Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'There was a long descent and we were going so fast, I couldn't pedal any faster'
Thursday May 30: Stage 18: Valdoara to Santa Maria di Sala (222km)
Last night's hotel was the type of hotel that everyone probably imagines pro cyclists stay in the whole time, but really only happens one percent of the time.
It was a big country club type hotel with a five-star restaurant, plush carpets, luxury beds and Guillaume and I even had and a jacuzzi in our room, although we were too tired to bother trying to use it.
Another bonus this morning was that we were only 500m away from today's start, so we were able to ride to it.
After two very tough days in the Dolomites, today's flat route should have provided some respite for us but as it was the final chance for a sprint finish, and we have one of the few sprinters left in this Giro, we knew we'd have to work hard to try and make sure that happened today.
Because the start was so close, we had our team meeting in the hotel before we left but we still managed to be late for sign-on, which means we'll probably get a fine this evening.
As we rolled out of Valdoara this morning, we knew that any breakaway that went clear today had to have less than five riders in it for us to have any chance of bringing it back before the finish.
Although a sprint finish would also suit points leader Arnaud Demare of FDJ, we knew his team wouldn't bother riding on the front today. In a sprint finish, Demare's nearest rival, Pascal Ackerman of Bora Hansgrohe, could earn more points and steal his jersey, so they wanted to see a big group stay clear to the finish and mop up all the points on offer.
There was a lot of jumping around for the first 50km and any time a break went clear we would get information from the directeur sportif as to who was in it. From our point of view, we knew Ackerman’s Bora-Hansgrohe team, Dimension Data and possibly Deceuninck-Quickstep had sprinters with a chance of a stage win too, so we couldn't let any of their riders in the break either or there'd be no teams left in the peloton willing to chase.
Two or three times a big group went away that we didn't have anyone in, so we had to chase really hard to bring it back. The break didn't go clear until after 50km today, an hour into the stage, so it wasn't an easy start to control but I think we handled ourselves pretty well for a second division pro-continental team.
With three guys up the road, we thought it would be easy to control so to deter any more attacks we spread across the road along with the Movistar team of race leader Richard Carapaz, who were also happy to let it go.
After a brief respite and toilet stop, we went to the front with our Israeli rider, Guy Niv, riding alongside one rider each from Bora-Hansgrohe and Dimension Data.
We started high and finished low today so there was more descending than climbing, which I was thankful for, although after the first uncategorised descent, there was a long descent where the whole bunch was strung out in one long line due to the pace.
We were going so fast, I couldn't pedal any faster. So like everybody else, I resorted to ducking down as aero as I could in the hope I could keep up in the slipstream of the guys in front of me.
Suddenly, one of the Bardiani guys let a wheel go on a corner and opened a gap but when I tried to pedal around him, I was spun out on a 54x11 and just couldn't close it. I got out of the saddle and sprinted but the gap was still there. I ducked down aero again but the gap was still there.
Behind me, I could hear somebody shouting and turned around to see Vincenzo Nibali, former winner of the Giro and probably the best descender in the peloton on my wheel. All I could do was reach my arm back. Knowing what was coming next, he grabbed it and I gave him a huge track-style hand sling that catapulted him right across the gap and up to the wheel in front. A few minutes later he was still laughing when he came up to me and gave me a pat on the back.
The rule of thumb when trying to bring back a breakaway is that the peloton can usually eat a minute out of their lead for every 10km they have left in the stage. As we passed the intermediate sprint, with 60km to go, the three leaders still had under two and a half minutes and there seemed little to worry about.
Up ahead though, the three escapees had been playing with us a bit, riding within themselves, knowing that we wouldn't bring them back too early for fear of more attacks.
With 50km to go their lead was back up, but still manageable, at four minutes as Ruben and Krists took over on the front with the Bora and Dimension Data guys.
With eight or nine guys from different teams now chasing the break, we did 56km in the last hour, so we were really ticking along, but the gap was still slow to come down. It turned out the three leaders had been holding back for this last big effort.
Originally, myself and Kristian Sbaragli had been earmarked to lead out our sprinter Davide Cimolai in the final gallop to the line today, but when the break still had three minutes advantage with 25km to go, it was all hands on deck if we wanted there to be a sprint at all.
It was really flat out behind them and any time I hit the front, I went full into the red but still they hung on and had two minutes lead with 15km to go, where the peloton stalled for a minute as the GC contenders teams brought their leaders into the mix to try and keep them out of trouble.
I got swamped in the milieu and lost my place in line with about 10km to go and never got back up to help Cimo. The three leaders were dangling just 16 seconds in front of us as we went under the kilometre-to-go banner so I thought the surge for the final sprint would eat them up.
In the sprint to the line, two out of three of the escapees got swallowed up by the sprinters but Italian rider Damiano Cima managed to hold on by a half a bike length and take a mega stage win for the Nippo-Vini Fantini team, with Ackerman taking second and stealing Demare's points jersey in the process.
On what should have been a fairly straightforward day, it turned out to be a really disappointing one for us but at the same time our sprinter Cimo took seventh on the stage and we showed we could ride well as a team and we should be proud of that.
We're back in the mountains tomorrow and the next two days are going to be savage before the final time trial in Verona on Sunday. It's all about survival for me from now on.