The stage is set, the final mountains await. The time for talk is over. On Saturday the 194km stage high into the spectacular Dolomites offers the final chance to go on the attack in this year’s Giro d’Italia in the hope of gaining precious seconds before Sunday’s concluding time trial around Verona.
The stage represents the chance of a lifetime for race leader Richard Carapaz (Movistar) to set up the overall victory, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) knows he has to pull off perhaps the biggest exploit of his entire career if he is to topple Carapaz and win the Giro d’Italia for the third time.
Nibali also has to gain time on Roglic if he wants to at least hold onto his second place, while the Slovenian will ride to defend his podium place and hope to take advantage of the battle between Nibali and Carapaz. Many are expecting Nibali to go all-in and attack early; in a final attempt to crack his rival’s and make another glorious turn around just like in 2016.
That is probably too much even for the Jumbo-Visma leader to pull back in the 17km Verona time trial but Nibali is only 22 seconds ahead and a far more realistic objective. To different degrees and in different ways, Carapaz, Nibali, and Roglic have to be wary of Mikel Landa (Movistar). The enigmatic Basque rider is 3:03 down on his teammate but looks to be the best climber in this year’s Corsa Rosa. He could play a major role in helping Carapaz become the first ever Ecuadorian winner of a Grand Tour, or become the loose cannon of the Corsa Rosa if he decides to ride for himself and joins attacks from Nibali, Roglic or others.
Behind the fight for the pink jersey, there is a myriad of other battles about to be played out on in the Dolomites. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) will try to defend his best young rider’s white jersey, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is determined to defend his fifth place overall, with other riders are ready to fight for places in the top ten. Hugh Carthy and Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First) are 14:51 and 16:51 back but will be riding to pull back time and climb into the top ten.
The last road stage will also be a battle to survive for many other riders who have ridden this far, loyally working for their team leaders, fighting in the sprint finishes or going in the many breakaway attempts. 143 of the 176 starters are still in the race and when they reach the finish line at Monte Avena above Feltre, they will be able to see and virtually touch Verona and the finish of the 2019 Giro d’Italia.
The last big mountain stage
In Italy, stages are known as ‘tappa’. They call the big decisive stage ‘il tappone’. Saturday’s stage 20 is a tapponissima, a super big stage, with four major climbs and 5,600m of elevation in 194km of racing.
The climbing starts after just 8.5km of racing, with the 18km Cima Campo climb. At 5.9 per cent it is a leg loosener for what is to come. The stage loops west into the high Dolomites and climbs the 18.9km, 7.3 per cent Passo Manghen after 58km. After the removal of the Passo Gavia, it will award the prestigious Cima Coppi prize and break through to an altitude of 2,047m.
The Passo Rolle starts after 112km. At 4.7 per cent for 20.6km, it is the easier climb but reaches 1,980m. The next 50km descents via today’s finish at San Martino di Castrozza and the long valley road. The final climb up to the finish is in two parts: the Croce d’Aune, and then the kick up to Monte Avena. Together they total nearly 20km of climbing, with the final three kilometres of the Croce d’Aune at over 8 per cent. No wonder Tullio Campagnolo was inspired to invent the quick release mechanism after he struggled to change his gear. A short descent leads to Monte Avena, with the 6.9km climb rising at 7.3 per cent.
Will Nibali ‘do a Froome’ and attack on the Passo Menghen with 140km to go?
The most astute observers make it clear that Nibali will probably attack on the Passo Menghen. Nibali laughed off suggestions that he needs to ‘do a Froome’ and attack from long-range as the Briton did in 2018 to set-up overall victory.
The Passo Menghen is a massive 140km from the finish but is the only climb where he can perhaps crack Roglic and isolate Carapaz and Landa from their strong teammates. Nibali hinted that he cannot sacrifice Bahrain-Merida’s hard work with suicide attacks but his pride and desire to at least to try to win will surely see him attack.
“Vincenzo will have the desire, of course, because if Landa goes strongly and Roglic doesn’t crack, then the podium is at risk. I think on the Manghen there’ll already be a battle,” Nibali’s former directeur sportif at Astana and Italian Grand Tour Doyenne Beppe Martinelli predicted to Cyclingnews.
“They need to get rid of Roglic, he’s the one who’s suffered the most in the last few days but he’s never given up fighting and defending.”
“I don’t think Movistar can risk allowing Landa up the road with Nibali and causing Carapaz to blow up. They will try to get them both on the podium. Landa deserves better than fourth on this Giro and I’m sure he’ll do something on Saturday to try to move up.”
Like everyone, Martinelli has doubts about Landa’s loyalty to the Movistar cause, especially as he has reportedly agreed to move to Bahrain-Merida in 2020, to replace Nibali.
“He’s a good lad, but even good lads sometimes want something of their own. I believe that Landa is the strongest rider on the Giro, but yet again he’s been unable to capitalize on his strength and win,” Martinelli pointed out.
At Movistar, the team is convinced that Landa will stay loyal to Carapaz despite his expected departure. Carapaz knows the attacks will come.
“We know they are going to come for us, and that’s one way of testing us,” Carapaz said of talk of his rivalry with Landa.
“Since the beginning of the race, the team has worked for both of us. Mikel told me to my face that he’s at my service tomorrow. I have confidence the team is backing me.”
New Movistar directeur sportif Max Sciandri admitted to having some sleepless nights as the Spanish squad counted down to the final showdown.
“For now the absolute first goal, above anything else, is to defend the maglia rosa and win the Giro d’Italia. We’ve got the race lead and so our morale is up, we're ready to fight all the way to the finish,” Sciandri told Cyclingnews, not offering any support for another 'FreeLanda' campaign.
“It’d be great and would be a just reward for Landa, but it’ll depend on the race. If Landa gets away, he’ll be very strong and can take back a chunk of time but we’ve always talked about leadership and team roles, we’ve always tried to be honest.”
Sciandri believes Carapaz needs to finish at Monte Avena with a lead of at least 1:10 on Roglic and 30 seconds on Nibali if he is to hold the pink jersey in the Verona time trial and secure overall victory. Movistar knows they have to stop Nibali getting a taste of victory during stage 20.
“They call him the shark because when Nibali tastes blood, he attacks you,” Sciandri warned.
“But we know it’s up to us. There are two stages left. We’ve had our tough times and we’ve fought back from them in this Giro. We know that the tiniest thing could change things over the weekend but we’re up for the fight.”