Just 17km separate Richard Carapaz from victory in the 2019 Giro d’Italia, with the 26-year-old Movistar rider set to become the first Ecuadorian rider to win the Corsa Rosa if he can safely negotiate the final individual time trial around Verona on Sunday.
Carapaz finished fourth overall in 2018, but was not considered amongst the big-name contenders before the start in Bologna three weeks ago. He has carefully built his 1:54 lead on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and 2:53 on Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) by attacking while the two squabbled and marked each other, not realizing their were giving away precious seconds that would prove impossible to take back once Movistar backed Carapaz rather than Mikel Landa as their team leader.
On Saturday Carapaz never looked in trouble as he, Landa and Movistar bossed the peloton as if they were Chris Froome and Team Ineos. The pair chased down an attack by Miguel Ángel López (Astana) over the stunning Passo Manghen in the southern Dolomites and then the Spanish team dragged the peloton up the Passo Rolle and down the long, fast descent to the foot of the Croce d’Aune-Monte Avena double whammy final climb. Nibali tried to test the pair's resolve as he dispatched of Roglič, while López was brought down by a spectator, but yet again Carapaz avoided any problems and was able to benefit for other people’s rivalries.
The 17km Verona time trial was expected to decide the 2019 Giro d’Italia, just as it famously did in 1984, when Francesco Moser followed-up on his infamous Mexico Hour Record to finally win the Giro d’Italia, pulling back 2:21 on Laurent Fignon. However such is Carapaz's margin that not even a low-flying helicopter can deny him at the last in Verona. He would have to crash had and lose almost two minutes for Nibali to have any chance of beating him.
"I don't think I will lose that much time, but anything can happen in the last stage," Carapaz said. "But I think it's OK for now."
Nibali was unable to find a chink in the Movistar armour on stage 20. The 34-year-old had quietly hoped Landa would rebel against team orders, but the Basque rider was hugged and thanked by Carapaz after the stage finish at Croce d’Aune-Monte Avena for his loyalty to the cause.
“Now we’ll see what happens in the final time trial," Nibali said. "The 17km are tough but I think everyone will feel the efforts of today. The time trial is the last day of fighting. I was hoping to win the Giro but that won’t happen now, Carapaz has it 90 per cent won.
“I congratulated Carapaz at the finish because I respect his performance. I’m not really disappointed with my Giro. I’m on the podium if everything goes well in the time trial. But I’ve no real regrets, there’s nothing much else I could.”
Nibali gained 50 seconds on Roglič, creating his own cushion of 59 seconds for the time trial, which should be enough to secure second place overall.
The only race for the podium is the battle between Landa and Roglič for third place. The Slovenian slipped to fourth overall on Saturday, 23 seconds down on Landa, but that should not prove too difficult to pull back on the technical 17km course up the Torricelle climb that was used in previous World Championships in 2004 and 1999.
“We’ll see at the finish whether I still have the legs or not,” Roglič said, unconcerned about the ten-second penalty he was given by the UCI jury for accepting two pushes from over-eager fans on the final climb.
"It’s not already done. He has to go all out, if his legs are OK, then it’s in reach. We still have to do it,” Roglič's Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels suggested, remembering the debacle of Sunday’s stage to Como, when the team car stopped for a natural break inside the final 20km, just when the Slovenian needed a bike change, only for him to crash and lose time while riding a teammate's bike.
A fast, technical course and a finish in the Roman amphitheatre
The Verona time trial will decide the final classification of the Giro d’Italia, but it is also an objective for the time trial specialists who have fought to make it through the mountain stages of the final week in the hope of a stage victory as a final reward for their suffering and resilience.
142 riders will start the time trial, 34 riders fewer than the 176 who started the race in Bologna on May 11. Japan’s Sho Hatsuyama (Nippo-Vini Fantini) is the maglia nera – the hypothetical black jersey, or lantern rouge, of the 2019 Giro d’Italia. He will roll down the start ramp outside the Verona exhibition centre at 1:45 CET. Most riders will start at one-minute intervals, with the last 20 riders starting at three-minute intervals to avoid any drafting. Carapaz will start last, wearing the maglia rosa, at 4:46 CET.
The 17km course heads north towards the city and then loops east in an anti-clockwise direction. After some fast roads comes the Torricelle climb, which lasts 4.5km with an average gradient of five per cent, climbed in a series of steps. Intermediate times will be taken at the summit, before a fast descent on twisting but wide roads down to the Adige riverbank. The final kilometres are on city streets, with a loop through the old city.
The finish line is in Piazza Bra, just before the entrance to the Roman amphitheatre, but riders will again ride into the arena like gladiators to be given a final cheer by the expected huge crowd.
New Hour Record holder Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) is the logical favourite for the stage victory but he knows he has to beat the general classification riders fighting for the podium places, with Roglič his biggest rival. After all, in a final time trial recovery is a big factor. Campenaerts starts his ride at 2:15 CET and so faces a long wait in the hot seat if he sets the fastest time.
“I hope the classification guys will have killed themselves in the mountains so that I’ve got a chance in the time trial. I don’t feel fresh at all but I don’t think anyone does,” Campenaerts said before stage 20.
“I think my big rivals are Roglic, Nibali, Van Emden and Durbridge,” he added, perhaps overlooking Chad Haga (Team Sunweb) and Miles Scotson (Groupama-FDJ), as well as the Astana duo of Manuele Boaro and Dario Cataldo.
Should Campenaerts avoid the disaster that befell him in San Marino and win in Verona, he would emulate Moser’s triumph of 1984, but this time, the race organisers have been able to do little to favour Nibali and an Italian winner, with Carapaz almost certain to enter the amphitheatre in triumph and be crowned as the winner of the 2019 Giro d’Italia.