Does the race rest on Nibali having a bad day?
Will Nibali resist siren calls?
After seeing off the challenges of Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal and edging ever further away from Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) sits in a commanding position at the head of the overall standings with one week of the Giro to race.
For many in the Italian press, final overall victory is already viewed as an inevitability and the cry has gone out for Nibali to crown his success with a stage victory and a healthy dollop of spettacolo. Gazzetta dello Sport beseeched Nibali to imitate Marco Pantani by attacking on the Galibier on Sunday, while others are holding out hope that the maglia rosa will produce a solo exploit in the Dolomites next week.
Impressive though he has been, Nibali’s lead over Evans is still just 1:26, however, and the cold conditions experienced by the gruppo over the past ten days mean that the dreaded jour sans could arrive at any time. The Stelvio and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo may call out like sirens to be graced with a performance for the ages, but so far, Nibali has resisted the temptation to do any more than what is necessary to keep padding out his advantage in small increments. If Nibali sticks to that game plan and avoids flying too close to the sun in the final week, a first Giro victory should be his.
Evans hope of a Nibali bad day
In Cadel Evans’ succinct assessment, the first week of the Giro went slightly better than expected and the second week went slightly worse. As the dust settles on the second rest day, then, the Australian finds himself in second place overall, 1:26 off the maglia rosa of Vincenzo Nibali.
Dislodging Nibali from the top of the standings could prove a big ask for Evans, however. In spite of his consistency through the first 15 stages, he has never put Nibali in difficulty and was soundly bettered by the Sicilian on the Jafferau on Saturday. It’s hard to see Evans making up the ground by simply outgunning Nibali in the Dolomites and instead he must maintain his standards deep into the final week and hope that Nibali suffers a bad day.
Fight for top ten places will shape the racing
As Robert Millar pointed out in his blog for Cyclingnews, the battle for top ten positions could prove more exciting than the fight for pink in the final week. There are still six riders within three minutes or so of the final overall podium and with vital UCI WorldTour points also up for grabs, every position in Brescia will be keenly contested.
Mauro Santambrogio has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since joining Vini Fantin-Selle Italia during the off-season and he was the only man able to live with Nibali on the Jafferau on Saturday. He has been an aggressive presence thus far and he can throw the cat amongst the pigeons by attacking in the Dolomites. Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran may be seeking opportunities to test Nibali, but they will also be looking over their shoulders nervously at the seemingly transformed Santambrogio.
Elsewhere, Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) already has four second place finishes to his name and has shown a keen eye for racing for bonus seconds in the second week, while Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff) is another surprise package who had few qualms about going on the offensive on the Galibier. With the most difficult stages of the Giro are still to come, they have scope to make dramatic moves up the overall standings.
The impact of Wiggins' and Hesjedal leaving
The loss of Wiggins and Hesjedal may have robbed fans of two of the pre-race favourites but their departures on the surface will have done nothing to alter the GC battle. By the time both riders finally succumbed to their ailments and threw in the towel neither were capable of following their rivals on either the climbs or the rain soaked flatlands.
However the loss of Wiggins - more than Hesjedal – has certainly changed the complexion at the head of the race. Until Wiggins’ departure Sky were still firmly locked into riding towards their pre-race plan A that has served them so well over the last 18 months. Dominant on the front, there was a two-way tussle between Brailsford’s men and Astana for control over pace and tone of the race.
With Wiggins now plumped on the sofa it might appear that Astana’s task has become somewhat easier: one less rival to worry about and Uran now shouldering the weight of a nation/corporation on his shoulders. However without Wiggins, Sky can take a back seat, almost becoming a copy of BMC’s recent strategy, leaving Astana to control and measure their efforts. That’s fine for two weeks but the third week, with the continued bad weather expected, it should start to see Nibali’s men begin to weaken.
Kudos to Cavendish
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) fought fatigue and the gradients to finish both of the mountain stages in the Alps. He has won all four sprint stages in this year's race, celebrated his 100th career win in Treviso and still leads the points classification.
A rider pulling out of a Grand Tour for no apparent reason is often frowned upon but Cavendish has surely earned the right to climb off if wants to.
