Giro d'Italia: Nico Denz powers to breakaway-sprint victory on stage 12
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Nico Denz (Bora-Hansgrohe) claimed the biggest victory of his career on stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia, triumphing in a three-up sprint after a dramatic day in the breakaway.
The German got the better of Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) and Sebastian Berwick (Israel-Premier Tech) in the final dash to the line in Rivoli, having broken clear of a much larger breakaway group almost 100km out.
The peloton came home over eight minutes down as Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) retained the pink jersey on a day that saw no change at the top of the general classification, although Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), Ilan Van Wilder (Soudal-QuickStep) and Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) all gained a few minutes after infiltrating the breakaway.
That breakaway numbered 30 riders as it formed either side of the early category-3 climb at Pedaggera, but it was brutally chopped to five with 95km to go. Many riders had just been back for rain jackets, and Skujins' Trek-Segafredo teammates squeezed the brakes through a roundabout, letting a gap open to the five riders on the front.
Samuele Battistella (Astana Qazaqstan) was there but soon dropped as he vomited on the bike, while Alessandro Tonelli (Green Project-Bardiani-CSF-Faizane) was distanced on the late category-2 climb of Colle Braida, leaving the final three to fight it out.
The summit of that climb, which measured 9.8km at 7.1% and was even steeper in the last 5km, was a virtual finish line for Denz, who fought grimly to hang on as Skujins forced the pace. The trio ticked off the descent, and then Denz kicked off hostilities with an attack on a kicker with 12km to go that briefly dropped Berwick and definitively exposed his weakness.
Denz was happy to lead through the cagey final kilometres, and Skujins could hardly have planned it any better as he launched his sprint in the slipstream, but Denz was too strong, and Skujins had to drop his head as the German wildly celebrated the first Grand Tour stage win of his career.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s really big for me, and obviously, I’m super proud," said Denz.
“I wasn’t supposed to be in the breakaway. When I looked around, there were just monsters around – only big guys. I thought it was going to be difficult for me to do something, and I was thinking I could help Konrad to win the stage. But the collaboration was really, really bad, and I was still going at the front, and we suddenly had a gap and fully pushed on.
“On the last climb, I was on my very limit. I barely made it over the top. Once I achieved that, I knew there was a kicker, and I had to throw everything in to attack there. Obviously, everything came back together, but I also have quite a fast finish and that saved me in the end. I’m over the moon right now.”
In terms of the general classification, there was no change to the top 10. However, three outsiders did gain a chunk of time.
Konrad was the best-placed of the day's breakaway in 16th at 8:43, and he managed to rise three places to 13th at 4:15. Kuss and Van Wilder made even more gains, coming back on the descent of the Colle Braida to finish in the main chase group, 2:20 down on the winner but nearly six minutes up on the peloton. Van Wilder, whose team leader Remco Evenepoel is out of the race, rose to 16th at 6:08, while Kuss moved up two places to 20th at 9:43.
How it unfolded
The 185km stage started out with undulating terrain, heading steadily up towards the early category-3 climb at Pedaggera, and it triggered an almighty battle for the breakaway. Some sprinters were dropped as early as the first kicker after 5km, and the more sustained subsequent drag saw the peloton explode into several fragments.
At the top of that second hill, after 13.4km, Marco Frigo (Israel-Premier Tech) and Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) had opened a lead, but a big group had formed behind them, while the 'peloton' comprised only 50 riders as Ineos Grenadiers looked to keep a lid on a chaotic start.
The breakaway expanded on the next largely downhill section as 24 riders made it across: Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla), Mads Pedersen, Bauke Mollema, Toms Skujins, Amanuel Ghebreigzhabier (Trek-Segafredo), Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost), Sepp Kuss, Michael Hessman, (Jumbo-Visma), Ilan Van Wilder (Soudal-QuickStep), Alex Baudin, Valentin Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën), Samuele Battistella, Vadim Pronskiy, Christian Scaroni (Astana Qazaqstan), Nico Denz, Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), Jasha Sutterlin (Bahrain Victorious), Einer Rubio (Movistar), Sebastien Berwick, Stevie Williams, Marco Frigo (Israel-Premier Tech), Laurens Huys (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), Jonathan Lastra (Cofidis), Veljko Stojnic (Corratec-Selle Italia), Alessandro Tonelli (Green Project-Bardiani).
