The pack rides in Alpe di Pampaego. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

By Todd Gogulski, Universal Sports | @BiciGoGo | Blog

Stage 17 had about 15,000′ of climbing. Stage 19 has almost 17,000′ and then stage 20 has almost 20,000′. Follow those with the 30km flat time trial in Milan and you can see why everyone said this final week was going to be the most important week of the race. There are realistically only four guys left in the race who can win: Joaquim Rodriguez (note spelling of first name with the letter “m”), Ryder Hesjedal, Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi. From what I saw in stage 17, Ryder Hesjedal was the big winner. He’s the best against the clock of the contenders, and he finished another very challenging day in a very enviable position: only 30″ from the overall lead, and not having to defend the Pink jersey. Rodriguez has said that he thinks Ryder will put 2′ into him in the final TT, Basso is thinking he will lose 1′ and Scarponi was on the ropes today and is similar in ability to Basso in a TT, generally. Obviously, there are no guarantees that Ryder would out-perform the others in the TT with the gaps mentioned here, but it looks good for him at this point. But it’s far from over, when you look back at the history books, neither Rodriguez nor Hesjedal have ever been this good this late in a grand tour, so this is uncharted water for them. Basso knows what it takes as he has two Giro titles (2006, 2010), and Scarponi is also more accomplished over the three-week timeframe in being the defending champion. What does this all tell me? This race is still open, but only to these four guys.

Let’s look further into stage 17. Basso looked the strongest to me. He set the bulk of the pace on the Passo Giau once he had used up his team. Though it was a brutal day in the saddle, the fact that it wasn’t a summit finish turned it into a bit of a stalemate up the final climb, so it was more of a race of attrition – eliminating some who were previously still in the hunt for the GC like Roman Kreuziger and outsiders like his teammate Paolo Tiralongo. Michele Scarponi was in big trouble, dropped and cramping, but he retooled somehow and chased back on, and managed not to loose any time. To see Ivan Basso’s strength in the sprint, that was also telling for a guy who’s sprint isn’t legendary.

I have also spoken with Joaquim’s DS, Valerio Piva, since the finish of stage 17. He told me that though stage 20 to the Stelvio via the Mortirolo (22% max gradient) is very famous and will be spectacular he actually thinks that stage 19 is harder and will be more selective. Think about that, more selective than the a stage with 20,000′ of climbing, five categorized climbs, including one with a 22% max gradient, followed by a summit finish at 9,000′ – the highest ever for a Grand Tour. Piva actually believes that stage 19 is one of the hardest stages of the Giro in years, and he was there last year when the stages were so challenging that the director of the Giro was relieved of his position after the race. So what’s all the fuss over stage 19 about? All the big climbs come in succession in the last half of the race, and the Pampeago (which they do twice), is consistently over 11% and has a 16% pitch just 1.4km from the finish. So, it’s the classic juxtaposition, length of grade verses severity of grade, and we will find out in the next couple days what creates greater separation.

Here are my predictions:

Stage 19 is going to be a free-for-all. Rodriguez knows he needs more time for the stage 21 TT in Milan. He’s got the punch to put the other GC men into serious trouble on steep climbs, and there is an actual summit finish for stage 19 on the Alpe di Pampeago so there’s no time to catch back up on the run-in to the finish. It’s not a super long climb at 7.7km/4.8mi, and Rodriguez is the best in the world at climbs like that when he’s on. Rodriguez will go on the rampage and leave the others scrambling to limit their losses. If Rodriguez gains over 1′ 30″ on Hesjedal, he’s in the driver’s seat to win the Giro. But the next day, will he crack after such a huge effort? On long climbs in a Grand Tour he’s always had at least one bad day, and the finish on the Stelvio is plenty long at 22.4km/13.9mi. So he won’t be out of the woods until the Stelvio is over.

Ultimately, there is nobody who has yet shown that they will be the winner of the overall in Milan, and stages 19 and 20 can show the advantage swing one way and then the other before the TT settles the score.

Currently Hesjedal has won the battle, but will he win the war?

It’s going to be a great weekend.