The Giro d'Italia heads into the mountains on Friday for the start of a terrible triptych of stages in the Dolomites. Race leader Alberto Contador seems to have a tight, if not unbeatable grip on the maglia rosa but both Vincenzo Nibali and Michele Scarponi refuse to accept defeat so early in the race.
Nibali always appears relaxed and in control, hence his nickname of 'lo squalo' – the shark. But a cold sore on his lower lip perhaps indicated he is already tired after 12 days of racing. "The next few stages will be very nervous and very hard days," he said.
"The Grossglockner could be an important day but the combined effect of the Grossglockner, the Zoncolan and then the long Gardeccia stage will make things especially hard. I personally think the Gardeccia is the decisive stage because it's the last of the three. You've got be at best there."
Nibali knows he has to do something to try and pull back time on Contador. He is currently third overall at 1:21.
His best opportunity appears to be the descent of the Crostis on Saturday. The testing descent has been declared safe by the riders and organisers and comes before the climb to the finish on Monte Zoncolan. Contador has perhaps mistakenly admitted he is worried about the descent. Nibali is a demon descender and so may gamble on an attack, just as he did on the dirt road descent to Orvieto.
"I think we can come up with something. We considered it yesterday (during the stage to Castelfidardo) but it wasn't worth it. I saw that Alberto is riding well, his pedaling style is really fluid. But he's had a bad day in the past, so there is a chance that something might happen."
"There could be an attack on the descent of the Crostis but it's risky for everyone. We've been told one team car will be able to follow us down the descent. The team cars can't pass all the riders and so it could be a problem if you have a mechanical."
"I think the team can make a big difference too. He could be isolated in the mountains and that could be important. But if he's alone maybe me and Scarponi will be too."
Scarponi gets serious
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) was happy to spend some time with his family and friends at the start in Castelfidardo but was also thinking ahead to the mountain stages. He usually likes to joke and play down things with the media but was serious about the importance of the final week of the Giro.
quot;The toughest part of the Giro is about the start and so the real Giro is about to start," he said.
"It's going to be a tough weekend and a tough final week when the final classification is really going to be sorted out. The stages come one after another with a lot of climbs and a lot of mountain finishes. But we've known what to expect for a long time.
I'm ready to focus on the key stages and key moments. Bring it on."