And so we come down to the final weekend of the Giro d’Italia with everything still to play for - and we knew from the very beginning it would end this way.
The GC stalemate was broken on three separate mountain stages in the third week, with the three fighting for pink all taking time out of each other at various points, but it’s Geraint Thomas sitting at the top of the general classification ahead of stage 20, the Welshman holding a lead of 26 seconds over Primož Roglič and 59 seconds over João Almeida.
Saturday’s hideous, monstrous, barbaric - you can use all the adjectives you can find - mountain time trial, however, has left the race hanging on a cliffedge, the final destiny of the maglia rosa still as unsure now as it was all the way back at the start three weeks ago.
Thomas might be the unflappable leader, the 37-year-old veteran who’s responded to every attack thrown at him, but he only has a finger, maybe two at best, on the golden spiralling trophy that will be presented to the winner in Rome on Sunday.
A reminder of what the riders face on stage 20: the 18.6km time trial starts in Tarvisio, and after a rolling 10.8km they begin the ascent to the majestic castle atop Monte Lussari. It’s a 7.3km climb averaging 12.1%, but the first 4.9km average an horrendously-steep 15.3%; there’s even a 22% ramp towards the very top. It is not hyperbole to write that the time gaps between riders at the top of the GC could be several minutes. A failure to time one’s effort correctly, such as pushing too hard at the beginning, could lead to a blow out of seismic proportions, and it’s why Thomas’s 26 second advantage remains slender.
Roglič took three seconds on the Briton on stage 19, counter-attacking the Ineos rider’s own attack moments earlier, and the Slovenian will go to bed on Friday night believing he can enact revenge on the cycling gods who so famously took away his Tour de France title in 2020 on the penultimate stage time trial. The Jumbo-Visma rider will also have home advantage, with thousands of Slovenians expected to make the short journey across the border for the epic denouement in the Julian Alps, a mountain range shared between Slovenia and Italy.
But Thomas will not be fearful. For almost two decades he has been riding to power better than any other professional cyclist, winning golds on the track and Grand Tours on the road. The gradients may be evil, more akin to an elongated club hill-climb he might find in the autumn in the Brecon Beacons, but he knows what numbers he has to hit to ensure that he keeps hold of pink.
Being an individual time trial, he won’t be able to rely on his Ineos Grenadiers teammates who have shepherded him through the Corsa Rosa expertly, in particular Thymen Arensman and Laurens De Plus, a duo who remain seventh and 10th GC, respectively. The performance from Ineos has been a reminder of the British team’s stage racing dominance of yesteryear. On stage 19, won from the breakaway by Bahrain-Victorious’s Santiago Buitrago, Arensman manned the front of the peloton on the final two climbs like a seasoned pro; he is just 23.
One year older than the Dutchman is Almeida in third, but he mustn't get too despondent with ceding time on the slopes of Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Tadej Pogačar was 57 seconds off Roglič in the 2020 Tour ahead of the final time trial and won with a gap of 59 seconds. That’s proof for Almeida that minutes can still be taken out of his rivals, and he rides for the UAE Team Emirates team where that magic stemmed from.
A lot has been debated and discussed about how tedious this year’s Giro d’Italia has been, and there are growing calls for the organisers RCS to modify the race route, but as we approach the final weekend, they’ve got exactly what they wished for: the battle for pink hanging by a thread, set to be decided on the most thrilling and hellish of landscapes.