Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has refused to give up hope of winning the 100th Giro d'Italia, promising to ride the final 29.3km Monza to Milan time trial as best he possibly can in the hope of holding off Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin.
Quintana will start the decisive time trial in the pink jersey but has a lead of only 53 seconds on the Dutchman. He will also have to fight for an eventual place on the podium because Bahrain-Merida's Vincenzo Nibali is only 39 seconds down and FDJ's Thibaut Pinot is only 43 seconds back. The final podium places in Milan will be decided by a handful of seconds.
Quintana lost a substantial 2:53 in the stage 10 time trial in Umbria. That was over a rolling 39.8km course with a strong head wind in the final part. The 29.8km final time trial includes a lap of the Monza motor racing circuit and a blast down to the centre of Milan. It seems to suit Dumoulin perfectly but fatigue is always a factor after three weeks of racing.
Quintana is expected to lose at least two seconds per kilometre to Dumoulin. That would be a loss of 60 seconds and mean he would lose the pink jersey by a handful of seconds.
However Quintana understandably refused to give up hope of holding onto the pink jersey.
"My lead is not a lot but it could be enough. We'll find out tomorrow," Quintana said of his 53-second advantage.
"We'll try to defend the pink jersey as well as possible, with our last drop of energy. It's important to be motivated. I've done some good time trials in the past and I hope tomorrow's will be even better. It's unusual to defend the maglia rosa on the last day but I'll give my best."
"I'm not afraid. In my own mind I can still win but of course I could lose a place on the podium too. Everything is possible. I'm not considering the idea that I might not be on the final podium, my only intention is to win the Giro."
No regrets about targeting the Giro-Tour double
Quintana refuted suggestions that he could have done more during the stage to distance Dumoulin, especially on the final climb and the race to the finish in Asiago.
He and the other podium contenders gained just 15 seconds on the Dutchman, failing to land a knockout punch. Nairo insisted they gained every second they could.
"The reality of today's stage is not what it might have looked like from the outside. I gave it all in the leading group. I wanted to gain more time and the riders who were with me had the same intention. We were all fighting for the podium and we gave it everything," he argued.
"We were all tired. Now we've got a day to rest and we'll see what happens tomorrow."
Quintana is targeting both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France this season. Nobody has done cycling's biggest double sine Marco Pantani in 1998.
Quintana has never seemed at his very best during the Giro d'Italia, unable to distance his rivals on the mountain finishes. Today he finally admitted as much, regretting he was not in better shape.
"We faced this challenge on good form but it's not easy to be at 100 per cent when you're pursuing two goals," he said.
"We've done well so far with some great team work. I wouldn't change anything I did in the Giro so far, even when we let Thibaut Pinot gain about one minute [in Ortisei]. Coming to a race as a favourite means you have to make some choices, you always have to do that. But we aren't machines, we can't control everything. I would have liked if the others guys had pulled more but we all gave the maximum. I don't have any regrets."