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Alberto Bettiol took a fine stage win following a breakaway as Egan Bernal enjoyed a more comfortable day in the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia.

Bettiol timed his move to perfection as he overhauled Remi Cavagna on the final short climb of the 231km stage 18 from Rovereto to Stradella before going solo for the final six kilometres to take his first Giro stage win.

After showing signs of weakness in Wednesday’s summit finish in Sega di Ala, Bernal had less to worry about on a largely flat day as a relaxed peloton rolled in some 23 minutes later – their minds set on two big mountain days to come before Sunday’s closing time trial.

That meant the Ineos Grenadiers rider retained his 2min 21sec lead over Bahrain-Victorious’ Damiano Caruso, with Simon Yates of BikeExchange staying third at 3min 23sec off the lead. But the day belonged to Bettiol, the EF Education-Nippo rider who has spent the bulk of the race so far working in service for fifth-placed Hugh Carthy.

Cavagna had been first to attack from a large breakaway group, going solo with 26km to go as he looked to salvage Deceuninck-QuickStep’s race, with Remco Evenepoel a non-starter following a crash on Wednesday.

He built a lead of 30 seconds but it tumbled on the the short climbs in the final 15km as Bettiol and then Nicolas Roche made counterattacks. Cavagna cracked close to the top of the first climb as Bettiol went clear, and it was Team DSM’s Roche – looking to double up for Ireland after his cousin Dan Martin won a stage 24 hours earlier – who set off in pursuit.

There would be no catching the 2019 Tour of Flanders winner, however, and Roche had to settle for third on the day, caught on the line by Cofidis’ Simone Consonni.

“I really wanted a victory like this,” Bettiol said. “I had already come close on a couple of occasions. This morning Hugh gave me the green light to go on the attack, I want to thank him and the whole team. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”

Friday’s stage 19 takes the race to a summit finish on the Alpe di Mera, another chance for rivals to test Bernal after he lost almost a minute to Yates on Wednesday.

“I hope I’ve recovered well, I felt much better on the bike than yesterday and I hope tomorrow will be another good day,” Bernal said. “It’s difficult to say I’m super-confident – I’m just trying to do my best. You can’t say you are overconfident because we saw yesterday and in the past years that with one bad day you can lose everything. I have a lot of respect for the other guys and I need to be focused and do my best, that’s it.”