Belgian Thomas de Gendt put up a superb solo effort to win a fearsome Giro d’Italia 20th stage on Saturday, with Joaquim Rodriguez retaining the overall leader’s pink jersey.
Spain’s Rodriguez, riding for the Katusha team, finished fourth and he held a 31-second advantage over Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal going into the 21st and final stage time trial.
Despite almost doubling his lead, Rodriguez had his work cut out to contain Hesjedal in Milan, with the Garmin-Barracuda rider favored in the 30km race against the clock.
“Ryder [Hesjedal] is the favorite to win. I’m not saying that I can’t beat him, but I’m being realistic, I’m telling myself that I need a miracle,” said Rodriguez, who nevertheless took comfort in the optimistic view adopted by his manager, Sebastian Webber.
“He thinks that this time trial, with quite a few bends, will suit me,” the pink jersey holder said.
De Gendt’s astonishing display of power on the stamina-sapping 219km alpine ride, culminating in a Category 1 climb up the Passo Stelvio, which at 2,757m altitude is the highest finish of any of the Tours, also pushed him into podium contention.
The 25-year-old Vacansoleil-DCM rider leapt from eighth to fourth in the general standings after crossing the snow-lined finish 55 seconds ahead of Damiano Cunego.
At the start of the stage, De Gendt was out of contention, 5 minutes, 40 seconds behind Rodriguez, but after his fine effort he moved to within 2 minutes, 18 seconds of the leader.
Mikel Nieve took third, 2:50 back, with Rodriguez in fourth, 3:22 down, to lift him one point above Britain’s Mark Cavendish in the red jersey points standings.
Defending Giro champion Michele Scarponi, fifth on Saturday, was placed third, 1:51 adrift.
Despite losing time on Rodriguez, Hesjedal did enough in sixth to give him a great chance of creating cycling history in Milan by becoming the Giro d’Italia’s first ever Canadian champion.
De Gendt made his ultimately successful bid for stage glory when slipping away from the peloton 57km from the finish at a time when it was tackling the dreaded Mortirolo climb.
“I decided to attack on Mortirolo because I know the descent and I know it’s dangerous,” De Gendt said.
With the help of a team member he maintained the pressure in the following valley to set out up the final punishing push to the Stelvio summit with a lead of almost four minutes.
He deployed his local knowledge to perfection — for the past six years he has used the mountain as a training camp.
“The last few kilometers were very tough, but I couldn’t consider weakening,” he said. “It was in last year’s Tour de France that I began to appreciate that I could defend myself in the mountains. This year, I won’t be on the Tour de France as I’m getting married.”
His virtuoso feat not only ensured his place in the memory of this year’s Giro, but it also put at risk Italy’s proud tradition of having a rider on the podium every year since 1995.