As the riders rolled out of Marano Lagunare on stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia, just three seconds separated Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), in first and second place on general classification.
Hindley was lucky not to lose any time on Thursday, after puncturing at an inopportune time, but was saved by the 3km rule. So, it is just three seconds for the final three days, a tight battle awaits us.
This does not happen often at the Giro. In fact, it is the first ever time that there has been such a small gap between the man in the maglia rosa and his nearest challenger at the Italian Grand Tour. In 105 editions.
In 1967 there were five seconds between Silvano Schiavon and Francisco Gabica after stage 18, but this was the only occasion in the corsa rosa's history that such a narrow gap has been present. Other than 2022, obviously.
In the 21st century, there have only been five editions where the gap has been below 30 seconds going into the final three stages; in 2003 that gap was 7-08 between Stefano Garzelli and Gilberto Simoni.
18 months ago, in the 2020 edition, things were close. Hindley must be suffering from de ja vu, as back then he trailed Wilco Kelderman by 12 seconds ahead of the final three days. After stage 20, incredibly, the Australian was tied on time with Tao Geoghegan Hart, the eventual winner. With just three seconds in it, there is a live possibility that he could be in that position all over again.
At the other Grand Tours, there have been close editions in recent years. At the Vuelta a España, there have been two editions in the last decade where three seconds was the gap between first and second after stage 18: the 2015 edition, where Tom Dumoulin and Fabio Aru were close, and in 2013, when it was Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Horner almost touching wheels they were so close.
The Tour de France has also had its tight races. While our memories might be clouded by Tadej Pogačar's dominant performance last year, where he ended up winning by over five minutes, in 2017 Chris Froome and Romain Bardet were separated by just 23 seconds. In 2010, the margin was eight seconds between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
We obviously do not know how the next three stages in the Giro will go, and the general classification will surely change with two mountainous days and the time trial in Verona, but here is a look back at some occasions when the GC was tight at the pointy end of the race, and what happened next.
1974 Giro d'Italia
The 1974 Giro d'Italia would be Eddy Merckx's fifth Giro win, putting him on the same level as Fausto Coppi and Alfredo Binda, but it was also his closest Grand Tour in terms of time at the end.
The Belgian, who also won five Tours de France and a Vuelta a España, did not only just win his races most of the time. He won the 1969 Tour by 17-54, and the 1973 Giro by 7-54. In '74, however, he almost slipped up.
The race had 22 stages, unlike the 21 we are now used to, and it was on stage 20, the antepenultimate day, that Giambattista Baronchelli made his move, gaining almost 30 seconds on his Belgian rival and almost winning the race. Sadly for the Italian, who also finished second in 1978, no further time was traded between the two in the final days, and Merckx completed his record.
1989 Tour de France
We surely all know this story. The 1989 Tour de France did not have a ceremonial final stage, unlike the norm now, but had a time trial into Paris. Laurent Fignon was in yellow, and comfortably so, 50 seconds ahead of Greg LeMond. The two were considered to be each other's match in races against the clock, and Fignon had won four previous time trials at the Tour.
It did not go to plan for the Frenchman, however. Stunningly, LeMond gained 58 seconds on his rival over the 24.5km, as the maillot jaune swung away from Fignon. It would mean the American won his second Tour, while Fignon was prevented from winning his third. It was the tightest victory at the Tour ever, and was all decided on the final day.
It is such a stunning event that whole books have been written on the subject. It was as momentous as the swing between Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič at the 2020 Tour, when the impossible happened again in a time trial.
2011 Vuelta a España
The close Vuelta a España that never happened, according to the history books anyway. Juan José Cobo won the race by just 12 seconds from Chris Froome, yet to be the Grand Tour champion of later years, as the Spaniard just edged out the Briton.
However, eight years later Cobo was stripped of the title after being found guilty of doping by the UCI. It meant Froome won his first Grand Tour in 2011, not 2013 as was previously thought.
Cobo stretched his lead on stage 15 which went up the Anglirú, gaining 48 seconds on Froome, and he maintained his grip on the red jersey throughout the remainder of the race. It meant a nervous end to the Vuelta for both Cobo and Froome, but the Spaniard held on to win his only Grand Tour, for eight years, anyway.
2012 Giro d'Italia
The 2012 Giro saw a tumultuous battle between Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquin Rodriguez, as the pair traded the maglia rosa over the second fortnight of the race. Hesjedal, the unlikely winner, was the first to climb into the GC lead on stage seven before he gave it up to his rival three days later.
The Spaniard then had four days in pink before losing the lead to Hesjedal, before he grabbed it back just a stage later. After stage 20, which finished atop the Stelvio, Rodriguez had 30 seconds on his Canadian rival, but shipped 46 to him on the final time trial around Milan. Perhaps this will provide inspiration for Carapaz or Hindley for Sunday's stage.
Rodriguez would never be as close to winning a Grand Tour ever again, although he finished second at the 2015 Vuelta, while 2012 would prove Hesjedal's high-water mark, as he never challenged the top of GC at a Grand Tour again.
2020 Giro d'Italia
Jai Hindley must be desperate to gain time on Richard Carapaz before the final stage in Verona. He has been at the top of the Giro before, leading for a sole day in 2020, before it all came crashing down on the last day.
The Australian was actually tied on time with Tao Geoghegan Hart after stage 20 in that edition. The pair had patiently clawed back time on Wilco Kelderman towards the end of that year's race, before finally overtaking him on the penultimate day.
Hindley won stage 18 to Laghi di Cancano, before Geoghegan Hart won stage 20 to Sestriere, with both finishing in a sprint finish between the pair.
Unfortunately for Hindley, he was tied on time with Geoghegan Hart after that stage, only in pink thanks to a count-back, and was beaten in the time trial comfortably by the Briton. While Carapaz and Hindley are thought to be about equal in terms of their TT prowess, neither will want it to be as close as it was in 2020 going into Sunday.
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