George Bennett has set a new benchmark and made more history for New Zealand, finishing 8th overall in the Giro d’Italia. He improved his own benchmark as the highest ever finish in a grand tour by a New Zealander with the final mountain stage seeing him climb the standings one more time as Chris Froome secured a clean sweep of grand tour wins.
Nieve provides final flourish for Mitchelton-Scott
It was fitting that given the amazing performance that Mitchelton-Scott had displayed throughout the Giro d’Italia, with four stage wins for the team (3 for Simon Yates and 1 for Esteban Chaves) that the team would finish the race with one last hurrah. The 214km from Susa to Cervinia was the stomping ground to achieve it, with the stage featuring three big category 1 climbs.
From the start Mikel Nieve’s intent was clear as he jumped into a very large breakaway group that had a lead of over 5 minutes at one point. The group was 27-strong in total and prompted a big response from Astana who weren’t quite happy with the composition of the break. The move contained the maglia ciclamino of Elia Viviani; looking to wrap up the points classification more than challenge for a mountain stage win.
The big climbs began with 85km to go and with the break still enjoying a lead of 4.50mins over the peloton. Viviani mopped up the intermediate sprint points at the bottom of the climb, while Astana continued to push the pace behind them; allowing Team Sky to rest up ready for the crunch points later in the stage.
On the first climb Mitchelton-Scott were visibly strong, but so too were the likes of Bahrain-Merida’s Maciej Mohoric who opted to try and push the tempo on the climb of Col Tsecore. He escaped alone but was gradually pulled back by a strong effort from LottoNL-Jumbo’s Koen Bouwman and Robert Gesink who were part of the break. Bouwman set a strong pace and saw the break shelled from 27 down to just 9 riders. They stayed together to the top of the climb with an advantage of 5.30mins at the top as Astana continued to set the pace behind them.
After a 23km descent it was back into climbing mode on the Col Saint Pantaleon. Mohoric again attacked and went up the road, while again Koen Bouwman led the chase behind him, with Michael Woods of EF Education First-Drapac. Mikel Nieve was the only Mitchelton-Scott rider remaining in the group, with the likes of Gianluca Brambilla of Trek-Segafredo also a threatening presence in the break. Mohoric gained about 30 seconds over the group behind him this time, but disaster struck back down the road in the peloton.
Thibaut Pinot entered the race third overall, after a brilliant display on the road to Bardonecchia, but on the second climb of the day he simply capitulated and found himself dropping back through the field until he’d lost contact with Astana and the peloton. As Pinot lost ground in spades it became clear that the GC would face at least one more big twist, as Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez would take third place from him. Pinot’s podium hopes were done, but so too would be his top ten hopes as he’d eventually drop to 16th overall on the GC. Sadly the damage would be done and he would not start the final stage.
Once Mohoric had been caught Brambilla attacked and this time Nieve’s pace was intense enough to whittle the breakaway group down still further. Brambilla didn’t get far, but it did mean that just Nieve, Brambilla, Giulio Ciccone of Bardiani-CSF and Felix Grosschartner of BORA-Hansgrohe. That group shrunk still further as Brambilla, Nieve and Grosschartner proved strongest and pushed on ahead.
The penultimate climb peaked with 29km remaining and it was with about 3km to go that Mikel Nieve made his move. The Spaniard attacked and was not chased, with everyone in the break at maximum effort. The Spaniard led over the summit of the climb and with 15km had a near 9 minute advantage over the peloton, while his lead to the rest of the break was also growing. The final climb was some 18km in length and in the peloton it saw a change of the guard as Movistar took over the pace-setting.
Tom Dumoulin knew that to win the Giro d’Italia he had to isolate Chris Froome and attack him, and with 6km left to go for Nieve, Dumoulin launched his first move. Froome was onto it in a flash, while Dumoulin’s move triggered a number of other attacks. George Bennett was at full stretch, keeping pace just about with what was going on, but the flurry of attacks going from all sides – even Froome – eventually saw Bennett dropped. Dumoulin attacked for a third time and this time looked like he might have Froome on the ropes; but steadily the maglia rosa clawed back the gap.
All the while Nieve continued to press on towards the finish. Back down the road Dumoulin benefited from the support of Sam Oomen, while only Richard Carapaz, Miguel Angel Lopez, Froome and Domenico Pozzovivo were able to stay in the group. Again Dumoulin attacked and again Froome responded, with another attack of his own that this time had Dumoulin on the ropes. Next up was Carapaz who went up the road with Lopez and Froome. But steadily Dumoulin – who looked like he was at full stretch – found something else in the tank to regain contact with the Froome group.
