpoint occurred when Vincenzo Nibali's Trek-Segafredo team upped the tempo on the descent following a mechanical for Jakob Fuglsang. The Dane was able to fight back with several Astana teammates in a large group that also contained the maglia ciclamino rivals Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Earlier, Demare had pipped Sagan for seventh place in the intermediate sprint to extend his lead to 56 points in the ciclamino standings. But any hope the French champion had of picking up a third successive stage win went out the window after Trek eased up the chase to allow the break's gap to grow back above the 10-minute mark.
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With no chances of the peloton returning, the focus switched firmly to the breakaway battle as Israel Start-Up Nation looked to exploit their power in numbers with an acceleration from Dowsett with 30km remaining.
The attack was a mere softener as the break regrouped on entering the finish town ahead of two circuits that would decide the race. But when Brandle and Dowsett were both distanced on the punchy 17 per cent gradients of the ramp in Vieste, it looked like it was not going to be Israel's day.
Rosskopf joined Puccio and Holmes out ahead but the chasing trio was able to bridge over on the descent. Then, just as they made the connection, Dowsett did what he had to do and zipped clear with intent.
With Brandle closing down any moves behind, Holmes and Puccio – the two strongest riders in the break – were caught out as Dowsett did his best to build up a decent cushion ahead of the second climb.
In full time trial mode, Dowsett pulled clear to establish a gaping gap which his pursuers were unable to overturn. And while it did come down to under 30 seconds going over the top, Dowsett could use his strengths to extend his lead on the flat run into the finish.
Even a stray dog on the home straight was not enough to dislodge the renowned cat-lover Dowsett, who looked stunned and tearful as he sat up to celebrate the biggest victory of his career.
Dog makes surprise appearance during Stage 8 finish
There was a shake of the head from Puccio as he crossed the line for second place, the Italian veteran knowing he had let slip an ideal opportunity to pick up his first ever professional win of a career dedicated to helping others.
But Dowsett – thanks to his teammate Brandle, his own powerful engine and buckets of self-belief – ensured that the only rider of the six-man break to have previously won a stage in a Grand Tour was the man who emerged triumphant.
The Giro d'Italia continues on Sunday with stormy weather forecast for the 208km Stage 9 which culminates with the climb of Roccaraso and the second summit finish of the race. If the battle for pink was on hold in the Puglian sunshine, it will heat up as the race hits the Abruzzo.