Merlier edges out Milan to win sprint finish on stage 18 – Giro d’Italia

Giro d’Italia 2024

Stage 18

Belgian sprinter Tim Merlier (Soudal-QuickStep) narrowly clinched his second stage of the 2024 Giro d’Italia after fending off a ferocious but overly late charge for the line by overwhelming favourite Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek).

Milan’s Lidl-Trek troops had controlled much of the 178 kilometre stage between Fiera di Primiero and Padova, but the points leader was positioned too far back as the pack swept into the final metres and the Italian had to settle for second. Australian Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) claimed third.

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) remains comfortably in the overall lead, with just three days racing remaining.

For Soudal-QuickStep, Merlier’s latest win is their third in the 2024 Giro d’Italia after the Belgian snatched the sprint victory on stage 3 and Julian Alaphilippe took a lone win in Fano.

After two Alpine stages, the Giro’s return to the flat was ushered in with the absence of one climber from its line-up. Astana Qazaqstan’s Christian Scaroni, recently fourth behind Tadej Pogačar on the summit finish at Monte Pana and briefly the 2024 Giro’s mountains classification leader, was a DNS.

The one classified climb of the day, the cat. 4 Lamon after 14 kilometres, looked like an ideal jumping-off point for anyone willing to chance their arm in a breakaway. Sure enough, Mikkel Honoré (EF Education – EasyPost) and Filippo Fiorelli (VF Group – Bardiani CSF – Faizanè) along with Mirco Maestri and teammate Andrea Pietrobon (Polti Kometa) all used the climb to seal the deal on a move. Then as heavy rain returned briefly with a vengeance and the peloton slowed, the quartet opened up a gap of two minutes.

Three of the four, Maestri, Pietrobon and Honoré had already been in key breakaways on transition stages earlier on this year’s Giro, which boded well for its chances of surviving at least into the final hour. Honore had opened up hostilities when Pogačar made a dramatic late move on stage 3, Pietrobon had been part of the three-man break that surprisingly fended off the sprinters en route to Lucca and a victory for Cofidis racer Ben Thomas, while Maestri was the unsung hero in the two-man 120-kilometre marathon breakaway with eventual winner Alaphilippe on stage 12 into Fano.

This time round even with a very fast average first hour of 43kph – the continuous downhill taking the race out of the Alps definitely playing a part there – the four maintained a solid two-minute advantage as they powered through the first sprint of the day at Valdobbiadene. Meanwhile, in the pack, Milan picked up fifth spot to boost his already considerable lead in the points classification without any noticeable opposition.

The peloton enjoyed a break from the mountains on stage 18.

Well into halfway over the 178 stage, as the roads thankfully dried up and some welcome sunshine returned, the peloton contented itself with playing a game of cat and mouse with the four up the road. Whenever the Lidl-Trek-powered pack came within 45 seconds or so, Milan’s teammates immediately slowed up and let the four regain some time. However, if the gap managed to rise above 90 seconds then the opposite principle applied and Lidl-Trek opened up the throttle once more.

The stage finally regained a little more definitive momentum when Soudal-QuickStep added their shoulder to the collective wheel, but what really set the cat among the pigeons came when Eduardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma) broke across some 55 kilometres from the line. His presence breathed new life into the daylong move. But it also sparked a fierce response from Lidl-Trek and Soudal-QuickStep in the pack too, initially reducing the move’s advantage to just under 30 seconds. Then after the final sprint at Martellago, they squeezed it even further.

But despite the five being clearly in the pack’s sight and just a few hundred metres ahead on the long, smoothly surfaced boulevards leading to the finish city of Padova, for the best part of half an hour the move then stubbornly refused to crumble. Hovering at less than ten seconds, even when Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates and Bora-Hansgrohe, added their troops to the front line of pursuit, the five continued to maintain their painfully narrow margin.

Finally, at 10.5 kilometres from the line and as speeds began to touch 60kph even on the flat, the break was swept up and the sprinter’s teams took definitive control. For one GC contender Thymen Arensman, who had a mechanical with seven kilometres to go, there was a moment of panic But fortunately, stage 1 winner and Ineos teammate Jhonathan Narvaez swiftly guided the Dutchman, currently sixth overall, back to the pack.