Up the road though Nieve was enjoying the victory procession that came with being head and shoulders clear of everybody. The Spaniard had survived the breakaway, attacked from a long way out and done everything right to take a fifth stage win for Mitchelton-Scott; on his birthday of all days. 2.17mins later Robert Gesink crossed the line for a courageous second place, with Felix Grosschartner third. Froome’s group crossed the line just over 6 minutes behind Nieve, with Bennett conceding another 42 seconds as he finished in 14th place.
Crucially for Bennett the final day drama in the GC meant that the Kiwi climbed a place from 9th to 8th on the eve of the final stage. All that was required now was to survive the final stage and history would be made once again by Bennett.
Bennett takes last hurrah as Froome claims Giro d’Italia
All that remained for the 150 remaining starters of the final stage was 115km of racing around Rome. The final stage was a circuit race through the streets of Rome, and while not completely flat and slightly technical the race was expected to favour the sprinters one last time. The circuit was 11.5km in length and the 10 laps would doubtless be tackled in a fast and furious manner.
But first was the matter of the final stage photos and champagne for the virtual race winner Chris Froome who was clad on his pink Dogma for the final stage. Racing proceeded in a casual and leisurely manner for several kilometres with Team Sky making their way through the peloton to the head of the race. With 7 laps to go the race was neutralised, guaranteeing that as long as Bennett finished he would take 8th place overall.
It was with 7 laps to go that the first attacks went clear. Two riders built a bit of an advantage in the form of Mads Würtz Schmidt of Katusha-Alpecin and Alexey Lutsenko of Astana. The two had a brief advantage but Lutsenko was the strongest, and he would drop Schmidt and then be joined by Christopher Juul Jensen of Mitchelton-Scott and Eugert Zhupa of Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia. Behind them Quick-Step Floors held the lead in the peloton.
At 70km to go the time gap to the front runners was at 44 seconds. But the breakaway had swelled substantially from four riders to an impressive eighteen. Quick-Step Floors knew that if they were going to win the stage for Viviani they had to work, and work hard. A lot would come down to the cooperation within the breakaway as much as within the bunch. But credit to Quick-Step Floors, they did their job well in pursuing the move and with 50km to go the gap had dropped as Chris Froome saw fit to drop back from the front and simply keep safe in the copny of his team; knowing his victory was all but complete.
At 40km to go the gap to the break was a little over 30 seconds but what was a big group of 18 was now just 2 as Chris Juul-Jensen and Katusha-Alpecin’s Viacheslav Kuznetsov pulled away from the rest and led through 3 laps to go. All the while though the time gap was coming down as still the peloton were led by Quick-Step Floors. Kuznetsov and Juul-Jensen held on valiantly until finally with 12.5km remaining the catch was made.
Chris Froome and a number of the GC riders were enjoying simply getting through the stage and were now almost 9 minutes back from the peloton, but with the race neutralised it was of no consequence.
Attacks off the front weren’t done yet though as a new move went clear as Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin, Ryan Mullen of Trek-Segafredo, Danny van Poppel of LottoNL-Jumbo and Florian Sénéchal of Quick-Step Floors escaped. Matteo Cattaneo joined them but the time gap was just a 7 seconds with 6km to go; as BORA-Hansgrohe now took over on the front of the pack.
Eventually that break was done and Manuele Boaro of Bahrain-Merida joined the effort on the front and his surge in tempo saw the peloton pushing the pace at 60kph heading through 2km to go. But just before 1km to go Zdenek Stybar led through Quick-Step Floors’ train and put Viviani in a commanding position for the final sprint. Viviani sat 4th wheel and Bennett was right behind him. Niccolo Bonifazio moved forward with Maciej Mohoric ahead of him quite early. But finally Viviani hit for home with Sam Bennett darting from behind him to snatch the stage win and make it a hat-trick. Viviani sat up just before the line with the Irishman already ahead, the Italian took second place, while Jean-Pierre Drucker of BMC Racing took third place ahead of Baptiste Planckaert of Katusha-Alpecin and Manuel Belletti of Androni-Sidermec-Bottecchia.
Mitchelton-Scott didn’t have a bad day in the saddle either as Sam Bewley crossed the line in 16th place just behind teammate Jack Haig.
With no change overall on the final day in the GC standings, Chris Froome took the Giro d’Italia title and became the third rider in history to hold all three grand tours at the same time, 46 seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin with best young rider Miguel Angel Lopez third at 4.57mins. Richard Carapaz and Domenico Pozzovivo completed the top five ahead of Pello Bilbao and Patrick Konrad, with George Bennett finishing 8th overall at 13.17mins; with Sam Oomen and Davide Formolo completing the top ten.