It was not labeled the queen stage, but with five categorized climbs jammed into a relatively short 137 kilometers, stage 18 was ruthless and worthy of the royal title. After covering four grueling uphills, It all came to a head on the final ascent where the GC contenders threw everything they had at each other in an exciting showdown, but when the dust settled, the top seven overall remained unaltered.
Bauke Mollema later called it the hardest day of this year's Giro and one of the hardest he's ever done. He crossed the line in 8th place to keep a firm grasp on his 7th GC.
"It was full gas racing all day; really one of the hardest days on the bike, and certainly of this Giro," said Mollema soon after he crossed the line. "I felt pretty good today. On the last climb near the top I tried to attack once, and then the guys came back. Then Pinot and Pozzovivo they went, and it's a pity that they took some time on me. But also behind I think Jungels, Formolo, they lost a lot of time, so that was good. Yeah, it was just one of those days you'll not forget so fast."
The showdown on the last climb was incredible. While the top three on GC traded blows and marked each other so closely they almost came to a standstill, those further down the GC ladder took advantage of their stalemate.
When fourth place Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and sixth place Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) attacked with no reaction from the top three, Mollema gave chase. Then Ilnur Zakarin, fourth overall, (Katusha) bolted up the road, and Mollema joined forces with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) in pursuit.
Meanwhile the top three, Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana, and Vincenzo Nibali, continued to lock horns, paying no heed to the accelerations by those further down the classification.
As the GC battle reached a crescendo, ahead the last two survivors of the day's breakaway held on to fight out the stage win. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) turned his disappointing Giro around by winning a two-up battle to take his first Grand Tour victory.
Pozzovivo and Pinot arrived together eight seconds later, followed by Zakarin at 24 seconds and Mollema and Kruijswijk at 34 seconds; small cracks had opened, but they, too, were unable to break each other, and the top of GC remained at status quo.
"I hope that I feel good again tomorrow, it will not be easy to recover from a day like this, but I think in general I am feeling a bit better than a few days ago," added Mollema. "So I just have to keep going I guess and see what is possible."