The last mountain stage proved to be a thrilling one...

Little changes on the GC

The GC at the Giro d’Italia remains tightly packed (Sunada)

One of the reasons for the four riders at the top of the general classification being separated by less than one minute and the top six by 1-30 (historically low time gaps for this late stage of the race) is that they have all been very evenly matched in the race.

That was clear today, when, despite several desperate attacks on the final climbs, no substantial distances were opened between any of them.

Eventually five of the top six came together at the front of the race on the plateau to the finish, with Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) in a group behind. But again the margins were very fine, and the Dutchman’s group arriving just fifteen seconds after the leaders had contested for the stage win.

The top six might have been evenly matched in the mountains, but that is unlikely to be the case in tomorrow’s time-trial denouement, where Dumoulin holds the advantage. He may have slipped to fourth, but the race looks like his to lose.

Thibaut Pinot further justifies Giro appearance

Thibaut Pinot wins stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia (LaPresse – D’Alberto / Ferrari / Paolone / Spada)

Any French star who sacrifices his chances in the nation’s beloved Tour de France in favour of another race risks the wrath of his own supporters, but today’s stage win served to further reinforce Pinot’s choice to target the Giro.>>> Tom Dumoulin minimises time losses to set up final stage decider as Pinot wins Giro d’Italia stage 20

Having left disappointed from both the 2015 and 2016 Tours de France, Pinot has been back to his blistering best at this Giro, and enjoyed his best day at the race so far with a stage win today.

That win caps of a great few days for Pinot, in which he has gradually gained time to the extent where he is well in the mix for a podium place – and could still even challenge for the pink jersey.

Wherever he finishes, this has been an excellent race for Pinot, whose career now looks very much back on track.

Dumoulin hangs in there

Prior to today’s two huge climbs, fans and riders alike waited with baited breath to see whether Dumoulin’s travails yesterday were to be dismissed as a bad day, or something more terminal.

It appeared momentarily as though the former was true, when the Dutchman was dropped after the pace was upped on the final climb of Foza. But it soon became clear that he was enjoying a much better day, employing his familiar strategy of pacing himself up the climb without panicking and following every acceleration.

His rivals did take heart from the small gap they managed to create, however, and attacked him multiple times up the climb, each time opening a gap. Eventually Pinot, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) did drop him decisively, and set out to work together to maximise their advantage.

>>> Tom Dumoulin: ‘I’m forever thankful to Mollema, Jungels and Yates’

But Dumoulin – with aid from Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and mostly Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) was not to be distanced, and ended the stage as the happiest of the contenders having limited a gap that had stretched out to half a minute to just to just 15 seconds.

Did Quintana do enough?

Nairo Quintana on stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia (Foto LaPresse – Fabio Ferrari)

Quintana successfully defended his pink jersey with the time gaps to his rivals all pretty much the same, gaining only a handful of seconds over Dumoulin, and losing a few in the bonifications to Pinot and Nibali.

But, with his time-trial in theory the weakest of the four, ought he to have done more to try to extend his lead?

It would be unfair to accuse the Colombian of not attacking at all, as he put a few committed accelerations of the Foza. He was clearly backing Dumoulin collapsing again on the final climb, but, when it became clear that he was on a good day, the amount of time he could gain was limited.

To gain serious time, he needed to launch an early attack – the situation that emerged at the end, with five riders out ahead and Dumoulin adrift behind, could have resulted in a devastating gap had it been made on Monte Grappa earlier on, what with the subsequent long descent and valley.

Nevertheless, it’s too early to judge the tactics of Quintana – or Pinot and Nibali, for that matter – until after tomorrow’s time-trial, after which we’ll know who has made the best calculation.

What’s going to happen in the time trial?

Can Quintana hold on to win the Giro d’Italia in the final time trial? (Sunada)

We all know that Dumoulin is the best time trialist of the top four riders on GC. The question is, how much better will he be on a time trial stage on the back of three weeks of such challenging racing?

He as ten seconds to make up on Pinot, who himself a good rider against the clock on his day, and who currently looks like the on-form rider in the race.

Fourteen seconds separates Dumoulin from Nibali, who was the best performer of the other GC riders in race’s earlier time trial, and has a history of being very strong this late into the race.

And, finally, Dumoulin is 53 seconds adrift from Quintana, who may be the weakest of the four, but whose buffer looks considerable on a day where there may be very little between the riders.

Those gaps are small enough for Dumoulin to be confident, but, time trials this late into the race are difficult to call and often throw up surprise result – few expected, for instance, that Carlos Sastre would so comfortably defend his lead of 1-05 over time trial specialist Cadel Evans on the penultimate stage of the 2008 Tour de France.

This is not a sentence you’ll hear very often ahead of the final day of a Grand Tour, but any one of four riders could still win the pink jersey.