If the first week of the 2023 Giro d'Italia was compelling, the second has been downright brutal.
Pre-race favourite Remco Evenepoel was forced to pull out of the race on the first rest day following a positive Covid-19 test, just a day after he claimed the leader's pink jersey with a second stage victory.
And he was not the only high-profile rider to have their participation cut short as Covid, crashes and appalling weather wreaked havoc on the second week.
France's Bruno Armirail leads the general classification heading into a decisive final week, but he is not expected to be a threat for overall victory.
Britain's Geraint Thomas, who spent much of the second week in pink after Evenepoel's withdrawal, is the best-placed of the main contenders - but the former Tour de France victor is only two seconds ahead of three-time Vuelta a Espana champion Primoz Roglic.
|What||2023 Giro d'Italia|
|When||Saturday 6th May - Sunday 28th May 2023|
|How to watch||Eurosport & Discovery+|
|Odds||Primoz Roglic 4/6, Geraint Thomas 9/4, Joao Almeida 9/2, Damiano Caruso 8/1, Thymen Arensman 25/1, Hugh Carthy 28/1|
Evenepoel had been 4/6 to win a second Grand Tour after his success in the stage nine time-trial, so the news of his abandonment on the morning of the first rest day was a huge shock.
The Belgian wasn't the only general classification contender to pull out in week two, however, with Rigoberto Uran, Alexander Vlasov and Great Britain's Tao Geoghegan-Hart all seeing their challenge come to a premature end.
The withdrawal of Geoghegan Hart, who sustained a fractured hip in a crash on stage 11, was especially significant given his place on the GC. He was third at the time, only five seconds behind Ineos teammate Thomas and the strong form he had shown over the first half of the race registered the 2020 champion as a genuine threat.
There were more Covid-enforced withdrawals, too, with Evenepoel's Soudal-QuickStep team one of the worst affected. It all leaves Thomas, a 9/4 chance to add the pink jersey to the yellow one he won at the Tour in 2018, as the best placed of the main contenders - but Roglic is the 4/6 favourite.
Portuguese Joao Almeida is 20 seconds further adrift, but he should relish a final week that promises fireworks in the mountains.
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The sun barely shone at all during week two of the Giro d'Italia as incessant rain battered the peloton almost continuously.
The forecast is much better for the final week - although that may be of little comfort to the riders left standing given the punishing tests that await them.
Ahead of a largely ceremonial run-in to Rome on Sunday, there are five stages to negotiate with only Wednesday's flat stage 17 offering any sort of respite.
Week three kicks off with a 203km stage from Sabbio Chiese to Monte Bondone featuring five classified climbs, and there is a similar amount of climbing to be negotiated on stage 18 two days later.
But it is Friday's stage 19 that could prove ultimately decisive in the fight for pink. The riders will take on three first category ascents, including the punishing slopes of the Passo Giau, as well as two second category climbs on a 183km stage where there is little in the way of any flat terrain.
Survive that test with their GC hopes intact and then there is the small matter of an 18.6km mountain time trial to the top of the monstrous Monte Lussari (7.3km at an average gradient of 12.3%)
Cycling fans were hoping it would be still all to play for the battle for the pink jersey approaching the final week, although many expected it to be Evenepoel and Roglic fighting it out for Giro glory.
The withdrawal of the world road race champion has certainly given a more open look to the race, but there are still two big-hitters who will take all the beating.
Roglic and Thomas have shown they are the strongest at this year's race and, backed by the two strongest teams in the peloton, they are the undoubted favourites.
Both have suffered rotten luck at the Giro before - so they will be thankful to have avoided the carnage of week two - but only one can seize their shot at redemption over the next six stages.
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