On Lavarone's Piazza Italia, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) climbed from the saddle one last time and sprinted with everything he had. The Passo del Menador had already failed to separate the three strongest riders on the Giro d'Italia, but now the maglia rosa was minded to see what he could shake loose in the closing metres of stage 17.
Stage winner Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain Victorious) and the remnants of the break had already swept up the bonus seconds, but Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) was alive to the danger, immediately tracking Carapaz's acceleration and crossing the line just behind him. Their companion Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), however, wasn't quite as sharp. A few bike lengths translated into six seconds on the line.
Once upon a time, Carapaz's team used to trumpet its devotion to the 'aggregation of marginal gains.' On this deadlocked Giro d'Italia, the Ecuadorian has repeatedly pointed to the importance of what he terms 'los mínimos detalles' – the smallest details.
Small wonder in a race where his lead over Hindley stands at just three seconds with four stages remaining. This increasingly feels like a Giro that will be decided by the finest of margins, but while the fistful of seconds snatched from Landa were of psychological benefit to Carapaz, the 1:10 gained on João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) added up to something altogether more substantial.
"Yesterday, I lost important seconds in bonuses, and I think those are the kinds of details that count," Carapaz said when he took a seat in the press conference truck after the podium ceremony. "Moments like that in the race can be decisive. And also today, when Bahrain pushed flat out on the last climb, Almeida started to lose time, little by little. The smallest details can make a big difference."
The biggest mountains of this Giro have thus far failed to force any significant differences between Carapaz, Hindley and Landa, despite their probing. On the Passo del Menador on stage 17, it was Landa's Bahrain Victorious squad who took up the reins, but it was Hindley who appeared the most comfortable on the steepest gradients that followed. Carapaz, for his part, never looked like losing contact.
"Landa is at a very good level, and Hindley too. Like I said, I think the smallest details will decide the general classification," said Carapaz.
Although the stalemate endured between the top three overall – at least until that final sprint in Lavarone – they finally succeeded in putting some distance into the dangerman Almeida, whose aptitude against the watch made him such a threat in the final time trial in Verona on Sunday.
Almeida resisted fiercely all the way up the Menador here, but he was doomed by the smooth collaboration between Carapaz, Landa and Hindley on the 8km plateau to the finish line. In the overall standings, Almeida now trails Carapaz by 1:54, his hopes of pink gently fading.
"Today Bahrain did a great job to drop Almeida. I think they were riding to drop him and put some time into him in the GC. Later, the three of us could make a good tempo. Bahrain rode well today," said Carapaz.
Although Carapaz carries the maglia rosa, he has yet to convince at this Giro in quite the same way as he did when he won it in 2019. His rasping attack on the climb of Superga on stage 14 initially had the look of a race-defining move, but that striking solo effort was swiftly pinned back by Hindley on the subsequent climb of the Colle della Maddalena.
In the days since, Carapaz has been unable to shake Hindley and, at this rate, he might have to rely on the Verona time trial to secure this Giro. Yet while he is, by reputation, the stronger time triallist, it's worth noting that he only put six seconds into Hindley in Budapest on stage 2.
"I think that in the end, I've had very good legs and I've been riding the race intelligently," Carapaz said on Wednesday when asked to assess how his condition had progressed over the course of the Giro.
"There are still two important stages to come before the one in Verona, and that's where the final cards will be played. This week is an important moment for all of us. Everybody is feeling the fatigue now, so I think the small details are going to start to count. Day by day, there are people who will lose time."
Considering the small margins, there ought to be sparks among the podium contenders at Santuario di Castelmonte on Friday, but the following day's Dolomite tappone over the San Pellegrino, Pordoi and Fedaia has the obvious potential to force greater differences, as the race climbs above 2,000 metres for the first and only time.
"The last mountain stage has climbs at high altitude and they will suit Richard better than the others," Carapaz's Ineos teammate Pavel Sivakov suggested on Wednesday.
Carapaz, meanwhile, appeared to hope that his trump card might lie in his powers of endurance across three weeks, in his ability to outlast the opposition. Almeida faltered on the Menador and Landa is now a minute back, but Hindley continues to show every sign of going the distance.
"Today was quite a hard day, and people paid the price for the previous day. It was a good day for us," Carapaz said. "Little by little, the general classification is being defined."
For better or for worse, there are still plenty of small details to square away before the big picture sharpens into focus in Verona.
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