The most crucial eighteen minutes in the careers of two young stars will take place on Sunday when Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart do battle in the Giro d'Italia's deciding time trial in Milan.

After 3,240km, some of the toughest mountain stages in recent memory, and a morning spent in the bus because of a bit of rain, just 86 hundredths of a second separate the two top riders of the 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa. And now it's all going to come down to a 15.7km individual test of strength on the streets of Milan.

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It seems entirely apt that for two riders who have been almost entirely inseparable throughout the entire Giro, it's going to take an enforced three-minute gap to tear them apart on Sunday.

When Sunweb's Hindley zipped clear to win the bonus sprint ahead of the final ascent to Sestriere in Saturday's penultimate stage to edge four seconds clear of Geoghegan Hart in the virtual standings, there was a general sense that the Briton would turn the tables at the finish to pocket the four seconds he needed to take this tie to extra time.

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No one really had a clue who would be in pink once the Hackney Eagle swooped for his second stage win of this race. Most felt Geoghegan Hart would assume the overall lead by virtue of his superior stage count. But in fact it went back to the additional miniscule time differences accrued in the earlier two time trials where hundredths of a second are taken over the line – and the tech bods worked out that the Australian's total time, with bonuses factored in, was 86 hundredths of a second faster than his British counterpart.

In the Eurosport commentary box, Brian Smith ventured that this would give Geoghegan Hart the advantage for he'd be free to get down the mountain and avoid all the post-race podium and interview duties expected of the maglia rosa.

But as Rob Hatch rightly countered, Geoghegan Hart would still have to go through that same rigmarole as the stage winner. In any case, this was rendered a moot point when it emerged later on that Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of Ineos, had laid on helicopters for his remaining six riders to get to Milan – giving them a three-hour edge on the Sunweb riders forced to endure the journey by bus.

And this was not the only potential advantage picked up on by eager British fans on social media. "Geoghegan Hart won't have to wear the ill-fitting race-provided pink skin suit for the final time trial," they said – as good an argument as any for not entering the final day shrouded in pink.

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But with 24-year-old Hindley in the maglia rosa, 25-year-old Geoghegan Hart will have to assume the mantle of the white jersey in his place – so he will be in an official race skinsuit after all, just one that's a different colour.

"That may be," countered some of the more observant folk, "but the race-provided suits are made by Castelli, who are also the kit supplier for Ineos Grenadiers. Make of that what you will."

So, perhaps Geoghegan Hart will have the technical advantage then, after all. Or perhaps they will both be saddled with a skinsuit not of their own choice – whereby opening the door once again to Hindley's Dutch teammate, Wilco Kelderman (now 1'32" down after battling to eighth place in Sestriere, the poor chap).

Look, it would be typical of 2020 if, in the closest ever Grand Tour conclusion in history, the race is decided by something as trivial as a skinsuit.

A far greater consideration to make, though, may come with any perceived advantages of starting either before or after the other.

Some have said that Hindley will have an edge because he will be last to go down the ramp and at every point in the 15.7km time trial he will know exactly how his rival is doing. But that didn't exactly help Primoz Roglic when he went last in the Tour's deciding time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles last month, did it?

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On the contrary, Geoghegan Hart won't have the psychological pressure of worrying about "doing a Quintana". The Colombian, if you remember, led the 2017 Giro going into the final time trial in Milan, where he had the ignominy of having to ride around the city in a pink skinsuit knowing full well that he was only keeping it warm for Tom Dumoulin.

By the time Geoghegan Hart gets going on Sunday, he'll be aware that teammate Filippo Ganna has in all likelihood already won his own fourth (and Ineos' seventh) stage. He'll know that if he doesn't end up in pink, he would never have lost it for he never actually had it in the first place.

Poor Hindley will have to deal with the prospect of his first day in the fabled maglia rosa perhaps being his last – and that's tough for anyone, not least a 24-year-old who would have never expected to be in this position in the first place.

Then again, Geoghegan Hart will have to ride without indefatigable teammate Rohan Dennis pulling in front, or Messrs Ganna and Swift further up the road…

Jai Hindley, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Rohan Dennis | Giro d'Italia Stage 20

Image credit: Getty Images

But what, crucially, of form and time trial pedigree? Who, by looking at their past performances against the clock, does history dictate carries an edge entering what will be the most nerve-racking eighteen and a half minutes (give or take) in their lives?

If we cast our net back to the opening time trial in Palermo, which was a comparatively similar 15.1km in length, Geoghegan Hart actually finished 49 seconds behind Hindley. He did so, however, in the conviction that he would be spending the next three weeks fetching bidons and pulling for Geraint Thomas on the front of the peloton.

A week later, in the longer 34.1km time trial, Geoghegan Hart gained over a minute on Hindley. Earlier in the season, in the 10km final day time trial in Tirreno-Adriatico, Tao was six seconds quicker than Jai; in last year's opening TT in the Giro, he was 56 seconds faster; in the Vuelta's 8km opening time trial in 2018, the Briton's advantage was 26 seconds.

What does all this tell us? Only that Geoghegan Hart has beaten Hindley in other time trials. It tells us absolutely nothing about tomorrow's time trial. Sure, if the Briton was a Ganna against the clock, and Hindley more of a Quintana, then we could say a second British Giro win in three years was a foregone conclusion. But that's far from the case.

It's not over till the fat lady sings – just ask Denis Menchov, who crashed in pink on the wet cobblestones of Rome en route to hanging on for the overall Giro win in 2009. More pertinently – ask Roglic, who everyone assumed was Ganna, but who was reduced to being a Quintana by his compatriot Tadej Pogacar in the Tour's deciding TT.

Neither Hindley nor Geoghegan Hart has ever led a Grand Tour before. On Sunday, Hindley will roll down the ramp in pink but the jersey could end up going to a rider who has not yet led the race or donned the tunic.

There's no way of predicting how these two young riders – riders who are tied at the top of both the general and youth classifications – will cope with the pressure, how their bodies and minds will react to such a pure test of strength and mental aptitude so deep into the third week of such a challenging test of endurance in such a crazily unpredictable year as that of this infuriating pandemic.

Picking up on an earlier analogy – it's beyond extra time. We're now onto a penalty shoot out in the streets of Milan.

Whoever wins the 103rd Giro d'Italia will be a worthy winner; whoever loses it will be most unfortunate. Neither deserves it more than the other but one will be so cruelly exposed that it will be heart-breaking. Only tomorrow will we know if it's Hart-breaking.

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