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BORGO VALSUGANA, Italy, May 26 (Reuters) – Belgian Dries De Bondt of Alpecin-Fenix led a breakaway group to win stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia on Thursday in a closely-fought sprint to the line, beating Edoardo Affini of Jumbo-Visma in a photo finish.

After three rigorous stages in the mountains, the 156km ride from Borgo Valsugana to Treviso was a flat one with a circuit at the end.

De Bondt and Affini were in a breakaway group of four riders which also included Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizane).

De Bondt was third with less than a kilometre to go but the Belgian timed his attack to perfection to win by less than half a wheel length for his first stage victory and Alpecin-Fenix’s third at the Giro.

Other sprint favourites such as Mark Cavendish, Arnaud Demare and Alberto Dainese were left to rue the fact that they had not caught up with the breakaway group in time.

“It was a collaboration until the last kilometre,” De Bondt said.

“I knew Affini was going to go from far in the sprint so I had to be on his wheel and the pressure would be on Magnus.

“The collaboration between the four of us was magnificent.There was no moment of doubt, Maglia Juventus nobody skipped one turn… It was written in the stars.”

Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers finished with the peloton 14 seconds later to retain the pink jersey and maintained a three-second lead over second-placed Jai Hindley with Mikel Landa third, a minute and five seconds behind.

“It was a relatively calm day, the pace was very high.Tomorrow and Saturday it will be different,” Carapaz said.

“I checked Landa and Hindley all the time as I knew there could be some gaps. I want to keep the Maglia Rosa till the end, I trust in my legs.”

Earlier on Thursday, Joao Almeida of UAE Team Emirates was forced to withdraw from the Giro after testing positive for COVID-19. The Portuguese rider was fourth in the general classification after stage 17. (Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru, editing by Ed Osmond)

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