Richard Carapaz (Movistar) won the Giro d'Italia two kilometres from the top of the fearsome Passo Manghen. The ghosts of recent late turnarounds on the corsa rosa had haunted the build-up to the Dolomite tappone, with many pointing to the Manghen as the most likely launchpad for a long-range offensive from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) in the same vein as Chris Froome's attack on the Colle delle Finestre a year ago.
That spectre vanished quickly on the upper reaches of the climb. When Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) accelerated viciously from the maglia rosa group, he was immediately followed by Carapaz and his Movistar teammate Mikel Landa. Nibali managed to match their rhythm at first but was forced to relent when Lopez kicked once again.
This was where Nibali was supposed to be putting Carapaz under pressure. Instead, the Ecuadorian had 15 seconds in hand on his closest challenger by the summit. In footballing terms, it was the equivalent of scoring an early away goal when already defending a hefty lead from the home leg. 116 kilometres remained on the penultimate stage of the Giro, but Carapaz was already atop the podium in Verona.
Carapaz did not reconnoitre the climbs of this Giro, relying instead on intelligence provided by his Movistar team. A man didn't need a detailed breakdown, however, to understand that the Manghen was the pivotal moment on the penultimate stage. "Before I started the Giro, I analysed every stage, and assimilated what I saw, mentally, each climb, and that helped a lot so that I knew how to suffer at each moment," Carapaz said afterwards.
Nibali re-joined Carapaz et al over the other side, and the pink jersey group grew considerably in number once again in the valley that preceded the Passo Rolle. The skirmishes among the favourites were instead postponed until the penultimate ascent of Croce d'Aune, where Landa attacked from the pink jersey group in a bid to distance Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and secure a place on the podium alongside his teammate.
Carapaz rode with assurance to track Nibali when he bridged across on the descent that followed, and this trio took on the final ascent to Monte Avena together, catching the earlier escapees as they went. Nibali, long resigned to the fact that he simply could not drop Carapaz, worked with the Movistar duo to put 50 seconds into Roglic.
"We knew the stage finish was very hard. Landa had good legs. Each time he attacked, I waited until the last minute to see who was capable of following, and in the end, it was Nibali," Carapaz said. "He closed in on Mikel, and then we worked well together. We all knew Mikel could get onto the podium, and it was good for Nibali, too, to drop Roglic. It all flowed, and we got out of it all we could. I gave 100 per cent to try to get Mikel the stage win."
Pello Bilbao (Astana) out-sprinted Landa to claim the stage victory at the summit, while Carapaz crossed the finish line in 4th place, just ahead of Nibali. The Ecuadorian will carry a lead of 1:54 over Nibali into Sunday's concluding time trial in Verona, while Landa lies third at 2:53. Roglic, meanwhile, is now 3:16 off Carapaz. Nothing, not even a low-flying helicopter, can deny Carapaz at the last in Verona.
"I don't think I will lose that much time, but anything can happen in the last stage," Carapaz said. "But I think it's OK for now."
Carapaz's wife Tania made the long trek from Ecuador to witness the final weekend of the Giro and she watched the finale of stage 20 from behind the podium. Before Carapaz could celebrate with his family, however, he was embraced by Nibali, who was generous in his praise of the Giro winner in waiting.
Carapaz may have benefited from the impasse between Nibali and Roglic to move into pink at Courmayeur, but his superiority has brooked no argument in the week since. In six stages, Nibali never succeeded in pegging back so much as a second from Carapaz.
"I think that Nibali made a nice gesture to congratulate us on our work. It's a gesture to be admired," Carapaz said. "For me and Mikel, it's one of those days we'll never forget, to be together on the podium. A unique moment."
For Landa, the moment may be fleeting, given that Roglic starts Sunday's time trial with just 23 seconds to recoup. For Carapaz, the moment will endure; victory was already cemented atop the Passo Manghen.