Silvan Dillier was in disbelief after bouncing back from a puncture to cap a 200km breakaway with the biggest win of his career in a thrilling Giro d’Italia sixth stage on Thursday.
BMC’s Dillier suffered a flat tyre in the opening metres of an undulating 217km ride from Reggio di Calabria to Terme Luigiane, the first first stage of the 100th Giro edition held on the Italian mainland.
But, with a stage win on his mind, the 26-year-old Swiss chased back on, fought to help a five-man breakaway escape the peloton and, in a thrilling duel with Jasper Stuyven, prevailed in the drive to an uphill finish line that proved slightly too steep for the Belgian.
Luxembourg’s Bob Jungels retained the race leader’s pink jersey after finishing eighth, 39secs behind the frontrunners, to maintain his six-second lead on Sky’s Geraint Thomas.
It meant plenty of stage victory hopefuls were left disappointed after a routine day in the saddle turned into a desperate chase.
Dillier, Stuyven, Trek teammate Mads Pedersen, Austrian Lukas Postlberger and Italian Simone Andreetta raced to a lead of nearly nine minutes at one stage.
That was cut to five and a half minutes with 100km to race but a lack of collaboration in the chase meant the frontrunners were still nearly three minutes in front 10km from the finish.
As they headed for a technical finish featuring a series of small climbs, descents and tight hairpin bends, Pedersen peeled off, his legs no longer able to maintain the unrelenting pace.
But Stuyven, who claimed his maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta a Espana last year, remained defiant, launching an attack nearly six kilometres out that proved fatal to Andreetta’s bid to hand Italy their maiden win of the 100th edition.
Stuyven and Dillier then dropped Postlberger in the final 300 metres, but the Belgian was left agonisingly short as Dillier proved strongest to the line.
Postlberger, who claimed victory in the opening stage in Olbia, Sardinia with an audacious attack that stunned the peloton in the final kilometre, said: “I wanted to attack in the uphill section, but after 200 kilometres of a breakaway, I didn’t know how my legs would be.”
At 224km, Friday’s seventh stage from Castrovillari to Alberobello is the longest of the race.
Colombian Fernando Gaviria claimed his second victory of the Giro d’Italia as stage five ended in a sprint finish at Messina, where Quick-Step Floors team-mate Bob Jungels retained the overall race leader’s pink jersey.
After Tuesday’s eventful run surrounding Mount Etna, which saw a big crash as well as the expulsion of Bahrain-Merida rider Javier Moreno for pushing Team Sky’s Diego Rosa, the 159 kilometre course starting at Pedara passed without major incident as the sprinters took centre stage.
Russian Evgeny Shalunev, of Gazprom-Rusvelo, and Poland’s CCC Sprandi rider Maciej Paterski set off on an early breakaway, but were always likely to be reeled in over the flat second part of the race along Sicily’s coastline.
As the peleton weaved its way around two circuits of Merida, the home town of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain-Merida rider Luka Pibernik celebrated what he thought was victory over the line, only to suddenly realise there was still a lap to go.
Quick-Step Floors played the expected bunch finish to perfection as Gaviria came off the wheel of Irish rider Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) with 300 metres left to cross ahead of a fast-finishing Jakub Mareczko of Wilier-Selle Italia.
Luxembourg racer Jungels keeps the Maglia Rosa as general classification leader, six seconds ahead of Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas and 10 ahead of Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) and Nibali.
Shalunev and Paterski had earlier worked hard over the first part of the stage, which saw the gap on the peleton up to three-and-a-half minutes heading into the more flat final 50km.
The pair, though, were slowly clawed back in by the peleton, with Bahrain-Merida among those leading the drive as they protected Nibali, while Team Sky pushed Thomas along to help cut the advantage down to 53 seconds with 20kms to go.
It was only a matter of time before the fast-paced peleton absorbed the breakaway duo, who sat up as the race headed down into Messina for the final 14.5kms.
Jan Polanc says it’s an “incredible feeling” to become the first UAE Team Emirates rider to win a Grand Tour stage and is convinced this is just the start of more success for the newly-formed side.
Headwinds and a tricky course faced the elite field as they tackled the 118 kilometre first mountain stage from Cefalu to Etna in the Giro d’Italia following a day’s rest.
And the 25-year-old Slovenian showed why he’s a specialist in climbing by using all his experience and skill to pull away from a four-man group and cross the finish line in just over four hours and 55 minutes in the fourth stage of the race.
The result not only saw him claim his first win since the fifth stage of the 2015 edition, but also wrote himself into UAE Team Emirates’ history books with their maiden triumph in a Grand Tour on their debut season on the World Tour.
Understandably, Polanc was still coming to terms about delivering his best result in two years and his most special so far.
“It’s really exciting to be the first rider from UAE Team Emirates to win a grand tour stage,” he told Sport360°.
“This is a new project with a new team. I want to thank all the staff and management because without them it wouldn’t be possible to win the race. To be honest, it’s not sunk in yet but for me to win the first stage for my team is an incredible feeling.
“When I was a kid, it was always a dream of mine to race in the big races like the Giro d’Italia and it’s now a reality. I always watched the race on TV every year and it was my dream to compete. Now I’m here riding in my third Giro and it’s an incredible feeling to win.
“I hope this win has put the UAE on the map in the cycling world. It’s important for the UAE country as a whole on this result and we are all proud to be riding for this team.”
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) May 9, 2017
He added: “If you compare it to my 2015 win, then this is definitely more special because I had to put in a lot of effort for this race.
“Today, it was definitely not easy to ride there because I was in a group of riders and that meant you had to move together and be as fast you we can so you can keep up.
“There was a lot of wind that made things even more difficult especially as there was so many kilometres to go and a lot of climbs.
“In the end, there wasn’t much energy in me but I managed to hold on for the win even though the wind and riders made it difficult for me.
“It was a similar race as I did two years ago but given the whole context, this is more special.”
Polanc will now wear the blue jersey as leader of the mountains classification when the race resumes with a 159km course from Pedara to Messina today.
Another sixteen stages await the elite riders before the 3,609.1 km prestigious race concludes in Milan on May 28.
With four more mountain stages still to come, Polanc was wary of replicating his success but was confident any of his eight team-mates can follow in his footsteps and stand on the top of the podium.
“It’s hard to say if I can win more. There’s still a long way to go and there are plenty of stages that we have to race. So I will just take it day by day and hope for something good,” he said.
“We have a good team and there are a lot of opportunities for us to do well here. I think all the riders can take confidence from this win because it’s for the whole team and hopefully there will be more good results to come.
“This team is really special and it’s a new project. We will grow in every race and all the guys are really ambitious to bring good results and we all understand well together.”