Briton Geraint Thomas holds the Giro d’Italia leader’s pink jersey heading into the final weekend after Friday’s 19th “Queen” stage won by Colombian Santiago Buitrago.
Less than a minute separates the three title contenders before a decisive 18.6km time trial on Saturday at Monte Lussari in northeastern Italy.
“Tomorrow will be great to watch, horrible to do,” said Thomas, who leads Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic by 26 seconds.
The Welshman said he expected a “super tight” race with Portugal’s Joao Almeida in third, 59 seconds off the pace, with the race ending in Rome on Sunday.
“I’m happy with the result, the legs are back. Tomorrow is the attack,” said Roglic.
Friday’s stage in the Dolomites was won by Buitrago, survivor of the morning breakaway.
The 23-year-old Bahraini driver crossed the line alone 51 seconds ahead of Canadian Derek Gee of Israel Premier Tech, who finished second for the fourth time in this year’s race.
“It’s an epic win, on a perfect day,” said Buitrago, who also won a stage last year.
Thomas sped up late but couldn’t resist a counterattack from Roglic at the end of the grueling 183km journey from Longarone which included five summits.
“When I started with 400m to go, I realized after 100m that 400m was a lot at this altitude,” said Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers.
“I just tried to keep up the pace. Roglic passed in the last 100 meters or so. I lost a few seconds on the line but it was good to save time on Joao.”
– ‘Wounded for sure’ –
A tearful Gee again missed the game and sits second in the king of mountains and points standings.
“I knew Buitrago was gone as soon as he grabbed me,” Gee said. “The acceleration was ridiculous. I just went flat out on the line. It sure hurts.
“I may have often been second, but at least I gave myself a chance.”
The day promised excitement with five hellish climbs, including the final ascent to the snowfields of Tre Cime, where Eddy Merckx took the famous victory in a blizzard in 1968.
But nothing legendary on Friday since the favorites were neutralized until the last two kilometers.
This is the moment Roglic chose to attack but it didn’t worry Thomas at all.
Everything therefore remains to be done in the time trial, on a narrow road at altitude near the Slovenian border.
This risks bringing back bad memories for Roglic, who lost the lead in the Tour de France in 2020 to the Planche des Belles Filles after an uphill time trial dominated by Tadej Pogacar on the penultimate day.
But the three-time Vuelta winner demonstrated his ambitions by preventing Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion, from becoming the Giro’s oldest champion, at the age of 37.