Chris Froome is set to complete a remarkable victory in the Giro d’Italia after retaining the leader’s pink jersey at the end of stage 20.
The Team Sky rider need only safely negotiate Sunday’s largely ceremonial final stage to lay his hands on a third straight Grand Tour title, following his wins at the Tour de France and La Vuelta last year.
Froome, who held off reigning champion Tom Dumoulin, will become the first British rider to take the honours at the Giro and join Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as the only other men to hold the three Grand Tour titles simultaneously.
Froome appeared to be barely in contention a matter of days ago, but moved into the lead on Friday, when he made an audacious solo charge from 80km out on the mountainous stage from Venaria Reale to Bardonecchia.
It was a monumental effort which propelled the 33-year-old from three minutes and 22 seconds off the lead to the frontrunner by 40 seconds.
By the time he crossed the line ahead of Dumoulin, who attempted to attack Froome on several occasions but seemed to accept he had come up short in the final phase, victory was all but assured.
Spaniard Mikel Nieve was the stage winner on his birthday, but as the race heads to Rome for its procession, it is Froome’s mastery of the general classification that dominates.
Froome cut a composed figure as he accepted congratulations at the finish line and suggested he had never felt threatened by Dumoulin’s efforts to force the pace.
“I thought there were attacks I had to follow in the final, but I felt very much in control and capable of following today,” he told Eurosport 1.
“Everyone had such a hard day yesterday no-one really had the legs to go anywhere.
“It was for us to follow and me to keep an eye on Tom.”
Reflecting on the exacting nature of a course which has taken many high-profile contenders to the limits, Froome added: “This Giro has been brutal, absolutely brutal.
“When someone tends to have a bad day here it’s not just a matter of 30 seconds or one minute, it’s 10-15 minutes. It’s a brutal race.”
Fabio Aru feels he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career as his miserable Giro d’Italia ended on Friday when the UAE Team Emirates rider abandoned the race just over an hour into Stage 19.
The team’s leader had lost time on almost every mountain stage and found himself down in 27th place overall at the start of Friday’s stage, more than 45 minutes down on race leader Simon Yates.
Italian Aru had fought his way inside the top 10 early on but slowly began to slip out of contention.
His team confirmed the former Astana man’s exit on Friday, with no indication Aru was suffering with illness or any other problem.
The 27-year-old, however, admits he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career.
“I’m really sorry for all this, for my team, my family and the sponsors that I represent, but it didn’t make sense to go ahead,” said Aru.
“I had said that I’ll evaluate my feelings day by day because I feel that I’m going through an abnormal period of my sporting career.
“I wanted to keep going and honour the team’s jersey, give the fans something and the race its due respect. But I couldn’t do it.”
There were high hopes of Aru, the Italian champion, replicating prior success at his home Grand Tour heading into this year’s Giro, following his move to UAE Team Emirates this season.
After two disappointing attempts at the Tour de France, it was hoped he could rediscover his 2015 form, when he finished runner-up at the Giro and then won the Vuelta a Espana later in the year.
Sadly, @FabioAru1 abandoned the Giro during today’s stage. He spoke openly about how difficult it was for him to stop his home race. #UAETeamEmirates #Giro101 https://t.co/7asWsmNS7r pic.twitter.com/ErFDNNvbuL— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 25 May 2018
Yet his struggles were evident from early on. He lost a chunk of time on the opening-day time trial in Jerusalem, and although he finished with the favourites on Mount Etna on Stage 6, he lost more than a minute on the Stage 9 summit finish at Gran Sasso.
The second weekend saw any faint hopes of a podium evaporate. He lost two minutes on Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14, but alarmingly conceded another 19 on the following day’s stage to Sappada, which left him 22nd overall, and 25 minutes down on Yates.
After the final rest day on Monday, a remarkable resurgence seemed on the cards when Aru finished sixth on the 34.2km Stage 16 time trial, though it soon emerged how he might have achieved such a surprising result against the clock as he was penalised for drafting.
Aru finished 112th on Stage 17 and 122nd on the summit finish at Prato Nevoso on Stage 18, and it was unclear if the legs were empty or if he was saving himself for an assault on stage wins in the final two big mountain stages.
The question was answered just over an hour into Friday’s big mountain stage, before the riders had hit the Colle delle Finestre and onto Sestriere, scene of a famous stage win for Aru at the 2015 Giro.
“I’m not going to be dramatic, this is sport and maybe, even if it hurts to say so now, this sport is beautiful,” added Aru.
“I’ll try to reset and understand together with the team what happened, then I’ll restart thinking of the rest of the season. Because this is what you have to do in difficult moments.”
Team Sky star Froome attacked with 80 kilometres of the demanding 181km stage from Venaria Reale to Bardonecchia left and won the stage by two minutes and 59 seconds from Movistar’s Richard Carapaz.
Froome, who started the day in fourth place in the general classification, three minutes and 22 seconds off pink, now leads by 40 seconds from defending champion Tom Dumoulin.
Meanwhile, Froome’s fellow Briton Yates, who began with a 28-second advantage over Dumoulin, is now more than 35 minutes off the pace.
Froome told Eurosport: “I don’t think I’ve ever attacked with 80km to go like that before on my own, and got all the way to the finish.
“But the team did such a fantastic job to set that up for me. It was going to take something really special to try and first of all get rid of Simon, to get away from Dumoulin and (Domenico) Pozzovivo and to go from fourth to first.
“I wasn’t going to do that on the last climb alone so I had to try it from a long way back and Colle delle Finestre was the perfect place to do it – a gravel road which reminds me of the roads back in Africa.
— Team Sky (@TeamSky) May 25, 2018
“I tried to stay within my limits and stay within myself there, so hopefully we can finish this off tomorrow.”
If Froome’s win was one of the most emphatic of his career there were reminders of the ongoing controversy generated by his adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.
At one point as he struck out alone, Froome, who has spoken openly about his need to control his asthma, was pursued by two spectators dressed as doctors and carrying a giant inhaler.
Froome is bidding to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time, following on from his fourth Tour de France crown and La Vuelta win last season.
And while it proved an astonishing change in fortunes for Froome, who at one point earlier in the race was almost five minutes off pink, Yates endured a stage he will wish to forget.
The Michelton-Scott rider began to struggle as soon as the riders hit the daunting Colle delle Finestre at the mid-point of the stage, at the same time as the roads turned to gravel and Froome began to turn on the style.
The Queen Stage makes history once again! @chrisfroome is the new Maglia Rosa! | La Tappa Regina scrive la storia ancora una volta! @chrisfroome è la nuova Maglia Rosa! ¡La Etapa Reina hace historia una vez más! @chrisfroome conquista la Maglia Rosa! #Giro101#Giropic.twitter.com/iM0LqRIt07
— Giro d’Italia (@giroditalia) May 25, 2018