Two days to go in the 2008 Giro d'Italia, and just twenty-one seconds separate the first three riders, with an infinite number of permutations as the race wraps up in Milano Sunday afternoon.
That was the status quo at the Giro tonight after a memorable 19th stage from Legnano to Monte Pora, which saw defending champion Danilo Di Luca storm back into contention and Riccardo Riccò draw within four seconds of Alberto Contador's pink jersey. With the Gavia and the Mortirolo to come tomorrow and a 28km time trial on Sunday, the Italian tifosi are already drooling at the prospect of a finale at least as riveting as the 2005 nail-gnasher won by Paolo Savoldelli, now Di Luca's trusty LPR Brakes lieutenant.
The best action today, though, came in a five-minute window after the stage. More precisely, it came in those five minutes between Riccardo Riccò ripping off his breath-easy nose strip and mouthing "vaffancullo!" (roughly untranslatable before the nine o' clock watershed) into the RAI television cameras, and the same rider spitting one of his trademark tirades into the same broadcaster's microphones.
The object of Riccò's ire was his a faulty rear derailleur. In fact, no it wasn't, it was Emanuele Sella. Or Domenico Pozzovivo. Or that pair's CSF team manager Bruno Reverberi. Actually, to be honest, it didn't really matter - Riccò is just a very angry little man, and sometimes anyone or anything will do.
And that's why you've got to love him.
For those who missed it, here's what 'The Cobra' actually said:
"I was angry because I couldn't get the chain to go into my 53 ring on the false flat in the last two kilometres, so I had to use the 39. But I'd also like to know if Sella and Pozzovivo thought they were going to win the Giro by pulling the group behind me like that. I don't know - Contador always seems to find someone to help him, whereas no-one helps me. I really hope that Sella and Pozzovivo win the Giro with what they did today. Why didn't they just stay on Contador's wheel...?"
You thought he was finished. So did we. But oh no, he was just gathering himself for one final assault...
"Oh, I'd like to say one more thing," he whined. "People have been saying that Contador is a better climber than me, but as far as I can remember I've dropped him on every summit finish so far. I'll try to attack him again tomorrow, and I hope that Panaria [sic] don't pull behind me this time..."
They might be just scurrilous rumours, but someone said that Riccò's still standing there this evening, foam leaking from his mouth, working himself into a frenzy so rabid that he's now started insulting even himself...
What amazes me is that other riders take what Riccò says to seriously. Tonight Emanuele Sella looked positively crestfallen when he heard what Riccò had said, as if the slurs had come from Mother Teresa.
"I would never have expected that from him," blubbed Sella, a double Giro stage winner and King of the Mountains elect.
Yeah, right, like we'd never expect grammatical errors from George W Bush.
The other surprise from my point of view was the incisiveness of The Cobra's attack four kilometres from the summit of the Monte Pora. Yeah, he's right - he has dropped Contador more often than not - but the accelerations so far have been measured ones, the net gains mitigated. Today, Riccò finally lent some credence to those comparisons with Pantani of which he is the main proponent. The result was a 37-second gain and the psychological advantage ahead of tomorrow's final mountain showdown.
A straw pole among colleagues in the press-room tonight suggests that Contador will still hold on. I placed myself in the minority by voting for a Riccò revolution, probably on Mortirolo, and a Contador collapse which will put the Saunier-Duval man in pink tomorrow night with the minute or more he'll need to hold in Sunday's time trial.
If my prediction's wrong, I won't be bitter, but I know a man who almost certainly will be...