Colombia's Nairo Quintana soared to victory on a dramatic ninth stage of the Giro d'Italia Sunday that secured the race leader's pink jersey and dented the victory hopes of several key rivals.
Quintana, a two-time runner-up at the Tour de France who won the 2014 Giro, had been expected to blow the race apart on a punishing 13.6 km climb that gave Belgian legend Eddy Merckx his maiden Giro win in 1967.
And the diminutive Movistar team climber fulfilled predictions by leaving defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, and several others, in his wake after a series of attacks launched inside the final six kilometres.
Quintana soloed over the finish 23secs ahead of Frenchman Thibaut Pinot and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin to wrest the race lead from Luxembourg's Bob Jungels.
He is now 28 ahead of FDJ rider Pinot in the overall standings, with two-time champion Nibali (Bahrain) 1min 10secs behind after trailing home in fifth place one minute in arrears.
While Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek) moved up to third and fourth overall at 30 and 51secs behind respectively, compatriot Steven Kruijswijk is now over three minutes in arrears.
"I'm happy to win the stage and to take some seconds from my rivals," said Quintana. "I had to attack. But I want to say thanks to my team. They did a great job."
Jungels started the 149km stage from Montenero di Bisaccia to Blockhaus with a 10 second lead on Quintana but struggled on a drama-filled stage that has almost certainly ended the podium hopes of British pair Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates.
They were among several riders to come down when Sunweb rider Wilco Kelderman clipped a police motorcycle parked at the side of the road.
Despite his shoulder having "popped out", Thomas got back on his bike to finish, but is now over five minutes in arrears.
"I don't know what to say, except it's ridiculous," said Thomas.
"We were all racing towards the climb, then someone in front of me hits a motorbike. My shoulder popped out."
Injured Kelderman's race is now over, a setback that angered his team leader Dumoulin.
"I'm feeling shit because we lost Wilco," said Dumoulin, who bounced back from the incident in the final kilometres to overtake a tiring Nibali and cross the line with Pinot at 24secs behind an unstoppable Quintana.
"I can't be happy today because he (Kelderman) would have been be so important in the final week and I'm really disappointed for him."
Even before the last remnants of a 12-man breakaway were caught with 22km remaining, Quintana's Movistar team had set their stall out with a furious pace at the front of the bunch.
The Spanish outfit was still leading 14 km from the finish when disaster struck, causing a split that allowed a reduced group to race ahead.
Jungels began losing contact with 8.5 km remaining, and soon after Quintana launched the first of four attacks that prompted Pinot and Nibali to follow with a series of futile counter-attacks.
Quintana's final burst from four kilometres out snapped the elastic, the Colombian leaving a tiring Nibali to "limit the damage" after he was overtaken by Dumoulin and Bauke Mollema in the final two kilometres.
"It was very steep on the final sections so I tried to limit the damage and go up at my own pace," said Nibali.
"Quintana was better on the steeper parts of the climb, and he weighs 10 kilos less than me! Maybe in the time trial we can snatch something back."
After Monday's rest day, the race resumes with a 39.8 km time trial on stage 10.
© 2017 AFP