Three weeks of the Giro d'Italia come down to this: 53 seconds, four riders, two mountains and one time trial. Just 48 hours from the finish in Milan, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and now Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) are all potential winners of the 100th edition of the corsa rosa. At this point, the margin for error is nil.
The Giro is delicately poised as it reaches its denouement. Quintana is just 38 seconds ahead of Dumoulin, 43 ahead of Nibali and 53 up on Pinot ahead of Saturday's penultimate stage over Monte Grappa and Foza to Asiago. With a 30-kilometre time trial to come in Milan the following afternoon, the Colombian knows that he must extend his buffer on stage 20 or risk being overhauled by Dumoulin – and perhaps Nibali and Pinot, too – at the death.
"We'll have to try to put time into Dumoulin in particular, because he's the strongest in the time trial," Quintana said on Friday.
Quintana will draw confidence from how Dumoulin suffered and lost more than a minute on Piancavallo on Friday. Less encouraging is that the fact that, the Blockhaus aside, Quintana's gains on this Giro have come through the weaknesses of his rivals rather than by virtue of his own strength.
"I had bad legs today, but I hope it was just today," Dumoulin said as he warmed down at the finish of stage 19, still wearing the pink jersey he had just surrendered to Quintana. "I don't know how they'll be tomorrow. I just hope they're better."
The pessimist says that three weeks of racing have finally caught up with Dumoulin, and his decline is terminal. A more optimistic viewpoint is that the Dutchman limited his losses gamely on his worst day of the race, and remains firmly poised to win the race overall in the final time trial.
"You can't win by minutes; this Giro d'Italia will be decided by just a few seconds," Nibali said outside the Bahrain-Merida bus after Friday's stage.
Nibali's Giro has been like the Italian football team's progress at a World Cup; after a slow start, he has begun to grind out results. Now, with the margins tightening and the stakes rising, nobody would dare write off the big game player. Perhaps only Alberto Contador has a similar ability to win Grand Tours without being the strongest man in the race. If anybody can win this Giro in a penalty shoot-out, it is Nibali.
"The podium is my goal," Pinot insisted after quietly hauling himself back into the fight for pink with two fine attacks, in the Dolomites on stage 18 and at Piancavallo on stage 19.
In his younger and more vulnerable years, Pinot's challenge might have collapsed after his relative disappointments in the Montefalco time trial and Tuesday's tappone to Bormio. At this Giro, a race he seems determined to enjoy – a sentiment all too often overlooked in modern cycling – Pinot has stuck resolutely to his task. Like when he placed on the podium of the 2014 Tour, he has shaken off the jours sans and is finishing the Giro very strongly. The Milan time trial will be viewed as an opportunity more than an obstacle.
Stage 20 from Pordenone to Asiago may not have caught the eye quite like the mammoth leg over the Stelvio or the miniature epic in the Dolomites, but its 190 kilometres provide Quintana, Nibali and Pinot with the terrain to try to shake off Dumoulin one last time.
After a relative gentle opening half, where the category 4 Muro di Ca' del Poggio near Conegliano is the only obstacle en route to Prosecco country, the tenor of the stage changes at the foot of Monte Grappa. The mountain, which towers above Bassano del Grappa, has featured on the Giro before, but is tackled from a new side this time around. The great difficulty is its sheer length (24.2 kilometres) rather than its steepness (the average gradient of 5.3 per cent, the maximum pitches are 11 per cent).
The summit comes 67 kilometres from the finish and it followed immediately by a sinuous drop to Bassano del Grappa – the same descent on which Nibali swooped to stage victory back in 2010. After a short run through the valley, the road begins to climb again with the 14-kilometre haul to Foza. The category 1 climb is marked by a succession of switchbacks lower down and becomes something of a grind thereafter, with an average gradient of 6.7 per cent. It is far from the hardest ascent of this Giro, but after three weeks, it might start to feel like it.
There are still 15 kilometres from the top of Foza to the finish in Asiago, but rather than descending, the road merely dips and rises along a plateau all the way to the finish. As Pinot put it on Friday, it is almost like a summit finish.
There is, of course, no respite for the GC men at the finish on Saturday evening. Rather than the usual passarella and bunch sprint, the Giro concludes with a flat and very fast 29.3-kilometre time trial from Monza to the centre of Milan. Unless Dumoulin is already back in pink before he rolls down the start ramp, nothing will be decided until the last man off reaches Piazza Duomo.
The approach – and the others
With just 38 seconds in hand on Dumoulin, Quintana has no choice but to attack the Dutchman on Saturday. “The first climb is very hard and it will be raced hard, but the decisive attacks will come on the second climb,” Quintana said on Friday.
It can be taken as read, then, that Movistar will begin to force the pace as early as the Monte Grappa, with Winner Anacona and Andrey Amador sure to be to the fore, but the million-dollar question is whether Quintana himself will be able to summon up something like the volley of attacks that brought him victory at the Blockhaus two weeks ago. The verdict of the final week has been inconclusive.
Nibali, like Quintana, has no option but to attack on Saturday's stage, though it remains to be seen whether he is content to find common ground with the Colombian and then gamble on trying to overhaul him in the final time trial in Milan. For now at least, it seems Nibali's focus is on Dumoulin, though directeur sportif Paolo Slongo was bullish as to precisely how much time needed to be gained on Saturday.
"The sport has always taught us that the real levels of ability and Grand Tour ability emerge at the very end. Dumoulin was perhaps a little over confident and even cocky while in the pink jersey, but he doesn't have it many more. He's still the favourite to win the Giro but it's wide open now," Slongo said. "For sure the time triallists have an advantage. In the last time trial, Dumoulin gained 3 seconds per kilometre, but I hope that it's down to 1.5 or 2 seconds per kilometre on Sunday. That makes everything possible."
Though Dumoulin conceded his maglia rosa on Friday, and lost more than a minute to his direct rivals, he managed to avoid a full-blown crisis. He can perhaps afford a similar display on Saturday and still win the Giro.
"I'd say we need to at 1:30 on Quintana and about 1:00 on Nibali," said Sunweb coach Aike Visbeek. "I think we can expect some crazy things in the last two days. When I see Nibali on the front there are always motorbikes near him. This is the only race he wants to win, the course is tailor-made for him and he has thousands of people cheering for him. I think we have to stay cool and stay close to guys like those."
At this point in a Grand Tour, raw strength is usually the deciding factor, but with the margins so tight and the level so homogenous, strategy will be crucial on Saturday. Pinot has timed his attacks expertly in the past two days, taking advantage of the tight marking between Quintana, Nibali and Dumoulin, and it would be foolhardy in the extreme if the top three allowed him to escape their sight again here. Like Pinot, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) has gained ground over the past two days. Now 5th at 1:21, the Russian, too, is in the hunt for the podium – or more.
"To be sure and sleep easy before Milan, we've got to quite a bit of time," Slongo said. "We've also got to watch out for Pinot, he wasn't great in the Sagrantino time trial but he has been good in the past, and we can't forget Zakarin either."
Nor can we forget the other battles in the top 10 on this Giro. Every position and WorldTour point counts for men like Domenico Pozzovivo (6th at 1:30), Bauke Mollema (7th at 2:48) and Steven Kruijswijk (10th at 7:37), while Adam Yates (8th at 6:35) will need to gain time on Bob Jungels (9th at 7:03) if he is to land the white jersey of best young rider. In this tightest of races, finding allies in unexpected places could make all the difference.