Stage 13 and the drama came to an abrupt halt. Whilst rumours had been swirling of team abandonment, few had actually pushed the button - instead preferring to try their luck on the road. The day's racing though was a very pedestrian affair. A shorter stage with a run in for sprinters - which is exactly how it played out. With little remarkable on the road to the finish line, Diego Ulissi took the win, the Italians celebrated, and everyone looked ahead to stage 14 and the ITT.
THE GIRO GALLERY - WEEK 3
Almeida had held the pink into Stage 12, and the 3 stages to rest day promised much - surely the Maglia Rosa was due a change? So the road would prove.
With Almeida, still in his debut Grand Tour, the ITT was reckoned to be the moment that others leapfrogged him and into pink. The likes of Pello Bilbao and Wilco Kelderman were eagerly snapping at Almeida's heels. The undisputed favourite for the win was Ganna - on form from his World Time Trial Championships domination. To nobody's surprise, he delivered himself to the line, eclipsing team mate Rohan Denis.
In the GC - the expected shake up never really happened. Almeida retained his form, and coped well on the slopes of the 34km course. To everyone's surprise, he finished ahead of Wilco Kelderman, increased his lead a shade and set the pundits wondering - could he go the distance?
The parcours of stage 15 was hillier - one that certainly favoured a breakaway. Starting on the long straight of the Rivolto airbase, the Italian air force decided to celebrate the Giro with a fly past. The stage though wasn't processional - with a finale a 15km climb at 7.8%, there was sure to be movement, attacks and battles.
So it was - Kelderman pressed on, with Sunweb setting a relentless pace, isolating Almeida from his Quickstep teammates. Eventually breaking, his 52 second lead was sure to be cut to shreds. Going with Kelderman was his teammate Jai Hindley, as well as British rider and London's finest Tao Geoghegan Hart. In the end, the three of them battled it out, with the Brit taking the win followed by Wilco Kelderman.
In GC terms, Wilco's attack had seen him decimate the gap to Almeida, while Hindley took 3rd on GC ahead of Tao, who now sat in 4th, having pushed Bahrain McLaren's Pello Bilbao, down to 5th. Holding pink into the last rest day, Almeida had defied all expectation.
Returning after the rest day, Stage 16 was a lumpy and circuitous affair. Quite content to extend their rest day, the peloton and GC contenders sat up and sat out. This left a breakaway group to push on uninhibited. Among their ranks, Ben Swift, Ben O'Connor, Boaro, Battaglin and Tratnik. Quickly it became apparent that this race was theirs to battle out. Steadily, team tactics played out, and Bahrain McLaren sent Tratnik up the road with 40km remaining.
Getting a gap quickly - Tratnik rode evenly, keeping consistency as the group behind attacked one another. Holding the gap, the only man to bridge across was Ben O'Connor - reaching Tratnik at the summit of the final climb. This left just a 13 km run into the line - with a punchy rise at the end. The smart money had tipped Ben O'Connor to take the win, with the inevitable attack he unleashed on the final climb.
But the acceleration couldn't force a gap - Tratnik surged pulled out a gap and rode to the line - taking his first ever Grand Tour Stage Win - and Le Col's first stage win too. It was a good day.
Stage 17 - and the race for pink was still fairly tame. No one was willing to venture an attack but the breakaway, and among them, Ben O'Connor. Throwing his hat into the ring, O'Connor went big and took the win, compensating for the disappointment the day before.
Stage 18 had been earmarked well in advance, and with good reason. The Stelvio Pass is one of Europe's most iconic climbs, and so challenging it seldom graces a race calendar. As expected, it split the field fast. Soon, a group of 3 emerged - Tao, Rohan Dennis and Jai Hindley.
Behind, Wilco Kelderman tried to bridge across, but suffered, faltered and fell behind. In a worse position, Almeida finally cracked, conceding 4 minutes. Taking an opportunity to attack, Pello Bilbao came across the gap to Wilco Kelderman, and then finally, pushed past, coming in just 30 seconds behind Jai Hindley who took the stage ahead of Tao.
Upsetting the dynamic, the GC standings removed Almeida from Pink and landed the Maglia Rosa on the shoulders of Kelderman, just 11 seconds ahead of his team mate Hindley and then 15 seconds ahead of Tao, with Pello in 4th - just three stages remaining.
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