The stage 16 individual time trial from Trento to Rovereto is set to be a pivotal moment in this year's Giro d'Italia, with the flat, fast, and unidirectional 34.2km course the arena for the battle for pink between Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). Every second gained or lost will count in deciding who wears the iconic race leader's jersey going into the final mountain stages. Every second gained or lost will either be a massive psychological boost, or a significant blow.
Yates will start last from the centre of Trento, rolling down the ramp at 4:30pm local time. Dumoulin will start three minutes earlier, with podium contenders Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) off three and six minutes, respectively, before the Dutchman.
In the overall standings, Yates leads Dumoulin by 2:11, with Pozzovivo at 2:28 and Pinot at 2:37. Chris Froome (Team Sky) is seventh at 4:52 after losing time at Sappada, but will no doubt hope to move past Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez (fifth at 4:27) and Movistar's Richard Carapaz (sixth at 4:47).
Dumoulin and Yates have been locked in a battle for every second since the Giro started with a 9.7km time trial in Jerusalem. Dumoulin gained 20 seconds that day but Yates, not a natural time triallist, impressed by finishing seventh and has since confirmed he is a true overall contender by winning three stages in the maglia rosa and gaining precious seconds on every major mountain finish. However, now Yates could lose all of his accumulated gains in the space of 34.2km as Dumoulin gets to play to his strengths as time trial world champion.
The million-dollar question is if Dumoulin can gain 2:11 on Yates and so take the pink jersey, or if Yates can do enough to hold on. It is widely expected that the Dutchman will be able to pull back in the region of three seconds per kilometre, which would amount to a total gain of 1:43.
Either way, it will be an intense battle of nerves and speed.
Which way will the wind blow?
Some of the overall contenders rode the Trento to Rovereto time trial course during Monday's rest day and got a chance to ride it one final time on closed roads on Tuesday morning.
The 34.2km course heads south down the Adige glacial valley, swapping sides and crossing the Adige river several times before heading into the narrow streets of Rovereto, with the finish near the Museum of Modern Art. A very similar course was used for the now defunct but spectacular two-up Trofeo Baracchi in the 1980s. Local resident Francesco Moser trained for his successful Hour Record attempts on the same valley road.
It is a course for pure time trial specialists. While the road dips and rolls along the valley, there are few technical difficulties. Speed, power, and aerodynamics are the keys.
Weather forecasts indicate a risk of rain but riders awoke to dry roads on Tuesday morning, with the chance of wet roads diminishing. The valley wind blew strongly as a tailwind on Monday, making Dumoulin pessimistic about his chances of gaining enough time to take the maglia rosa. However, the wind often turns in the early afternoon. It is known as the Ora and blows north up the nearby Lake Garda and the Adige valley. A headwind would help Dumoulin and handicap the less powerful riders like Yates.
"If you go in a TT position with the tailwind we had in the recon, then even if you do only 300 watts, you are going at 50kph, and eventually there is a limit to how much faster you can go," Dumoulin said pessimistically, seemingly unaware of the afternoon change in wind direction or just playing mind games with Yates.
In any case, a local told us the chance of rain will likely mean the wind will be very light.
The Yates-Dumoulin clash will be the final act of the stage. The time trial experts will clash first and one of them will occupy the hot seat for a long time, hoping Dumoulin fails to dethrone them so they can win the stage.
European time trial champion Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Fix All) finished a close third in Jerusalem and saved his legs as much as possible on the Zoncolan and into Sappada in the hope of pulling off an exploit today. His big rivals include Alex Dowsett and Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), and perhaps Rohan Dennis (BMC), despite the Australian going deep in the mountains to test his Grand Tour credentials. Dennis will be looking to move into the top 10 overall with a good ride.
Yates has carefully avoided putting a specific number on how much time he could lose to Dumoulin as he plays mind games with his main rival and himself.
"I'll do the best I can. I'm expecting to lose a lot, that's why I've been so aggressive, to try to take time," he explained. "Tom is the one who will take the most time out of me. I'm expecting to lose time, I knew that even before we started the race."
Throwing the kitchen sink
Within the Mitchelton-Scott team, confidence is growing that Yates could hang onto the maglia rosa in the time trial. But even if he doesn't, they are ready to go on the attack in the final mountain stages to get it back before the final parade stage in Rome on Sunday.
Senior directeur sportif Matt White will be behind Yates in the Mitchelton-Scott team car, feeding him pace notes and watching the clock. Like Yates, White does not seem nervous about the time trial.
"I love it, I'm excited," he told Cyclingnews.
"We'd be nervous if you didn't know what your riders are capable of doing but we're at a stage in our development that we do know what they're capable of. People talk about Simon being under stress as race leader at the Giro d'Italia but he defended the white jersey at the Tour de France. This is the first time he's led a Grand Tour but it's not the first time he's been through the process."
White has a perfect scenario in his mind.
"That would be if Simon is still in pink. That would be perfect," he said.
"That's probably unrealistic but I wouldn't want to lose too much to Dumoulin. If we were 30 seconds down then it'll still be all on and we've got the mountain stages to turn things around. As Simon said, if he keeps the jersey we'll do everything we can to defend it all the way to Rome. If he loses we'll throw the kitchen sink at Dumoulin and see what happens."