Ben O’Connor wins stage 17 as Almeida retains lead – Giro d’Italia

Giro d’Italia 2020

Stage 17

It was a case of role reversals on Wednesday as NTT Pro Cycling’s Ben O’Connor kept Bahrain-McLaren’s Hermann Pernsteiner at bay to win his first Grand Tour stage after starring in the breakaway for the second day running.

Twenty-four hours after missing out to Bahrain-McLaren’s Jan Tratnik in Stage 16, O’Connor bounced back with a superb performance from an initial 19-man breakaway in the mountainous 203km stage.

Channelling his inner Marco Pantani, the 24-year-old Australian darted clear of his fellow escapees with 8.5km remaining on the famous climb to Madonna di Campiglio, where the man known as ‘The Pirate’ took a fateful fourth stage win in 1999 before being booted out of the race while in pink.

Pernsteiner came home 31 seconds down to take second place and rise four places to 11th in the general classification after Joao Almeida and his rivals for the pink jersey cancelled each other out en route to finishing just over five minutes down on the man of the moment, O’Connor.

Benefitting from the presence of NTT teammates Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier and Louis Meintjes in the day’s break, O’Connor had the legs to hold off a medley of big-hitters, including compatriot Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers), the Russian Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team), the Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), and no fewer than four riders from the struggling Movistar team.

With title sponsors NTT pulling out at the end of the season, leaving the South African team (formerly known as Dimension Data and MTN-Qhubeka) facing the prospect of being forced to fold, a first stage win at a Grand Tour in three years could prove to be exactly the fillip that they need to attract future sponsors – and win O’Connor a new contract.

“Yesterday was so close,” an emotional O’Connor said after coming full circle. “To pull it off today in the mountains that I dream of – it maybe hasn’t sunk in yet. But when I crossed the line, I was full gas crying – it means a lot.

“I could see that everyone was struggling. There was no real pace and everyone was looking at each other. I felt good so I thought, ‘why not?’. If someone joined, we could combine and then I could go again. The aim was just to win today, and I can’t believe I’ve done it. With three guys in the break, it was the perfect day for us.”

The peloton passes through the snow covered fields of northern Italy.

De Gendt kept the tempo of the breakaway consistently high and was the architect of numerous accelerations, each time whittling down the numbers on the front of the race. But despite support from compatriot and teammate Harm Vanhoucke, De Gendt was only able to take third place, 1’10” down on O’Connor and just ahead of Zakarin.

Only six other riders from the initial 19-man move managed to stay ahead of the main field after the day’s four categorised climbs took their toll. But the expected fight for pink fizzled out on the lower slopes of Madonna di Campiglio where Portugal’s Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step) only had to weather a small two-pronged attack from Team Sunweb duo, Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley.

Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) led the group of favourites over the line to retain his fourth place on GC behind Almeida, Dutchman Kelderman and the Australian Hindley.

But with confirmation of the removal of the Colle dell’Agnello and Col d’Izoard from Saturday’s penultimate stage, those riders wishing to wrest the maglia rosa from the shoulders of the 22-year-old race leader will have to make the most of the fearsome ascent of the Passo dello Stelvio in Stage 18 otherwise risk running out of time.

With over 5,000 metres of climbing and 129 points for the king of the mountains classification up for grabs, the 203km Stage 17 was always going to feature the next chapter in the battle for the blue climber’s jersey.

It was a chapter from which current incumbent Giovanni Visconti apparently wrote himself out from the outset, the veteran Italian failing to get into the day’s 19-man break which formed on the first of four categorised climbs, the Cat.1 Forcella Valbona, where snow gathered in piles near the summit.

In Visconti’s absence, Portugal’s Ruben Guerreiro (EF Pro Cycling) took maximum points on a picturesque climb being used for the first time in Giro history. The Stage 9 winner then doubled up over the mythical Monte Bondone. These additional 80 points saw Guerreiro move 50 points clear of Visconti and ensured a return to the podium regardless of the stage result – provided he could make it to the end.

The focus quickly shifted to the stage spoils when Italy’s Dario Cataldo zipped clear on the descent to open up a small gap on the break, which soon splintered after Australia’s Dennis upped the tempo behind.

Joao Almeida’s hopes of winning the Giro could hinge on tomorrow’s trip up the Stelvio.

De Gendt led what was a 10-man leading move over the summit of the Passo Durone with an eight-minute lead over the peloton – enough to see the Pernsteiner into the virtual podium places on the general classification.

With three Movistar riders on the front of the race – Cataldo, Davide Villella and Hector Carretero – the Spanish team seemed to hold the edge when it came to numbers. But as the break grew back to 15 riders on the approach to the final climb, Lotto Soudal also had Vanhoucke in the mix, while NTT had the Eritrean Ghebreigzabhier in support of O’Connor, who looked eager to bounce back from his Stage 16 heartbreak as quickly as possible.

Six minutes further down the road, the Deceuninck Quick-Step train of Almeida slowly ratcheted up the tempo to reel in the distanced riders from the break – including Movistar’s initial fourth man, the Argentine Eduardo Sepulveda, double stage winner Diego Ulissi (UAE-Team Emirates) and that man Guerreiro, his work for the day done.

And when the leaders came to the lower slopes of the final climb to Madonna di Campiglio, Movistar’s nightmare was complete when Carretero and Cataldo were instantly shed out the back. Villella would rally for seventh place – but that was a poor return for a team without a win since February and who had four riders in the initial 19-man move.

With O’Connor riding irrevocably clear of Pernsteiner, De Gendt, Zakarin and Dennis, the main field had hit the start of the climb. Shortly after Almeida traded some angry words with his rivals for pink, the Australian Hindley, in the white jersey, took the bait and made an attack.

Hindley was followed by his Sunweb teammate Kelderman, but there was no malice to their move and Almeida was able to ride back on along with all the other riders in the top 10. That would prove to be the only flashpoint on the climb, with Almeida’s teammate Fausto Masnada coming to the front to control things for his leader.

Poland’s Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) attempted to shake things out on the home straight, but no splits were to form as Geoghegan Hart led the select group home, 5’11” down on the winner O’Connor.

Almeida will carry his 17-second lead over Kelderman into tomorrow’s decisive Stage 18 to Langhi di Cancano. The 207km test includes four categorised climbs, most notably the Passo dello Stelvio, the highest point of the race which could well decide the fate of the maglia rosa.

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