Giro d'Italia goes down to the wire at Monte Lussari - stage 20 preview

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo is a place apart. The altitude, the gradient and the heavy hand of history make this one of the Giro d'Italia's most sacred sites. On Friday, the Giro's seventh pilgrimage to the mountain on stage 19 seemed destined to provide a definitive revelation, but instead, it merely prolonged the suspense. This Giro will go down to the wire atop Monte Lussari on stage 20.

Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) clawed back three seconds on maglia rosa Geraint Thomas (Ineos) with his sprint in the very closing metres of the stage, but it is difficult to say if the time gained and lost here is indicative of any particular trend for Saturday. Even João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), who shipped another 20 seconds, hasn't lost faith.

The toughest stage of the entire Giro took in some 5,400m of climbing and brought the race to its highest point, but it could scarcely separate Thomas and Roglič. When the Jumbo-Visma man went on the offensive on the steepest slopes in the final 2km, Thomas looked to have his measure. At one point, he even tried to press clear himself before the thin air warned him off.

"It was a bit of cat and mouse," Thomas said when he took a seat in the mixed zone after the podium ceremony. "I went with 400m to go and after about 100m, I realised that it was a long way at altitude…"

Roglič, for his part, suggested that his challenge was beginning to pick a little momentum again a trying start to the final week. The Slovenian conceded ground to Thomas and Almeida at Monte Bondone, but he broke even with the Welshman at Val di Zoldo on Thursday and clawed back three seconds here. He begins the stage 20 time trial in second place overall, 26 seconds down.

"I got a bit of legs back," Roglič said before descending to the Jumbo-Visma bus parked down the mountain in Misurina. "So tomorrow we go full."

Almeida, 59 seconds down after losing ground for the second straight day, wasn't yet ready to concede the Giro to Thomas or Roglič on Friday evening. "The win is not away from me yet. Nothing is certain," he said. "If somebody doesn't feel great, then for sure there is a possibility of big gaps. Until the end, everything is possible."

A hybrid test

There is a total of 3,448km on this Giro route, but from the moment the lights went up at the presentation in Milan last October, it always seemed likely that the 18.6km of racing from Tarvisio to Monte Lussari would weigh more heavily than any others across the three weeks.

The truism says that the gaps are counted in minutes rather than seconds during the Giro's infamous final week, but the tight races of the past two years have served as a refutation of sorts. This year's grand finale was more opening and entertaining than in 2022, of course, but there has been rather less separation than one might expect from three mountain stages with a combined total of more than 15,000m of climbing.

That should all change during Saturday's curious, hybrid time trial, which bears obvious echoes of the race-altering – or rather, epoch-altering – penultimate stage of the 2020 Tour de France to La Planche des Belles Filles. Everything thing we thought we knew about this Giro might be proven false by 6 p.m. on Saturday evening.

Like La Planches des Belles Filles, this is a stage of two distinct parts, and a bike change will be de rigueur. The opening 11km from Tarvisio, which intersperses flat sections with a series of gentle drags, will be tackled on a time trial bike before riders switch to regular road bikes ahead of the viciously steep climb of Monte Lussari (7.3km at 12.1%).

The logistics of this stage were the source of much discussion ahead of this Giro, with the UCI requesting clarification from RCS Sport about its arrangements. At the time of the Grande Partenza, there were even reports that Monte Lussari might be altered, but sources within RCS Sport were always confident that the stage would go ahead precisely as planned.

On Saturday, a special, 25m-long bike change area has been allocated at the base of the climb, while riders will be followed by motorbikes rather than team cars on the sinuous road up Monte Lussari. This is, as Thomas pointed out on Friday evening, a time trial like no other. "I haven't practised the bike change yet, but I will do," he said. "[Ben] Swift and Salvatore Puccio are going to sprint into the bike change area so that the mechanics can practice."

One can only hope a botched bike change won't prove the winning or losing of this Giro, though the seconds won or frittered away there will surely count for little once the road begins to rear up in earnest.

The narrow ascent of Monte Lussari, tackled for the first time in the Giro, is a brute. The first 5km average is 15.3%, with pitches of 22%. There is a brief respite with 2.5km to go, but the road proceeds to kick up all over again, with further ramps of 22% ahead of the finish line.

"You can make the biggest difference on the climb," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Marc Reef told Cyclingnews. "For sure, you have an advantage if you can climb well, but there, it's really about who has the most left."

On a climb like this, losing momentum is like falling into quicksand. The more you struggle, the more you sink. A race of fine margins to this point could take on a very different guise atop Monte Lussari. Or, as Jay Vine put it before the Giro even began: "It's not Planche des Belles Filles, it's worse. If you crack, you could lose two and a half minutes."

Roglič and 2020

Roglič knows that only too well. In 2020, he dominated the Tour de France in the deft manner of Floyd Mayweather, winning every round on points without delivering the knock-out blow. It would prove a costly strategic error as Pogačar's startling display at La Planche des Belles Filles sent him sprawling to the canvas at the last.

On Friday evening, however, Almeida downplayed the idea that the defeat would weigh on Roglič's mind here. "I don't think so. He didn't win then because there was a super Tadej, who did a super effort," Almeida said. "I think he can be confident."

Roglič certainly won't lack for local support, given that Monte Lussari is perched near the Italo-Slovenian border, making this about as close to home advantage as he can possibly get at this point in a Grand Tour. Indeed, Roglič even took advantage of that proximity during a hiking trip in the off-season, when he took in a wintry recon of Monte Lussari by foot.

On Friday evening, Roglič suggested he liked what he had seen – "If I wasn't confident, I wouldn't start" – but in truth, this mountain time trial is simply too unusual to call. Unlike a flat time trial, where poring over past head-to-heads gives an indication of the likely outcome, there are no reliable guides to how Thomas, Roglič and Almeida might fare against one another here.

Thomas has been the most consistent rider across the Giro's three weeks to date and his 26-second buffer makes him the favourite to carry the pink jersey to Rome, but he knows that logic might not necessarily survive contact with a climb like this in circumstances like these. The ultimate test of endurance is still to come.

"It's unique, I haven't done anything like it before," Thomas said. "It's a solid effort. I think the TT effort will be fast, but you can't go too deep because the climb will be a big 35-minute effort. I need to just focus on myself and get up that climb as fast as possible and hopefully, that wins me the Giro. But I think anything can happen. It's all in the balance."

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.

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