'Fino alla fine' – Right to the very end. When race director Mauro Vegni designed the route of the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia, he perhaps hoped for a close race and thrilling finale in Milan. But there has never been a similar finish to the corsa rosa, with five riders fighting for the final three podium places and all of them with a realistic chance of winning the maglia rosa if their rivals suffer a bad day, mess up a corner or even crash.
Every second will count on the 29.3km time trial from the Monza motor racing circuit to the Piazza Duomo in the heart of Milan. It will be a race to the very end.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will start last in Monza and race in the pink jersey but leads Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) by just 53 seconds. On paper and considering their previous time trial performances and ability against the clock, it may not be enough for the Colombian to hold off the big man from Maastricht.
Quintana will also have to fight for a place on the podium because Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is only 39 seconds down and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is only 43 seconds back. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) should not be forgotten. He is 1:15 but an excellent time triallist and so a threat to everyone except perhaps Dumoulin. The final podium places in Milan will be decided by a handful of seconds, with any combination still possible.
A fast and furious route
The time trial is perfect for strong, powerful riders like Dumoulin and so a nightmare for the pure climbers such as Quintana. While today's Formula 1 Grand Prix races on the streets of Monte Carlo, the final stage of the Giro d'Italia will start in the finishing straight of the Monza circuit, with riders covering a 5.6km before heading south in a direct line towards Milan.
The first time check will be taken after 8.8km near Villa Reale, and every rider and team will be hoping for a fast start and good news. It will give the first indication of the final result. The second time check is after 17.4km in Sesto San Giovanni on the outskirts of Milan. The route then heads into the city via Porta Venezia and Corso Venezia, with a final right, left and right turns leading into the spectacular Piazza Duomo.
The magic number, 1.8
Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) could perhaps win the stage, but all eyes will be on the final battle. Dumoulin is the logical favourite to win but for that reason is under the most pressure. He will have to hold his nerve, ride fast and hope he has enough energy and speed in his legs to pull back time on Quintana. Another bout of stomach problems or simple rookie errors could cost him dearly.
Ten of Dumoulin's 15 career victories have come in time trials, and he has important stage victories in all three Grand Tours. Last year, he won the opening time trial in the Netherlands to pull on the first pink jersey but was only fourth in the opening time trial of the 2015 Tour de France in Utrecht.
It has been calculated that Dumoulin needs to gain at least 1.8 seconds per kilometre to overhaul Quintana. He beat the Colombian by 2:53 – well over three seconds a kilometre in the Sagrantino time trial but he admits that the residual fatigue of an entire Giro and its punishing last week must also be factored into the equation.
"It's quite a big gap, so I definitely need a good day to get that gap. There are not going to be time differences like the last time trial, I know that, and it's been a very hard three weeks. I'm very tired. Everybody is very tired, so that makes for a very weird TT," Dumoulin warned after the finish in Asiago.
"I'm just going to focus on my own ride and then we'll see at the finish what it's worth."
Quintana has promised to fight to the very end and hopes to produce the time trial of his life. Yet he has never looked at his very best in this year's race, perhaps coming in under prepared as he tries to juggle the difficult task of preparing for the Giro-Tour double. His lofty ambitions could cost him victory the Giro d'Italia and consequently the Tour de France in July.
However, one previous time trial can give him and Movistar hope. In the 2015 Vuelta a Burgos Dumoulin won the 38.7km time trial but Quintana was sixth at 1:33, just over two seconds a kilometre slower.
"Races are decided at the finish line," Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue pointed out. "As we say in Spain "Hasta el rabo todo es toro" – A bull is a bull right to the tip of its tail."
Nibali starts the time trial second overall, 39 seconds behind Quintana. He is the shark of Messina and could perhaps beat the Colombian but knows he could, in turn, be beaten by Dumoulin, Pinot and even Zakarin. They are only four, 14 and 36 seconds behind him.
Pinot had a difficult stage 10 time trial but has excelled in the final week, winning the stage to Asiago after an aggressive ride. He will use his mental strength to fight for a place on the podium and could even go close to overall victory if Dumoulin messes up.
History is on Dumoulin's side, but is it enough?
The Giro d'Italia has been turned upside down three times in the previous 99 editions.
In 1976 Felice Gimondi managed to pull back 44 seconds on Joan De Muynck and so win his third Giro d'Italia, just as Nibali is hoping to do today.
In 1984 Francesco Moser made arguably the biggest comeback in the history of the Giro d'Italia when he beat Laurent Fignon by 2:24 in the 42km Verona time trial to pull back the 1:21 he had lost in the Dolomites. He finally won the Giro d'Italia after 11 attempts. Moser used front and back disc wheels and aero bars, with allegations that television helicopters helped push the Italian along but slow Fignon.
Dumoulin and Team Sunweb should perhaps be concerned about the helicopters, race motorbikes and any other outside factors that could affect the race.
Ryder Hesjedal pulled off the most recent comeback. In 2012 he was 31 seconds down on Joaquim Rodriguez but beat the Spaniard by 47 seconds over the 28.2km course to become the first ever Canadian to win the Giro.
Dumoulin will be hoping to win by more than 16 seconds so that he is crowned as the first ever Dutch winner of the Giro d'Italia.
History is on Dumoulin's side if he can hold his nerve.
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