Geraint Thomas said he had a “decent day” on his 37th birthday on Thursday, as he kept the Giro d’Italia leader’s pink jersey and withstood an attack from Primoz Roglic that shook off all the other leading contenders.
On the first of three brutal days in the Dolomites, local boy Filippo Zana beat French veteran Thibaut Pinot in an exhausted sprint to the line to win the race’s 18th stage.
At the bottom of the mountain, Roglic, on the rhythm of teammate Sepp Kuss, attacked from the leading group.
The Jumbo-Visma duo soon dropped all their big rivals except Ineos’ Welshman Thomas who stuck to the rear wheel of Slovenian Roglic and celebrated his birthday by keeping the leader’s pink jersey.
Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion, aims to become the oldest Giro champion.
Italian Fiorenzo Magni was 34 years and 180 days old when he won in 1955.
UAE Team Emirates’ Joao Almeida fell to third overall after finishing ninth at the Austrian border.
“Good day,” said Thomas.
“To gain time at Almeida and not get dropped by Primoz is a good day, a solid day for sure.
“I felt pretty good, pretty in control
“In the last two kilometers he really squeezed again. He was very strong, but I’m happy with how I was,” added Thomas.
He was 29 seconds ahead of Roglic who took back second place he lost to Joao Almeida on Tuesday.
“Primoz had a bad day the other day, Almeida today. I just have to stay consistent. Just take it day by day, climb by climb,” said Thomas.
After the top three there is a gap to Ireland’s Eddy Dunbar who finishes fourth at 2 minutes and 39 seconds.
– ‘A moment of weakness’ –
Jumbo-Visma sporting director Marc Reef said his team planned to keep attacking Thomas.
“Thomas has shown that he is very, very strong and in perfect shape,” said Reef.
“It only takes one moment of weakness to crack it and we will fight for it,” he added.
The stage was run in the sun after much of the first two weeks of the three-week race had been run in the cold and wet.
In the tough conditions, the field has been thinned out by illness, with favorite Remco Evenepoel and Thomas’ team-mate Filippo Ganna among those who dropped out with Covid-19, and crashes, which included two Ineos riders Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov.
“What’s important from today is that the mental aspect comes into play after those tough weeks we’ve had and we can look to tomorrow with a lot of confidence,” said Reef.
Pinot, who retires at the end of the season, continued the breakaway as he collected enough points to take the lead in the mountains classification. He also moved up to seventh overall, 4min 43sec behind Thomas.
However, he lost a stage win on the final climb to the line for the second time in four days.
Zana, the Italian champion, is part of the Jayco-Alula team and raced on home roads in Northeast Italy.
“I played my cards right in the final in the sprint,” he said.
“It was an opportunity of those who come along a few times in life and I grabbed it.”
Friday’s 19th stage is a 183km ride from Longarone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo with five major peaks.
Saturday’s penultimate stage is a fierce 18.6km uphill time trial.