We're finally here. After over a week of crashes, wet weather and technical finishes, stage nine's time trial of the Giro d'Italia on Saturday marks the point where the GC battle really begins to hot up.
It's true that Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) has already gone home injured, that some top names like Mikel Landa (Movistar) are already on the backfoot and that Bologna's opening short time trial saw Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) unexpectedly gain a bigger-than-expected time gap over all his other GC rivals.
But whilst Dumoulin's absence can only be regretted in a 3,000 kilometre Grand Tour, fortunately there is only so much damage that can be inflicted in eight kilometres of time trialling. Which means Roglič's opening stage victory in Bologna, no matter how impressive – and impressive it was – remains more of a symbolic triumph than a real one.
The million dollar question for Sunday then, is whether Roglič can multiply his ominously large time gap from such a short course into something that really counts long-term, time-wise, on stage nine's much more demanding 'race of truth'. Or whether a week of fraught, wet racing will have narrowed the natural advantage of the Giro's better time triallists, like Roglič, over their GC rivals.
It's fair to say that, during the Bologna time trial, Roglič was in a class of his own, particularly given that he won the time trial at the Tour de Romandie as well and has an extensive track record of TT wins. So with no Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), the Slovenian has become the natural reference point on the 34.8 kilometre hilly time trial into San Marino, which ends with a second category climb. But will Roglič be able to continue to widen his advantage?
"Primož will disappoint me if he doesn't win again," Belgian TT specialist Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Soudal) told a small group of journalists, including Cyclingnews, on Saturday.
"Of course the other guys, specially Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) have made really big steps in their time trialling, but Sunday is still much more of a time trial than in Bologna. With its long, flat section in the beginning, yeah, Primož will kill them."
The current Hour Record holder and European TT Champion had yet to see the course, but Campenaerts estimates the gaps will be one minute between Roglič and the rest of the GC contenders, if not higher.
"It's hard to make a good guess, but I think Primož will take more than that. If the others keep it at one minute they will have done a good job," Campenaerts continued.
Normally a natural favourite in any time trial he starts, the Belgian admits that the time trial's final climb will work against him, to the point where he is hoping for a top ten at best.
A time trial of two halves
But in terms of the bigger picture of the Giro's overall general classification, Team EF's directeur sportif Juanma Garate argues to Cyclingnews that: "the fact that the time trial comes before the mountains means that riders are still fairly fresh, and for that reason somebody who is a bit more of a specialist will not be at such a disadvantage as if it came after some serious climbing.
"But you've also got to weigh up the fact that the TT is long, so the differences, particularly after such long stages and bad weather in the first week, could turn out to be bigger than you'd initially think."
Making it harder to predict what will happen is the fact that Sunday's time trial course is one of two distinct halves, with a 22 kilometre flat opening section followed by a 12 kilometre uneven ascent into the Republic of San Marino.
The climb, which might once again be targeted by mountain classification leader Giulio Ciccone, officially averages 4.5 per cent, but includes false flats and descents. The uphill sections average out somewhere between six and seven per cent though, with the steepest sections reaching 11 per cent. One thing is certain – it will not be easy to calculate any particular strategy on the second category ascent.
"The climb on the TT is very demanding, and really long, " argues Garate, "which could help riders like our Hugh [Carthy, a climber - Ed.], for example. They'll lose time early on on that flat part of the TT, but they can minimize it in the second part."
As for the strategy to follow, Garate agrees that "these days, with power meters, it's a lot easier to calculate your strength and to know how much power you can create on the flat and again on the climb. But it's harder in your head, though, when you're going along on the flat and you know there's a climb to come.
"So you have to ease back a little, try and ride around threshold on the flat, and then empty yourself on the climb. But I don't think it's worth changing your bike for the second half, there are [downhill] segments on the climb which you will be able to really get a move on."
With so many different factors in play, some favouring the climbers, others the time trial specialists, others the all-rounders, for all of Campenaerts' certainty that Roglič is going to pan the opposition, others feel the predictions game is even tougher than usual.
Some team directors have said they're hoping for differences as small as 30 seconds between the top favourites and Roglič, but Garate is cautious about predicting such a minimal gap. "If Yates, say, loses as little as that, he'll have done an excellent time trial. I get the feeling Roglič is going to create bigger differences than a lot of people actually expect."
The general classification could certainly look very different, given that at the moment Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) leads, ahead of a number of other breakaway survivors from stage six, at the top of the rankings.
Of those riders considered potentially likely to impact long-term on the GC, Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb), ninth in last year's Giro, is best placed in tenth at 4:57, Pello Bilbao (Astana) – sixth last year – is eleventh at 5:23 and Roglič is 5:24 down. Two-time tenth-place finisher Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) is tied on time with Roglič, whilst Simon Yates is at 5:59, just four seconds up on Nibali.
Garate argues that, with Jumbo-Visma all but giving away the jersey two days ago by such a hefty margin, it would unlikely to see Roglič move back into pink on Sunday. Instead, Conti wil likely remain in the top spot until at least stage 12, three days hence, when the Giro moves into the foothills of the Alps. "Even after the first stage in the mountains I think it'd be more likely that Oomen takes the lead," Garate predicted.
But that is deep into the second week. First, the pink dust from the first big battle for the maglia rosa in the San Marino time trial will have to settle, and there – on paper – Roglič is expected to be the reference point. How important a reference point, though, we'll only know come Sunday evening.