With a little under two kilometres to go at Sestriere on stage 20 of the Giro d'Italia, Tao Geoghegan Hart moved up alongside Jai Hindley, drawing so near that their elbows were almost touching. Jacques Goddet's description of Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor's duel on the Puy de Dome on the 1964 Tour de France came to mind: "Their breath, their sweat, and the wool of their jerseys mixed."
Hindley allowed himself to cast a brief glance in Geoghegan Hart's direction. He had already attacked Geoghegan Hart three times over the previous kilometre, but the Briton grimly hauled himself back to his wheel on each occasion. Hindley would accelerate twice more before the finish, but the deadlock remained securely bolted.
At the summit, Geoghegan Hart sprinted to victory, moving level on time with Hindley in the overall standings thanks to stage winner's bonus.
Beyond the finish line, Hindley leant against a barrier for what felt an eternity before learning that he had taken over the maglia rosa, thanks to a few hundredths of seconds accrued on Geoghegan Hart in the race's two previous time trials. The first Giro of the era of social distancing will enter its final day too close for comfort.
"I just wanted to get a look on how he was looking, his style, to see if he was tired or not," Hindley said. "I really tried to shake him on the last climb, but unfortunately, I couldn't get rid of him. Kudos to him for the way he's riding. He's actually a pretty good friend of mine, so it's cool to be racing alongside him and fighting for the pink jersey."
Giro d'Italia: Geoghegan Hart wins stage 20 on Sestriere
Stelvio ends Almeida's adventure in pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia
Geoghegan Hart eyes Giro d'Italia podium after Ineos attack on the Stelvio
Hindley began the day second overall, 12 seconds off his Sunweb teammate Wilco Kelderman and three ahead of Geoghegan Hart. Kelderman's strategy was to follow Geoghegan Hart everywhere, and he evinced confidence beforehand that he would fare better on the triple ascent of Sestriere than he had on the fearsome Stelvio on Thursday. Instead, the stage proved a re-run of that Stelvio tappone.
When Rohan Dennis wound up the pace for Ineos Grenadiers four kilometres from the top of the penultimate ascent of Sestriere, only Hindley and Geoghegan Hart could stay with him, while Kelderman was dropped.
On Thursday, Hindley's brief was to follow Geoghegan Hart all the way to the finish at Laghi di Cancano. Here, with Kelderman more than a minute down, he was now Sunweb's only hope of overall victory and he attacked accordingly. He downplayed the idea that he should have been given the freedom to launch a similar offensive two days earlier.
"I don't have any regrets. If I wanted to attack, I would have attacked," Hindley said of the Stelvio stage. "It was part of the plan. I followed the team plan. We won the stage that day and took the pink. For me, it was a good day with the team. The way it's unfolded is the way it is, and I can't change that. I regret nothing."
Milan time trial
After 3,334.2km of racing, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart are locked on the same time and the entire Giro will be decided by the flat time trial from Cernusco sul Naviglio to Milan on Sunday afternoon. Hindley is in the maglia rosa with just 15.7km remaining, but Geoghegan Hart, the stronger time triallist by reputation, is firmly in position to take it off him in the shadow of the Duomo.
"I think he's shown that he can time trial well, but it's also the last day of a three-week race and you never what's going to happen," Hindley said. "You never know how your legs are going to feel when you wake up tomorrow morning. That's the beauty of the Giro d'Italia, it's such a hard race. But for me personally, I'll die in that time trial to try to keep this jersey."
Hindley conceded over two seconds per kilometre to Geoghegan Hart in last week's time trial in Valdobbiadene, though he finished ahead of the Ineos man in the opening time trial in Palermo. The effects of the scirocco on later starters like Geoghegan Hart, however, made it difficult to gauge their respective performances there.
"I'm not sure if he went earlier or later there, but, like I said, it doesn't matter," Hindley said. "It's at the end of a three-week Grand Tour and I'm going to do the best time trial of my life tomorrow. Regardless if he time trials better or not, I can only do what I can do. That's also what's so great about the time trial, there's no hiding and it's the race of truth. At the end of tomorrow, I think you'll have a worthy winner of the Giro d'Italia."