Pello Bilbao (Astana) claimed his second stage victory of the Giro d'Italia, winning the queen stage to Croce d'Aune-Monte Avena over Mikel Landa (Movistar) and mountains classification winner Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo).
The unflappable maglia rosa Richard Carapaz opened up a bigger gap on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) ahead of the final stage time trial and had enough left to help his teammate move up the standings.
Carapaz put in some aggressive pace-making on the final climb after Roglic was distanced in order to set up Landa for the stage. Bilbao proved too quick in the end, but the gap, the bonus seconds, and a 10-second penalty to Roglic for an extended push by a spectator proved enough to move Landa into third overall.
"We tried to win the stage with Mikel as well as keep the jersey. We missed out by very little, but we are happy with the outcome today," Carapaz said.
Sandwiched between the two Movistar riders, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) remains second overall at 1:54, with Landa at 2:53, 13 seconds in front of Roglic.
Although Nibali has the palmares and experience over Carapaz, the Ecuadorian remains confident that he has enough of a gap on Nibali for the time trial to keep the maglia rosa.
"I don't think I will lose that much, but anything can happen in the last stage. I think it's OK for now."
There was no 'Hail Mary' for Nibali on the stage as every move the Italian made in the mountains was easily marked by Movistar. However, Nibali's keen descending skills came in handy when Landa attacked over the penultimate climb. Nibali flew down the descent, bringing Carapaz across to his teammate and leaving Roglic well behind.
Landa's 23-second advantage over the Jumbo-Visma rider is likely not nearly enough to keep the podium placing, but Nibali will rest a little bit easier with a 1:12 lead over Roglic.
Big win for Bilbao
The stage win was the second victory in the Giro for Bilbao, who also won stage 7 in L’Aquila. The 29-year-old made the day's breakaway and, when the maglia rosa group reeled them in with 4km to go, he fought to stay on for another chance at glory.
"The first win was really special but today because of the difficulty of the stage was also more difficult to arrive and be here at the finish in first. When Nibali, Landa, Carapaz group arrived I felt that my stage was almost finished but they weren’t with a lot of energy – as tired as me.
"I tried to recover, take the best wheel. I knew that Carapaz was going to try to give the stage win to Landa so I stayed on his wheel and I wanted to have this opportunity in the sprint because I knew I had a small advantage and in the last metres I could beat Landa."
The victory took some of the sting out of an unfortunate incident involving Bilbao's teammate Miguel Angel Lopez, who was knocked off his bike on the final climb by an overzealous spectator, before hitting the fan and eventually losing 1:49.
All in for the breakaway
Stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia had every right to be considered a queen stage, at least since the cancellation of the Passo Gavia on stage 16. The two first-category and three second-category climbs which dotted the 194km route included the new Cima Coppi, Passo Manghen, and the summit finish at Monte Avena. It would, after all, be the final chance for a GC shakeup before the final time trial in Verona.
The early stages of the race saw climbing almost from the off, with the second category Cima Campo (18.7km at 5.9 per cent) starting after 8.5km. As the last chance to make a real mark on the race, it was no surprise that the fight for the break was a tough one – both for those seeking stage glory and for the domestiques of GC riders.
Eventually, after numerous attempts by different riders, a strong group broke away midway up the climb, following Pello Bilbao’s (Astana) initial attack. He was joined by Andrey Amador (Movistar), Fausto Masnada (Androni Giocattoli), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Merida), Dario Cataldo (Astana), Tanel Kangert (EF Education First), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Dimension Data), Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb), Eddie Dunbar (Team Ineos), Eros Capecchi (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), and the group had 40 seconds over the summit.
By that point, the break was almost half as large as the peloton, with only around 25 men remaining in the pink jersey group after a fast start. There was a regrouping on the descent into the valley though, with the peloton swelling up to around 50 men as Movistar let the break gain time.
On the lower slopes of the Passo Manghen (18.9km at 7.9 per cent), Masnada struck out alone, taking the intermediate sprint and all but sealing victory in that minor competition. He kept on going, some 3:45 up on the peloton, seeking out the Cima Coppi prize at the top of the 2047-metre summit.
Further back, Astana took to the front of the peloton, pushing the pace and shedding riders from the reduced peloton. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was a notable victim, while Lopez launched after his teammates Ion Izagirre, Andrey Zeits and Jan Hirt did the damage.
Only Carapaz and Landa could follow, while Nibali and Roglic had no answer to the acceleration. Lopez, Carapaz and Landa caught the break before the summit, while the Nibali-Roglic duo followed 20 seconds back. Up front, Masnada duly took the Cima Coppi prize.
The breakaway and the GC groups merged on the descent, and Masnada was brought back in the valley. Attacks were soon flying again though, with Bilbao and Nieve leading the way. Kangert, Ghebreigzabhier and Dunbar soon joined them, making it five up front on the Passo Rolle.
Blue jersey Ciccone and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) bridged across on the Rolle. He may not have needed any more points, but Ciccone nonetheless swept up the 18 points on offer atop the Rolle while Movistar controlled the reduced peloton 2:25 back, biding their time for the final two climbs.
After the long descent to the base of the dual ascents of the Croce d'Aune, the weight of three hard weeks of racing was apparent in the legs of the leaders. Capecchi was the first to pop as the maglia rosa group bore down on them just 1:47 behind with 21km to go.
Ciccone saw the gap tumbling and tried to spark some life into the breakaway with a surge, but was quickly marked. A surge from Bilbao had a bit more of an impact, and he drew clear with Ciccone, Dunbar and Kangert, but Nieve reeled them back in on a flat section of the climb.
Madouas had better luck as the gradient kicked back in, and went clear solo with just under 16.5km to go.
The maglia rosa was well protected by his teammates, who kept a brisk pace to discourage attacks. With 14km to go, Lopez put in a move, but Carapaz was right on the wheel, and soon Pozzovivo, Nibali, Landa, Sivakov and Roglic were back on terms.
The gloves were off, however, and Pozzovivo came to the fore to attempt to set up Nibali for an assault in the steeper section. But Lopez went first and was again marked Carapaz, Landa and Nibali.
Sensing an opportunity, Landa put in a vicious surge and separated from the maglia rosa group. Roglic was forced to chase to protect his podium position. Putting aside his previous spat with the Slovenian, Nibali diplomatically sent Pozzovivo to the front to chase.
Landa crested the first peak with a 17-second lead over the race leader's group, and just 45-seconds from the front group. Over the top and onto the frantic descent, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) clipped a pedal and crashed on a bend, forcing Sivakov to grab the brakes.
Nibali meanwhile, was busy putting his infamous descending skills to good use, bearing down on Landa with 7km to go, with Carapaz locked on his wheel. The trio hit the final climb with a gap over Roglic.
Disaster struck for Lopez as he was pushed from his bike by an overzealous spectator and in frustration slapped the man before getting back to his bike, which he had to stop again to fix the gears. That mayhem alone cost the Colombian almost a minute.
Up ahead, Nibali poured on the pace to put more time into Roglic and, with his two Movistar companions, reeled in all of the breakaway riders by 3.5km to go. Then followed a detente in the lead group as Carapaz was keen to add to his teammate's advantage over Roglic and set a furious pace.
Behind, Roglic was time trialling at 41 seconds with 1km to go and losing more time as Carapaz continued apace under the 1km banner and through to the final few hundred metres, leading Landa out for the sprint. Bilbao who claimed the stage, but Roglic lost 54 seconds at the end.