Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) admitted that he has little chance of winning the Giro d'Italia but won't be throwing in the towel and surrendering before the final time trial to Milan, knowing the he has still to fight for some kind of final podium place.
The Sicilian was hoping to add a third Giro d'Italia to his rich Grand Tour palmares this spring. He tried to gain seconds on Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and his other rivals right to the very end of the mountain stages to Asiago but will start Sunday's decisive time trial to Milan 43 seconds behind Quintana and only 14 seconds ahead of Dumoulin.
If the 29.3km time trial goes as expected, Nibali could go close to moving above Quintana but Dumoulin is highly likely to jump past them both and snatch overall victory and the Maglia Rosa of the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia.
Nibali could even be dumped off the final podium, despite all his intense racing and attacks, because Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is only four seconds behind him in the pre-time trial overall classification after winning Saturday's stage to Asiago and taking a 10-second time bonus. Even Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) is a threat. The Russian is arguably the strongest rider of the final week, is an excellent time trialist and is only 36 down on Nibali.
"I'd love to finish on the top step of the podium. If only it was easy," Nibali said, perhaps summing up his whole Giro d'Italia.
"The general classification is very close. The time trials are the decisive factor in this Giro," he added a little despondently.
"A place on the podium does not change my life but it's important because it pays back the work all the guys have done for me. It's also important for Bahrain-Merida because we're a new team that was built from scratch. It proves we've worked well. The final result all depends on everyone's strength. This has been a really hard race and so the energy left is what it is."
Nibali's coach Paolo Slongo suggested that the fatigue of three weeks racing will reduce the time Dumoulin should gain on all his rivals, predicting that the Dutchman will gain around 1.5 seconds per kilometre in the final time trial. That would a loss of 39 seconds. If Quintana is even slower – Slongo suggested the Colombian would lose at least two seconds a kilometre – then Dumoulin would pull on the final pink jersey.
Nibali has worked on his time trial position this winter. He lost 2:07 to a stratospheric Dumoulin in the 39.8km Sagrantino time trial and can only hope to do better on Sunday and hope that all his rivals have a bad day.
"I don't know how much time I'll lose or gain," Nibali admitted. "It's a difficult time trial. I'll make a good recon tomorrow morning, try to ride it well and then add up the numbers."
Everyone knows that Dumoulin is the favourite for overall victory but after their spat and exchange of stern words, Nibali refused, at last for now, to say that Dumoulin deserves his shot at overall victory.
"I think we all did our part," he argued.
"Dumoulin showed to go very well in the time trial, showed that he can defend his lead but I think that the others did their part as well."
Nibali had no regrets about not attacking Dumoulin on the steep slopes of Monte Grappa midway through the stage and had no regrets about not working better in the finale with Quintana, Pinot, Zakarin and Pozzovivo.
"The level of performance is very high this year, just look at the average speeds. We raced really hard in the first hour today, we were flat out on the Monte Grappa and then the race exploded again on the final climb," Nibali pointed out.
"Today everyone did what they could, we all tried to gain some precious seconds because the time trial is in Dumoulin's favour."
"I attacked first but then paid for it a little and had to recover. Quintana was like me; he didn't have anything left because the speed was high. Only Zakarin was able to ride his own race. But we caught him and he helped with the work too.
"I tried to win the stage too. I knew that it was important to be at the front for the last corner and that Pinot was the fastest.
"I tried but couldn't do any better," he concluded, again summing up his whole Giro d'Italia.