(Reuters) – Dutchman Wilco Kelderman took over as leader of the Giro d’Italia as the fearsome Stelvio climb blew the race apart during a brutal and mesmerizing stage 18 battle on Thursday.
Kelderman (Sunweb) began the day 17 seconds behind long-time race leader Joao Almeida (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) whose hopes of wearing the maglia rosa all the way to Milan were shattered.
Portuguese Almeida cracked halfway up the steep and twisty 24km Stelvio and although he dug deep he had lost three minutes before the summit as Kelderman took over as virtual leader with a 20km descent and another tough climb still to come.
Kelderman was also distanced as he picked his way around the 48 hairpins, leaking 47 seconds to Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart, who was led brilliantly up the climb by Ineos Grenadiers team mate Rohan Dennis, and Sunweb’s Jai Hindley.
After a freezing descent through the snowfields and ahead of the day’s final climb to the finish of the 207km Queen’s stage, Kelderman looked to be going backwards as he desperately snacked on gel bars to recover some energy.
But he had just enough left in the tank up the final 9km Torrri di Fraele to take over the maglia rosa.
His lead looks fragile, though, with Saturday’s 20th stage to Sestriere still looking tough, despite the Colle dell’Agnello and the Col de l’Izoard climbs being scrapped because of the French authorities barring the race from crossing the border because of tightening COVID-19 restrictions.
While Kelderman hung on grimly, up the road his Australian team mate Hindley powered to the stage win just ahead of Geoghegan Hart, both of whom finished two minutes and 18 seconds ahead of Kelderman to launch themselves firmly into contention for the overall victory in Milan.
Kelderman will take a 12-second lead into stage 19 with Geoghegan Hart 15 seconds behind.
“It was a crazy day, super hard, the hardest day of my life. It was a super fight,” the 29-year-old Kelderman said.
“It couldn’t be any better for us with Jai getting the stage win and me in pink. We dropped Almeida quite early on the Stelvio and then it was a race — Ineos was super strong with two guys and I couldn’t hold them.”
Spain’s Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren) finished strongly to move into fourth place overall, one minute and 19 seconds back, with Almeida, race leader since stage three, now off the podium in fifth spot, having lost almost five minutes on Thursday.
“I’m proud of what I did,” an emotional Almeida said. “I’m happy. On the other hand, I lost the pink jersey.
“They were just super strong. I’m not at their level.”
He was in good company as former champion Vincenzo Nibali also cracked on the Stelvio to end hopes of an Italian winner when the race concludes in Milan on Sunday.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)