Nairo Quintana is expecting a big fight as the Giro d'Italia reaches its climax in the mountains on Saturday, as he takes the maglia rosa for the first time in the race with just 53-seconds separating first place from fourth

Nairo Quintana is expecting “a lot of fight” on the final mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday if he is to keep the maglia rosa, as he took a slender lead in the race for the first time with just two days to go to the finale in Milan.

With Tom Dumoulin dropped on the final climb of stage 19 into Piancavello, Quintana took 1-09 on the day over the Dutchman, to move into the pink jersey by 38 seconds.

>>> Tom Dumoulin: ‘I realised at kilometre zero today was going to be a bad day’

Dumoulin is expected to have the upper hand on the Movistar rider in the near 30-kilometre time trial on Sunday, making stage 20, featuring the last two climbs of the race, crucial if Quintana wants to win the Giro for the second time this weekend.

He confirmed the plan was to continue racing aggressively and take more time on Dumoulin on Saturday, with just 53-seconds separating Quintana from Dumoulin, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) in the overall standings.

“I expect tomorrow’s stage with the first climb done at full gas, but I don’t expect particular attacks there. I expect attacks and hell to break on the final climb,” Quintana said.

“It’s very difficult to tell you who is going to be the first to attack, but for sure the minute the first attack everyone else will counter attack.

“The situation at the moment in the GC is that all the riders are not only racing for the final victory but are racing for positions, so this makes things even more complicated.

“If I have to give you a name [to start the attacks], an easy name is [Vincenzo] Nibali, but everyone can start. I think we’ve got one of the strongest teams and this will play a role, but I’m sure that there will be a lot of fight tomorrow.”

Nairo Quintana in pink on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia (Sunada)

Quintana confirmed the he had been suffering from tiredness the last week due to the high level of racing, partly why he had been unable to take as much time advantage as people expect of him in the mountains until today.

While he won stage nine on Blockhaus, he has not managed to distance Dumoulin, Nibali or Pinot on any of the major climbs since.

“The level is very, very high and you can see the competition is very high,” the 27-year-old continued. “You need to consider that the stage the day before yesterday to the Stelvio [stage 16] was incredibly difficult and everyone was tired after that.

“My plan was to stay with the riders that I thought were the most dangerous for the GC and that’s what I did. In any case yes we are all tired, the level is high but tomorrow there is a decisive stage and we will try to gain time.”

After almost three weeks of racing, the 2017 Giro has come alive in the final week as the race reached the Dolomites Mountains, with the rising tensions even simmering over off the bike between Dumoulin and Nibali and their team tactics. Quintana, however, refused to be drawn into the war of words his rivals have been engaged in.

“No I don’t like the war of words and I didn’t want to enter it,” he said. “Yesterday as I said in my interviews I respect all the strategies of every team and I would like that every other team respects my strategies.”

The favourites mark each other on the final climb of stage 19 of the 2017 Giro d’Italia (Sunada)

Quintana distanced Dumoulin twice on Friday – as well as being dropped on the final climb, he was distanced just 60 kilometres into the stage and was forced to chase back on after being caught out sat at the back of the bunch.

When Movistar, Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team and Katusha heard of his positioning they upped the pace, with Dumoulin falling on the wrong side of a split. Quintana’s team-mate Rory Sutherland, who helped force the split, admitted he was surprised to see Dumoulin make such an error.

“It’s one those opportunities in a race,” Sutherland explained of Movistar’s tactics. “I don’t wish anyone to lose a race in that way but when you’re leading the race you can’t sit in the last 20 guys in the peloton when your team’s on the front. Someone’s going to take advantage of it.

“His team-mates were on the front and I spoke to them after. I’m friends with them and I was like ‘guys what happened there’ and they weren’t happy either.

“I was like ‘he knows he needs to be in the front’ and they told me he wanted to be a bit back because of the headwind and to be stress free. That’s your choice, and that becomes more stress than is required.”

The Australian, however, was full of praise for how Dumoulin has raced the Giro this year even though he joked it has made his job at the race a lot more stressful.

“He’s on a phenomenal Giro and it’s definitely not over, it’s going to be the beauty of the Giro this year that it’s not going to be over until the very last moment of the last day.”