An array of punishing climbs on the final week of the Giro d’Italia stand between time trial specialist Tom Dumoulin making history as the first Dutch winner of the race’s pink jersey.
But with a lead of over two and a half minutes on Colombian climbing specialist Nairo Quintana, and nearly four minutes on Italy’s two-time champion Vincenzo Nibali, triumph on the coveted 100th edition of the Italian race is now Dumoulin’s to lose.
“The third week will be very difficult,” Dumoulin has repeated every day since he took the race lead from Quintana with a crushing time trial victory at Montefalcone on stage 10.
And the towering Dutchman, with the smouldering film star looks, isn’t far wrong.
After a third and final rest day on Monday the pink jersey battle moves up a considerable notch Tuesday on a 16th stage which heralds the first of five consecutive days in the high mountains.
Quintana, the 2014 champion and a two-time runner-up at the Tour de France, should be in his element and hoping his Movistar team – as they have done so far – set the kind of punishing pace on the climbs that leave rival teams short of support riders.
On Sunday the diminutive Colombian thanked Dumoulin for slowing the pace of the peloton when he crashed on a descent 36 km from the finish line in Bergamo, so he could catch up.
“It was a nice gesture from a big rival and a great person,” said Quintana, who recovered sufficiently to finish second, just behind Luxembourg’s Bob Jungels but six seconds ahead of Dumoulin to reduce his arrears to 2:41.
But Quintana is unlikely to return the favour if Dumoulin – who has impressed so far on the easier climbing stages – is left behind him, and Nibali will be even less charitable on the descents.
Nibali, the defending champion who held off the threat of Colombian Fabio Duarte to win a snow-hit penultimate stage and seal his maiden pink jersey at Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 2013, sits fourth overall at 3min 40sec behind Dumoulin.
Like Quintana, Nibali has few options if he is to launch a late challenge for the main prize.
Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria underlined his status as the 100th Giro d’Italia’s top sprinter after powering to an impressive fourth victory at the end of stage 13 on Friday.
Gaviria, of the Quick Step team, looked out of contention during a hectic dash for the finish but produced a ferocious late burst to stun Ireland’s Sam Bennett (Bora) at the end of a mainly flat 167km ride from Reggio Emilia to Tortona.
Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, of Sunweb, finished close behind in the race leader’s pink jersey to maintain his 2min 23sec lead over race favourite and 2014 champion Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
But before the race for the ‘maglia rosa’ moves back into the mountains on Saturday’s 14th stage to the summit finish at Oropa, Gaviria enjoyed another day of glory on his race debut.
The Giro sprint field may be missing the likes of German Marcel Kittel, Briton Mark Cavendish and Slovakian Peter Sagan, but Gaviria, a former two-time world champion in track cycling’s omnium event, has been beaten only twice in five sprint finishes so far.
He lost out to German giant Andre Greipel on stage two and finished runner-up to Australian Caleb Ewan after a photo finish decision on stage seven.
Elsewhere, best for UAE Team Emirates were Robert Ferrari (4th), Sacha Modolo (7th), Matej Mohoric (25th) and Jan Polanc (35th).