Fortune favours RCS Sport
Giro d'Italia race director Michele Acquarone tweeted in Latin after the stage to the Galibier: Audentes fortuna iuvat - fortune favours the bold. He and all the management at RCS Sport were very brave and lucky that the stage ended at the summit covered Memorial Pantani, high up on the Galibier. It was a spectacular finish and a fitting 'homage' to Pantani.
However on Saturday the French authorities announced the stage would finish much lower down the climb in Valloire and miss the Mont du Mont Cenis climb. RCS Sport used all their charm and negotiation skills to Convince them to change their mind. If the weather had been bad, they would have faced a serious protest from the riders and would have been forced to make an embarrassing late change or even cancel the stage. Luckily the snow only fell in the final kilometres and the stage will be remembered as one of the best stages of this year's Giro d'Italia.
What a difference a day at the Giro can make
The Giro d'Italia is three long weeks of pain and suffering for every rider in the peloton. But a stage victory, a spell in the maglia rosa can make it worth all the pain and even make or save a riders' career.
Alex Dowsett proved his ability as a time trial specialist by winning the Saltara time trial and Luca Paolini revitalised his career with a stage win and a enjoyable spell in the pink jersey.
Giovanni Visconti's career was fading fast after his 18 months of suffering, his suspension for working with Dr. Ferrari and lack of results but his win on the Galibier changed everything. He was all smiles at breakfast on the rest day and even seemed to enjoy the Movistar ride to look down over the edge of the Col du Télégraphe
He is rumoured to be returning to Vini Fantini in 2014 but whatever is team colours next year, is career is back on track.
Uran to Sky's rescue
Despite two stage wins this Giro certainly hasn’t gone to plan for Sky but despite the loss of Bradley Wiggins the team’s embarrassment of riches in talent still leaves them with shot at of least the runners-up spot in this year’s race. Rigoberto Uran has climbed superbly and but for a few cracks starting to appear on the climb to Bardonecchia, the Colombian has been ever present with the leaders. The time lost to Pescara is an easy point to suggest he could have been Nibali’s close challenger but if he’d not lost those seconds it’s arguable that he would not have been given the room to attack on the Altopiano del Montasio.
Once dubbed as the most promising stage race talent in recent years by Johan Bruyneel, Uran is within touching distance of the biggest result of his career.
Those looking for omens to suggest that Uran might wilt in the third week, need only look at last year’s Giro, in which he became stronger as the race progressed. He started the second rest day of last year’s Giro in 11th, 2;56 down on the race leader Joaquim Rodriguez. He briefly rallied to 5th before consolidating seventh overall. With a mountain time trial to come and two more summit finishes remaining, this is biggest week of Uran’s career.
The missing Italian polemica
This year's Giro d'Italia has had everything: great racing, emotions, sun, rain, crashes, disappointment, attacks, illness, retirement and drama.
The only thing missing was a bit of good old Italian polemica. But that came on stage 15 as the riders climbed the Col du Mont Cenis.
After RCS Sport confirmed that the stage would follow the entire route, the riders agreed a tacit go-slow on the Col du Mont Cenis. Most of the riders were happy to take it steady and then race on the Galibier, showing a rare moment of unity. However it seems Roberto Reverberi of Bardiani Valvole wanted his team to race and was keen to go on the attack.
Cyclingnews was told by one rider that he drove up to the peloton and started shouting at the alleged gang leaders. Filippo Pozzato told Gazzetta dello Sport that Reverberi called him a 'Mafioso' for organising the protest but the Bardiani Valvole directeur denied the claims.
Tempers perhaps eased during the rest day but it will be interesting to see if Bardiani Valvole chase down every Pozzato attack if tries to win Wednesday's stage to Vicenza, which is close to his home.
He’d done the hard part and stayed upright throughout the first week and on the eve of the first mountain stage it looked as though, finally, after all the false starts in recent years, Robert Gesink was ready to challenge for top honours. The time lost at Altopiano del Montasio was certainly a concern but not a game changer but when he trailed home 4;16 down on Santambrogio at Bardonecchia the writing was on the wall. Ushered home by three Blanco teammates Gesink cut a forlorn and defeated figure, all hope of a podium or even top five place in tatters.
Questions over Gesink’s vulnerability over three weeks will resurface – not good when you might need a new team in 2014 – but the Dutch climber at least showed on the Galibier that he’s not a completely spent force. A stage win isn’t out of the question but he made need to stay with the best rather than try and anticipate their attacks like he did on the Galibier.
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