Three seconds, four stages. Four stages are left at this Giro d'Italia, and three seconds is all that separates Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) from the pink jersey of Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
The Australian has been here before, with a rider from the same team. On stage 20 of the 2020 Giro, he leapt into the maglia rosa, but was equal on time with Tao Geoghegan Hart ahead of the final stage. It was just one day in pink for Hindley on that occasion, as he was beaten by the Brit on a flat time trial course into Milan.
This time around, the race yet again ends with a time trial, of a similar distance, in Verona; although this one has a slight hill in it, which means there are 317m of climbing in the 17.4km against the clock.
The biggest difference, however, is that there is not a lot between Carapaz and Hindley in the TT stakes. Three seconds could easily be gained or lost against the clock, and the title could swing either way in the 25 minutes-ish effort.
The Ecuadorean has triumphed in the duel between the two seven out of the eight times they have raced the same time trial, including the one on stage two of this race, but everything might change under the pressure of a final stage, a Giro d'Italia on the line. We all remember Primož Roglič vs Tadej Pogačar at the Tour de France in 2020.
Hindley and Carapaz have been inseparable so far, and they are unlikely to be prised apart on a largely flat stage 18. It will be stages 19, 20 and 21 where the difference is made.
There are 3,489 metres of climbing on Friday, before 4,718 metres on the decisive penultimate stage to Marmolada on Saturday. This will surely be where the race is won and lost.
“I’m definitely running out of stages to make time up, but I think the second to last stage will really decide a lot,” Hindley said after Wednesday's stage. He knows that he needs to make a move to distance Carapaz, but the pair have looked each other's match in the first fortnight of this race.
Carapaz gained time on stages one and two, and Hindley brought some of that back with bonus seconds gain on Blockhaus on stage nine and in Aprica on stage 16. It was much the same story on stage 17, as Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) attacked them both repeatedly, but the trio stuck together.
These three look set to take the podium slots come the end of the race, especially now João Almeida has been forced to abandon the Giro.
It might be that Landa, who sits in third, just over a minute behind Hindley and Carapaz, is the one to split the race open; the Spaniard needs to mount a serious attack if he is to claim the pink jersey, and is known to be weak in time trials, so will need a buffer too.
If only Hindley or only Carapaz is able to follow one of these attacks, which will almost definitely happen, then it would be game over for the other.
The Ecuadorean has won the Giro before, in 2019, so has the skills and the nous to follow his challenge through the end. Hindley, meanwhile, has his 2020 experience to build on.
“Everyone says that the Giro is going to be decided by minutes, this, that, and the other, but it’s not like that anymore. Every second counts,” the Australian said immediately post stage 17.
“It was a pretty hard climb and I think there was a lot of tired lads out there after yesterday. I was also pretty tired to be honest,” he said. “It was a hard climb, and it was ridden at a really hard tempo. What can you do? I think the level between Carapaz and Landa is also pretty even. It was a pretty tough final.
“It’s pretty hard when it’s not a hilltop finish. I don’t think it was the most decisive stage but I’m happy to take time on some of the other guys.”
He has Thursday's relatively flat stage to recover, but is that fatigue going to count against him? Carapaz has looked impervious to everything thrown at him so far, and is the man in control.
Hindley has already proved that his 2020 result was not a fluke, that he has the ability to mount a GC challenge over three hard weeks. With four days to go, he will hope he can grab those three seconds at one point, and hold onto the maglia rosa.
One gets the feeling the Australian would give anything to have just one more day in pink, and make it count. No more de Jai vu, a new experience: winning.
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