Philippe Gilbert romped to a bold solo win in stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia, as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) turned the screws on his GC rivals Thursday.
The day’s winner chased up to a lead group after the day’s sole category 1 climb and used his BMC teammate, Amaël Moinard, to his advantage. Gilbert attacked with about 20km left, and the large, disorganized chase could not reel him back.
“We said the breakaway had a big chance, you know,” Gilbert said. “I knew that it was possible for me to be not so far on the big climb today.
“I knew if I had a small gap, I knew Amaël [Moinard] would help me. It was perfect for me. I took some risk in the first part of the descent. To win a stage you have to take some risks sometimes.”
Behind, in the GC group, Contador exacted revenge on Astana, which had attacked him after he flatted in stage 16 on Tuesday. Astana’s Mikel Landa was held up by a crash before the Monte Ologno, and Contador went to the front with his Tinkoff team to deliver the coup de grace.
“Today’s scenario was a bit different from what happened on the Mortirolo [Tuesday],” Contador said. “Before the climb, my team was working hard on the front and expending energy because we knew that we had to be at the front going into the climb, and we wanted to avoid problems. In [any] event, Landa was caught behind, for the first time in the race. I’m very happy to have gained more time in the general classification.”
The Spaniard extended his GC lead to 5:15 over Landa. Aru is in third, 6:05 in arrears after the stage from Melide to Verbania.
A big breakaway of 14 riders formed early in the 170-kilometer day.
Disaster struck when Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) and Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini) crashed out of the attack with just under 70km left.
Nearing the base of the climb with 55 kilometers to go, the gap was 12:44.
With the leaders on the lower slopes of the climb, a crash disrupted the peloton and held up Landa. It appeared that Tinkoff-Saxo started to push the pace at the front.
Then, Contador attacked shortly before the base of the Monte Ologno climb. He was 9:25 behind the lead group that included: Moinard, Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky), David De la Cruz (Etixx-Quick-Step), Francesco Bongiorno (Bardiani-CSF), and Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Midway up the ascent, Gilbert had joined the front group, which was over eight minutes ahead of Contador, who chased alone.
As the climb pitched up, Landa linked up with Aru’s group, about one minute behind Contador with less than 40km remaining.
The pink jersey suffered a moment of panic when he dropped his chain at about 37km to go, but he got a push from his mechanic and quickly shifted it back on.
Only four breakaway riders remained at the top of the climb: Siutsou, De la Cruz, Bongiorno, and Moinard.
Over the top of the climb, Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) caught Contador. With 30km to go, their advantage over Landa’s group held at around 1:30. Davide Villella, Hesjedal’s teammate, had sat up from the early break, drifted back, and helped pace the duo.
A four-rider chase group including Gilbert, Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling), Nocentini, and Busato joined the breakaway at the front. Gilbert quickly went on the attack once the catch was made.
“They went full gas on the bottom,” Gilbert continued. “I ride my pace, and then Chavanel came back, and he was pushing. I had no reason to help him. I stayed in the wheels and came back. I just let them work and on the first flat, my teammate attacked first, and I attack the three guys behind; I came to the front and attacked straight away.”
Gilbert extended his lead to 34 seconds with 9.2km left as Moinard marked the chasers.
Although Bongiorno attacked from the chase, Gilbert’s lead was insurmountable. The former world champion rode alone to his second stage victory in this year’s Giro.
Bongiorno held on for second place. Chavanel finished third.
As for the GC battle, Contador and Hesjedal finished 1:13 ahead of Aru and Landa. The Cannondale-Garmin Canadian moved up to ninth overall, continuing his steady ascent of the GC rankings.
On Friday, Contador will have another chance to play in the mountains with a 236km stage from Gravellona Toce to Cervinia with three category 1 climbs in the final half. Stage 19 will finish atop the 19.2km ascent of Cervinia.