Giro d’Italia 2019
Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Ag2R-La Mondiale) pipped Italy’s Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) for second place at five seconds before Australia’s Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) and Italy’s Mattia Cattaneo (Androni-Giacattoli) completed the top five.
The remnants of the break arrived in dribs and drabs before the peloton came home over a minute down – but close enough for Conti to retain his maglia rosa.
In the break for the second day running, veteran Spaniard Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) at one point rode in the virtual pink jersey – and put in a big attack near the finish in pursuit of an elusive Grand Tour stage win.
The 33-year-old had to settle for sixth place in the stage but rose to second place in the standings, 1’32” down on Conti, whose team-mate Fernando Gaviria – the stage 3 winner – withdrew earlier in the stage owing to a sore left knee.
“I knew I could attack my rivals,” Bilbao said. “Formolo was the rider to beat but I sensed he was feeling the pressure to win. I waited for my DS to tell me when to go and went. It was a long final kilometre but I had something left and could win.”
After a maiden Grand Tour stage win, Bilbao also paid tribute to his Astana team-mate Andrey Zeits, who was part of the initial 12-man break and worked tirelessly for the Basque rider.
“It was a really important day for me today. It took a long time for me to take my first victory in a three-week race. This was only possible because of my team-mate Andrey Zeits and Astana. He was pulling really, really hard. That’s why we kept a gap.”
Victory saw Bilbao leapfrog Primoz Roglic into eleventh place in the overall standings, 5’23” down on Conti. After his tumble on Thursday, Slovenian Roglic enjoyed a quiet day in the peloton and retained his 35-second lead over principal GC rival Simon Yates of Mitchelton-Scott.
A frantic start to the 185km stage saw the peloton almost cover 50km in the first hour as the race hugged the Adriatic coast before heading inland at the town of Ortona.
The destination for the day was L’Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region which was hit by a devastating earthquake months before the Giro last passed through in 2010 in a stage won by the Russian Evgeni Petrov.
Down to just six riders, the UAE team of new race leader Conti had their work cut out to keep a lid on things when a dangerous 19-man move finally extricated itself from the rampaging pack.
With the likes of Bilbao and Gallopin involved, the Bahrain Merida team of Vincenzo Nibali lent a hand with the chase – perhaps mindful of the last time the Giro visited L’Aquila, when a break took 13 minutes on a sleepy peloton and Richie Porte moved into pink in his maiden Grand Tour.
With the move brought to heel on the outskirts of the hilltop town of Chieti, a counter-attack suddenly materialised on the impulse of Bora-Hansgrohe duo Formolo and Jay McCarthy. Once again, Bilbao and Gallopin were involved as a 12-man move eventually got some leeway over a tired peloton with around 100km remaining.
When Conti and his dwindling UAE squad took their foot off the gas, this lead crept up to around 1’30” where it stabilised as the riders headed towards the Abruzzo hills.
The break featured specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Movistar duo Rojas and Antonio Pedrero (Movistar), Ruben Plaza (Israel Cycling Academy), Bilbao’s Astana teammate Zeits, Cattaneo (Androni Giacottoli), Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) and Sebastian Henao (Team Ineos).
But with UAE riding steady tempo on the front of the pack, the gap was down to just over a minute going onto the Cat.2 climb of Le Svolte di Popoli with 50km remaining. De Gendt decided to sit up and drop back – saving himself for another day after gauging, perhaps, that his opponents were too strong.
Plaza soon followed, the veteran Spaniard feeling the pinch from a second successive day in the break and pedalling squares on the steepest part of the climb.
It was the Spaniard Pedrero who led the break over the summit with a gap of 1’45” over a pack which reeled in De Gendt and Plaza going over the top.
On the following plateau the lead stretched above the two-minute mark putting Rojas in the virtual maglia rosa. But UAE Team Emirates were given a helping hand by Trek Segafredo and Bardiani-CSF, two teams without any representation in the break still convinced that there was something left in the stage for them to take.
This never materialised. While the gap came down to just over a minute with 10km remaining, as soon as the stronger escapees made their move, the chasing pack were going to finish empty handed.
Zeits and McCarthy pulled up on the opening climb of the finale before Bilbao rode clear with Gallopin, Cattaneo, Formolo and Hamilton in a select five-man move.
Italians Formolo and Cattaneo attacked with 6km remaining in a bid to emulate compatriots Fausto Masnada and Valerio Conti from Thursday’s stage 6. But the five came back together before Rojas recovered and zipped ahead with 3km to go.
But a final ramp peaking at 11% in the final kilometre was always going to work against a rider of Rojas’s strengths – and when Bilbao attacked with 1.5km remaining, his fellow escapees didn’t have an answer.
Cattaneo put in a brief fight – dreaming of securing back-to-back wins for his wildcard Androni team – but he sat up for the others inside the final kilometre and left Formolo to do all the work.
Bilbao held on for the biggest win of his career, putting himself back in the mix in the GC picture and making him a useful foil for Astana team-mate Miguel Angel Lopez going into the second week of the race.
Behind, the Katusha-Alpecin team of Enrico Battaglin had helped Trek and Bardiani lead the chase, but when the peloton had made no inroads it was left to Briton’s Hugh Carthy to put in a last-ditch attempt to bridge over for EF Education First.
It came to nothing and the pack was led home by Frenchman Valentin Madouas 1’07” down on the winner. But it was a long day for Italian sprinter Jakub Mareczko of CCC, the last man crossing the line on his own and almost 29 minutes in arrears.
The Giro continues on Saturday with the longest stage of the race – a largely flat 239km stage 8 from Tortoreto Lido to Pesaro, with a spicy final third that includes three lower-category climbs ahead of a fast downhill finish.