Alpecin-Deceuninck briefly added a different colour to the front of the peloton but Soudal’s confidence in Merlier was clear as they regained control of the speeding bunch. A not overly technical run-in and broad roads in the suburbs of Padova allowed the peloton to remain close together, with only Alaphilippe managing to string out the pack with one noticeable acceleration.

Into the final two kilometres, Groupama-FDJ added yet more impetus to the bunch, only for a line of Tudor ProCycling men to outpower them on the far side of the road. When Tudor’s Alberto Dainese then took command at the front, despite Kaden Groves battling hard against him Dainese’s acceleration boded well, particularly as Milan was initially so badly out of place.

Late on Milan eventually erupted through the centre, flashing past almost all his rivals in a stunning trademark sustained acceleration. Impressive as it was, though, Milan could not stop Merlier from first overtaking a flagging Stanislaw Aniolkowski (Cofidis), then zipping past at the last moment for victory by less than a wheel’s breadth.

With the Giro heading back into the hills on Friday, the top Italian sprinter has only Rome on Sunday, now, to set things back in his favour.

The fine margins that handed Merlier victory over Milan.

The first half of tomorrow’s stage 19 is predominately flat, while the second half is mountainous, without becoming extremely hard. The race between Mortegliano to Sappada is 157 kilometres long.

The riders head north in the direction of the Alps. The roads are as good as, but not entirely flat in the first 85 kilometres. The net elevation gain in this section is 350 metres.

The climbing begins when the riders follow the Torrente Chiarsò upstream. This 7 kilometres section goes up at 4%. It’s a prelude to the Passo Duron, which is the hardest climb of the day: 4.4 kilometres at an average gradient of 9.6%. There are still 51 kilometres left to race at the summit.

The Sella Valcalda appears right after the downhill. It’s a 7.6 kilometres ascent at 5.6% with a relatively tough middle section. The Sella Valcalda is the penultimate climb, just like in 2018. Back then, it was followed by Monte Zoncolan, where Chris Froome soloed to victory.

No brutal finish climb this time, although the descent to Comeglians is the same. You turn left for the Zoncolan and the riders go right. There are still 27 kilometres remaining at this point. The first 3 kilometres go up at around 6% before it evens out and continues in undulating fashion to the foot of the Cima Sappada. This is a 8.5 kilometres climb at 5.4% with a 2.6 kilometres section at 8.6% just before the summit.

The last 6.2 kilometres go downhill and then uphill at moderate gradients.

The second and third intermediate sprint come with 3, 2 and 1 seconds, while the first three riders on the line gain 10, 6 and 4 seconds.

Stage 18 result:

1. Tim Merlier (Bel) Soudal Quick-Step, in 3:45:44
2. Jonathan Milan (Ita) Lidl-Trek
3. Kaden Groves (Aus) Alpecin-Deceuninck
4. Alberto Dainese (Ita) Tudor Pro Cycling
5. Stanisław Aniołkowski (Pol) Cofidis
6. Fernando Gaviria (Col) Movistar
7. Madis Mikhel (Est) Intermarché-Wanty
8. Caleb Ewan (Aus) Jayco-AlUla
9. Davide Ballerini (Ita) Astana Qazaqstan
10. Juan Sebastián Molano (Col) UAE Team Emirates, all at same time

General Classification:

1. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, in 67:17:02
2. Daniel Martínez (Col) Bora-Hansgrohe, +7:42
3. Geraint Thomas (Gbr) Ineos Grenadiers, +8:04
4. Ben O’Connor (Aus) Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale, +9:47
5. Antonio Tiberi (Ita) Bahrain Victorious, +10:29
6. Thymen Arensman (Ned) Ineos Grenadiers, +11:10
7. Romain Bardet (Fra) dsm-firmenich PostNL, +12:42
8. Einer Rubio (Col) Movistar, +13:33
9. Filippo Zana (Ita) Jayco-AIUla, +13:52
10. Jan Hirt (Cze) Soudal Quick-Step, +14:44

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