On the cat-3 climb at Pedaggera, more attacks came from behind from teams who had missed the boat. Denz led the race over the top, while on the descent, four riders joined to make it 30 out front: Luca Covili, Davide Gabburo (Green Project-Bardiani), Stefano Oldani (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Lorenzo Fortunato (Eolo-Kometa). Behind, the peloton reformed, and the gap went out past three minutes.
The first intermediate sprint came after 80km and saw Pedersen take advantage of the opportunity to reduce his arrears to Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious) in the points classification. Matthews challenged, while Sutterlin looked to take points away, but Pedersen took the full haul.
Soon after came the definitive split in the break, all of 95km from the line. The rain came, and that led to a lull in the cooperation as riders dropped to get and put on jackets. As they led through a roundabout, suddenly, a gap opened to the four on the front: Denz, Skujins, Berwick, Tonelli, and Battistella. Skujins' Trek teammates eased on the pedals, let it open, and it was away before anyone else realised and reacted.
As the front five went all-in, there was bickering and questioning behind, coupled with sporadic accelerations but no cooperative chase. Battisetalla suddenly dropped away with 88km to go, vomiting on the bike. That might have given some advantage to the chase group, given Battistella had two teammates in there, but if anything, things became even more disorganised and argumentative, and the gap went out to a minute.
There was a crash in a feed zone involving Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) and Andreas Leknessund (DSM), as the peloton took it easy and let the gap grow to the seven-minute mark.
The drama, though, was happening up the road. When the gap to the front four reached three minutes with 66km to go, it looked like the second group was finally mounting a cohesive chase, but no. Bettiol constantly looked to force the tempo, and Oldani was so frustrated he got into a fiery spat with a Bardiani rider who was shutting down moves on behalf of his teammate Tonelli up the road.
There was, finally, some movement from the group when Baudin attacked with Scaroni, who were soon joined by Bettiol.
The riders crossed the finish line for the first time with 45km to go, where the front four led by more than three minutes over Baudin, Scaroni, and Bettiol, who were 10 seconds up on the rest of the break, minus Pedersen, who was dropping back to a peloton that was nearly nine minutes behind.
A new attack formed on the approach to the main cat-2 climb of College Braida, with Oldani, Lastra, Huys, Frigo, and Stojnic going clear, soon to be joined by Formolo, Sutterlin, and Paret-Peintre. That group started the climb 45 seconds behind the Bettiol trio and 2:40 behind the leading four.
The climb was split in two by a 1,500-metre descent, and little happened on the first half. On the steep top section, Skujins ramped up the pace, and Tonelli was dropped, with Berwick also struggling for a while. The other groups were fragmenting, too, and soon Bettiol and Scaroni had dropped Baudin but were themselves then caught by the four riders that remained from the chase: Formolo, Paret-Peintre, Frigo, and Huys.
Those riders kept at it, but reached the top of the climb three minutes down, with almost no chance of getting back to contest the stage win. The peloton, meanwhile, was impressively marshalled by Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers) despite his heavy crash the previous day.
On the descent, more riders came back to the chase group, including Kuss, Hessman, and Rubio, but the victory was gone. Denz launched a bid for that victory with 12km to go, but Skujins was alive to it, and Berwick also came back after appearing to be dropped for good. When asked for a turn, the Australian made things clear: "I'm not doing shit."
The three of them stayed together through the final 9km, and Denz shouldered the responsibility of leading things out. Bwerick opened from 250 metres but faded instantly, and Denz soon sprang into action, holding off Skujins with an impressive show of force.
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