Luke Plapp has enjoyed an “insane” day at the Giro d’Italia, the bold Australian champion eventually finishing third in a three-man sprint for glory after earlier finding himself the virtual leader of the race.

Team Jayco AlUla’s Plapp made several pushes for victory on Thursday’s (Friday AEST) demanding 180-kilometre sixth stage between Viareggio and Rapolano Terme, energising a 95km seven-man breakaway that eventually came down to a trio gunning for the victory after a bruising four-hour slog.

But with the peloton bearing down behind them, it was Plapp’s two breakaway accomplices who shot past him in the finale, with former world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep) grabbing the runner’s-up spot while Spain’s Giro debutant Pelayo Sanchez (Movistar) raced to a brilliant victory.

It was a disappointment for 23-year-old Melburnian Plapp, also in his debut Giro, as a difficult undulating stage, featuring three dust-ridden gravel sections, ended up with him finally running out of steam as he finished a second behind the two leaders.

At points, with the breakaway even holding a three-minute, 15-second advantage, Plapp was actually the “virtual” leader on the road and even with just over 20km remaining, was still on pole to wear the leader’s pink jersey in Friday’s time trial.

“But the pink jersey wasn’t on my mind,” insisted Plapp. “I knew they [leader Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates] were never going to let it go.

“I tried to be efficient, to save something for tomorrow’s time trial too, but it was a good day, beautiful weather and good fun out there in the break.

“I felt really, really strong on the climbs, but those other two [Sanchez and Alaphilippe] are super-punchy. I tried to go on the gravel climb a long way out, but they were able to stay with me.”

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Pogačar, who eventually came home safely among the fast-finishing bunch to protect his 46-second race lead over Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), suggested afterwards he would have been happy if Plapp had ridden into pink, but he was happy with his comfortable day’s work.

Wearing his national champion stripes, Plapp, who’d started the day 2:33 off the lead, looked a man on a mission and even made a couple of daring bids to break for home twice within the last 11 kilometres. Each time, though, he was hauled back.

“It was an insane day. The race was out of control the whole day, it was ridiculous for the first 80km, and I was able to jump across after [fellow Australian] Kaden Groves set it up by attacking.

“We all know how well he can climb for a sprinter — that was incredible.”

There are now three Australians in the top 15, with Ben O’Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) 11th at 1min 26sec, Michael Storer (Tudor Pro) 12th at 1:33 and Plapp 15th at 1:57.

Friday’s seventh stage will feature the first of two individual time trials, a 40.6km route from Foligno to Perugia, which ends with a fourth-category climb that could lead to Pogačar gaining more seconds on his pursuers.

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