Nairo Quintana (Movistar) appears to have a tight grip on the overall race lead and maglia rosa at the Giro d'Italia but the fight for a place on the podium took another twist on the climb to the Rifugio Panarotta in the Dolomites, with Friday's mountain time trial and Saturday's finish atop Monte Zoncolan expected to see further changes and inspire attacks.
Cadel Evans (BMC) slipped from third to ninth after losing contact with his rivals on the climb to the finish, yet remains just 90 seconds from a podium spot with the other riders squeezed in that time difference. He refuses to accept defeat but other riders are now targeting a place on the podium.
Pierre Rolland (Europcar) is now third overall, 3:29 behind Quintana and 1:48 behind second placed Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). Talented young Italian Fabio Aru (Astana) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) are only two seconds behind him, with Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) sixth overall, just 23 seconds down on Uran.
Hesjedal moves up to seventh
Canada's Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) rode from ninth to seventh and is also within reach of the podium. He was gapped slightly in sight of the finish line but had made an effort to gain time on Evans and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin).
"I felt good, I wanted to keep the pace high. I heard some guys were having difficulties so I didn’t want the pace to slow down," he said after the stage.
"It feels good to be on the front and push a bit. I’d rather have it like that than slow and accelerating. I just rode my own pace and I don’t think they got much ground on me up front and I don’t think they made up much ground so I’m happy."
Hesjedal plans to go all out in Friday's mountain time trial, without worrying about major recon riders and controlled efforts.
"I’m going 2012 style. I didn’t recon or look at any stages in 2012 and I was able to win the race. We’ll do our homework, but I’ve said all the time, in the third week, it’s your legs. Everything looks the same when you’re on the limit," he explained.
"I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that, a 20-something kilometre uphill time trial, so we’ll see what the gaps will be. Hopefully I’ve got legs and a good ride again."
Aru makes a late surge
Aru made a late surge to the finish and gained six precious seconds on his closest overall rivals. His family was on the climb to cheer for him and the Italian tifosi hope he can finish on the podium in Trieste on Sunday.
“Uran and Quintana were the guys I was watching all day and when the attacks started I had my eye on them. Then at 400 metres to go, I attacked on my own to try and take back some seconds. It worked. Now I'm even closer to the podium," he said.
Rolland rocks on
Like Hesjedal and Quintana, Frenchman Rolland took advantage of the confusion on the descent of the Stelvio to gain time and climb into the top five. With Evans suffering, he is now on the virtual podium but will have to defend his position in the Cima Grappa time trial.
"I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing right from the start of the race: taking things day by day," the Frenchman said.
"I tried to take time on the final climb. I made a good effort with four kilometres to go but they pulled me back. I'm going to keep trying."
Pozzovivo lives on to fight another day
Pozzovivo rode conservatively and remains sixth overall but has the podium in his sights.
"I didn’t have a great day and so I focused on defending my position but then in the finale I saw that Evans was dropped, so I tried to accelerate and gain some important seconds," he said.
"I think first place has been decided but from second post downwards is wide open. I'm ready to fight to the end of the Giro to improve GC position."