Joaquin Rodriguez increased his lead over Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro d'Italia, but he still thinks the Canadian is the favourite to win the race.
Thomas De Gendt won the gruelling penultimate stage of the Giro d'Italia on Saturday while Rodriguez increased his overall lead over Victoria's Hesjedal from 17 to 31 seconds.
However, the last stage in Milan is a 30-kilometre individual time trial. Hesjedal is known to be extremely strong in those type of races.
"I'm happy with today's performance," Rodriguez said. "I managed to gain some precious seconds over Hesjedal but I think he's still the favourite, because 31 seconds is not such a great gap and he's better than me in races against the clock. I need a miracle! Still, anything can happen, especially after two such difficult stages, where both Hesjedal and I spent a lot of energy. That's the reason why I believe I still have a chance.
- Joaquin Rodriguez, Spain, Katusha, 91 hours, 4 minutes, 16 seconds.
- Ryder Hesjedal, CANADA, Garmin-Barracuda, 31 seconds behind.
- Michele Scarponi, Italy, Lampre, 1:51.
- Thomas De Gendt, Belgium, Vacansoleil, 2:18.
- Ivan Basso, Italy, Liquigas, 3:18.
- Damiano Cunego, Italy, Lampre, 3:43.
- Rigoberto Uran Uran, Colombia, Sky Procycling, 4:52.
- Domenico Pozzovivo, Italy, Colnago, 5:47.
- Mikel Nieve, Spain, Euskaltel, 5:56.
- John Gadret, France, AG2R La Mondiale, 6:43.
"For sure I'll do my best in order to make this dream come true, also because I think I have no other rivals: The others are quite far behind. De Gendt put on a great performance today and he's an ITT specialist, but he's 2:18 behind, which should be enough."
With a superb climb on the Passo dello Stelvio, De Gendt finished the so-called queen stage of the Giro in six hours 54 minutes, 41 seconds. He finished 56 seconds ahead of Damiano Cunego, with third-placed Mikel Nieve 2:50 behind.
De Gendt, who started the day five minutes, 40 seconds behind Rodriguez in the overall standings, closed the gap to 2:18 and was in fourth place. The Belgian was briefly just 10 seconds off the pink jersey but Rodriguez managed to make up 1:30 in the final kilometre.
"I thought that if the favourites didn't start chasing soon, the pink jersey was a possibility as well as the stage," De Gendt said. "But I knew the other favourites would go full gas in the last four kilometres and eat into the margin I had built up. I don't think I can win the Giro now, with this gap. But maybe I can get to the podium, if I recover well enough from today's effort.
"I didn't expect to win, I went away on the Mortirolo because I just thought it was better to get some time on the favourites before the Stelvio. Then Nieve started going really fast and was giving everything so we extended our gap to over three minutes. On the Stelvio, I felt really good, also thanks to the training I've done on climbs, and I went for it. The last few kilometres were very hard, I was dying!"
Saturday's stage was the toughest of this year's edition, with the 219-kilometre trek from Caldes culminating in a 23-kilometre ascent on the snow-covered Stelvio, which has a maximum gradient of 12 per cent and, at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level, is the highest finish of any Grand Tour stage.
It also has 48 hairpin bends, 27 more than the infamous Alpe d'Huez on the Tour de France.
The route also included the legendary Mortirolo climb, described by the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong as the hardest climb he's ever ridden, with an average gradient of 10.5 per cent.
Last August, organizers created a tennis-like draw of potential climbs on the Giro Facebook page and gave fans a chance to vote for their favourite. The Mortirolo and the Stelvio reached the final and race officials decided to use both.
Oliver Zaugg broke clear of a pack of 14 escapees with 60 kilometres to go and built a lead of 30 seconds over a chasing group of Christian Vande Velde, Damiano Caruso, Andrey Amador, Alberto Losada and Jose Serpa at the top of the Mortirolo. He swiftly extended that to nearly two minutes.
However, De Gendt made his move a short time later, and caught Zaugg with 30 kilometres to go, along with Nieve, Cunego, Amador, Jon Izaguirre and Tanel Kangert.
The gap to the pink jersey group was four minutes at the start of the Stelvio as De Gendt and Nieve attacked with Cunego bravely chasing.
De Gendt broke clear with 12 kilometres to go and an astonishing climb saw him claim the biggest and most memorable victory of his career.
Defending champion Michele Scarponi attacked with 1,500 metres to go but, after initially letting the Italian go, Rodriguez followed and managed to finish in fourth to gain some valuable seconds ahead of his rivals. Scarponi was fifth, and Hesjedal sixth.
Rodriguez's fourth-place also secures him the red jersey as the Spaniard moved a point ahead of Mark Cavendish in the points classification. Italy's Matteo Rabottini secured the blue jersey as he took maximum points over the opening classified climbs to win the mountains classification in his debut Giro.
Andrea Guardini, who memorably beat world champion Cavendish in a sprint finish to win stage 18, was disqualified for riding in the slipstream of his team car. Robert Hunter, Ivan Velasco and another unconfirmed rider were also disqualified.
Jack Bobridge and Timon Seubert dropped out of the race.