It’s not over yet. Chris Froome’s startling 80km solo break on the road to Bardonecchia altered the entire tone of the Giro d’Italia and felt like the decisive blow, but Friday’s tappone was only the second of a three-part instalment in the Alps. Stage 20 to Cervinia is another brute.
If Friday’s stage was a grim battle of attrition from the off, Saturday’s stage is largely about the sting in the tail. The day’s trio of category 1 climbs – the Colle Tsecore, Col de Saint Pantaleon and Cervinia – are all shoehorned into the final 90 kilometres of racing.
The gruppo might be able to see Rome (metaphorically, of course) from the summit of the day’s final climb, but they will have to go through hell to get there. Even by the Giro’s own standards of cruelty, this is among the most demanding finales in recent history.
Despite the horrors that await in the finale on Saturday afternoon, Froome’s attire at the sign-on in Susa had a decidedly celebratory air. His disarmingly strong attack on Friday saw him seize the maglia rosa, and he added some accoutrements for stage 20. He wore a pink helmet and his bike now incorporated pink decals. Froome and Sky, it seemed, had been very well prepared for the third week of this Giro.
"Obviously, we had a plan yesterday but for things to work the way you plan them very rarely happens in cycling," said Froome on Saturday morning. "For that to happen yesterday the way it did and gain so much on general classification, I’m still pinching myself."
Froome is riding this Giro despite returning a positive test for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España, though he is free to race while the protracted case is being resolved. It is thus unclear whether Froome’s final result on this Giro will remain in the record books, but he begins stage 20 with a lead of 40 seconds on defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
The Dutchman produced one of the best rides of his career in the Alps on Friday, yet still finished the stage 3:23 down. Small wonder that he was cautious about his prospects of overhauling Froome on the road to Cervinia. Third-placed Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), meanwhile, will be focused on maintaining the 40-second lead he holds over Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana). His 4:17 deficit to Froome seems insurmountable, barring the most dramatic jour sans from the overall leader.
"Let’s see. I don’t feel bad today," Froome said. "We’ll do everything we can obviously to keep the jersey. There are a lot of races within a race today and for sure it’s going to be an extremely explosive race once we hit those final climbs."
Froome’s previous stage victory on Monte Zoncolan last weekend was followed by the concession of a sizeable chunk of time to Dumoulin, Pinot et al on the road to Sappada the next day, but the Briton has somehow achieved greater consistency in the third week. He produced a solid display in the Rovereto time trial on Tuesday and attacked in the finale at Pratonevoso on Thursday, while his Sky team – and Wout Poels in particular – also appear to have found their climbing legs.
After a flat but likely fast opening 120 kilometres, stage 20 takes on a different complexion with the first of three climbs, the Col Tsecore. The ascent goes up for 16km at an average gradient of 7.7 per cent and with maximum gradients of 15 per cent near the summit, which comes 67.5km from the finish.
A fast descent follows ahead of the second mighty obstacle, the Col Saint Pantaléon, site of Ivan Gotti’s race-winning attack on the 1997 Giro. The climb is almost a mirror of the Tsecore, rising as it does for 16.6km at an average of 7.2 per cent and with a maximum gradient of 12 per cent.
The summit comes with 28km remaining, and there is another short drop ahead of the final haul to Cervinia. The gradients here are more benign – the average is just 5.3 per cent - but the sheer length of the 18km ascent, not to mention the accumulated fatigue, make it a most daunting finale.
As on Friday, the gaps could well be counted in minutes by the summit.
"As I said, I don’t feel bad this morning, which is a good sign already, but there’s still a hard day ahead of us," Froome said. "We’ve seen just how quickly things can change so I’m not taking anything for granted."