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Geraint Thomas said he had a “decent day” on his 37th birthday on Thursday as he kept the Giro d’Italia’s leader’s pink jersey and withstood an attack by Primoz Roglic that shook off all the other leading contenders.
On the first of three brutal days in the Dolomites, local boy Filippo Zana edged French veteran Thibaut Pinot in an exhausted dash to the line to win the 18th stage of the race.
Down the mountain, Roglic, paced by team-mate Sepp Kuss, went on the attack from the group of leading riders.
The Jumbo-Visma pair quickly dropped all their main rivals except Ineos’ Welshman Thomas who stuck to Slovenian Roglic’s rear wheel and celebrated his birthday by keeping the leader’s pink jersey.
Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion, is bidding 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 dropped down to third overall, after finishing ninth near the Austrian border.
“Decent day,” said Thomas.
“To gain time on 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 kilometres he really squeezed on again. He was really strong but I’m happy with how I was,” Thomas added.
He remained 29 seconds ahead of Roglic who took back the second place he lost to Joao Almeida on Tuesday.
“Primoz had a bad day the other day, Almeida today. I’ve just got to keep being consistent. Just take it day by day, climb by climb,” Thomas said.
After the top three there is a gap to Irishman Eddy Dunbar who is fourth at 2 minutes, 39 seconds.
– ‘One moment of weakness’ –
Marc Reef, Jumbo-Visma’s sports director, said his team planned to keep attacking Thomas.
“Thomas showed he is really, really strong and in perfect condition,” said Reef.
“Only one moment of weakness is necessary to crack him and that’s what we’ll fight for,” he added.
The stage was ridden in sunshine after much of the first two weeks of the three-week race was run in the cold and wet.
In the tough conditions, the field has been thinned by illness, with favourite Remco Evenepoel and Thomas’s team-mate Filippo Ganna among those dropping out with Covid-19, and crashes, which claimed, among other, two more Ineos riders Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov.
“What is a big thing from today is that the mental aspect is playing a role after those hard weeks we’ve had and we can look with a lot of confidence to tomorrow,” said Reef.
Pinot, who is retiring at the end of the season, drove the breakaway on as he collected enough points to take the King of the Mountains classification lead. He also climbed to seventh overall, 4min 43sec behind Thomas.
However, he lost out on a stage victory in 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 was racing on home roads in north-east Italy.
“I played my cards right in the final in the sprint,” he said.
“It was an opportunity of those that come around a few times in life and I took it.”
Friday’s 19th stage is a 183km ride from Longarone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo that includes five significant peaks.
Saturday’s penultimate stage is a ferocious 18.6km uphill time trial.