Thibaut Pinot is, Nairo Quintana conceded on Friday evening, un hombre muy peligroso – a very dangerous man. For two days running, however, Quintana has allowed Pinot to escape him on the final climb, and as the Giro d'Italia reaches its fourth weekend, the Frenchman finds himself just 53 seconds off the maglia rosa.
At Ortisei on Thursday, Pinot's gain of a minute came partly through circumstance, as Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) each refused to help the other peg back his smart attack in the finale.
On Piancavallo on Friday, Pinot's 12 seconds were all earned à la pédale, after he forged clear of the group of favourites 7 kilometres from the summit. At one point, the FDJ man held an even larger margin over Quintana, Nibali et al, but though the chasers closed in as the gradient eased near the summit, he did enough to claw back time on all of his podium rivals.
"I attacked because I wanted to have a go. I got away alone which was a pity because I'd like have liked some riders with me as the finale was quite rolling," Pinot said after rolling to a halt past the finish line. "Voilà, you had to try. The gap grew and I gave the maximum all the way to the finish.
"I don't know the exact gaps now, but it's been a good day regardless. Tomorrow is a big day again, so nothing is decided."
Pinot's attack came four kilometres after the race leader Dumoulin was distanced under the weight of Movistar's forcing. By day's end, Dumoulin would concede 1:21 to Pinot, and hand over his maglia rosa to Quintana. In the general classification, Pinot remains fourth overall, but he is only 53 seconds behind Quintana, 15 down on Dumoulin, and just 10 seconds off Nibali and the third step of the podium in Milan, his stated objective from the outset. "That's the goal," Pinot reiterated on Friday.
After sparkling on the Blockhaus on stage 9, where he was Quintana's most defiant opponent, Pinot steadily conceded time during the second week, and struggled again on the tough dual ascent of the Stelvio on stage 16 to Bormio. He has quietly arrested his downward trajectory over the past two days, however, and approaches the final weekend with confidence.
Dumoulin aside, Pinot will, if recent pedigree is any guide, expect to be the best of the top four in the concluding 30-kilometre time trial in Milan, while he shook off the notion that the sinuous descent of Monte Grappa on Saturday might present a difficulty.
"It's sure that things that are getting better for me. I had a bit of a cold last week and that took a bit of time to pass but now I'm better," said Pinot. "Tomorrow is going to be a very hard stage. There's the Monte Grappa and then it's virtually a summit finish afterwards, so it's going to be a big day."
Pinot's gains on Dumoulin on Friday threatened to be far greater when the Dutchman was caught out after the peloton split on the rapid descent from the intermediate sprint at Sappada. It is a place redolent of Giro polemica, but – despite a slew of misinformation on social media – there was no controversy here. Dumoulin, who latched back on ahead of the Sella Chianzutan, admitted afterwards that he was simply caught napping at the rear of the peloton. Pinot, meanwhile, explained that, contrary to reports, the gap had never stretched beyond half a minute.
"The biggest gap was 30 seconds. If it was two minutes, I think he wouldn't have got back on," Pinot said. "The bunch split on a descent and Dumoulin was badly placed. Movistar, Bahrain-Merida and us, we rode on the front afterwards. It's a pity there was this climb 100 kilometres from the finish that helped him get back on, because otherwise I think it could have caused some damage."