As the Giro d'Italia returns to home soil, the riders have their sights set on the 33km team time trial. Previously cast as outsiders, the Astana team now looks more like a top contender as they seek to hold onto the race lead of Alexander Vinokourov.
Prior to the prologue, most of the predictions were in favour of Team Sky and Garmin-Transitions who have already proven to be specialists in that particular effort. But the British team had a few riders crashing in the first two stages, including Bradley Wiggins on two occasions two days in a row; their performance collectively will now depend on how they recover. The American squad had an even worse medical report with Christian Vande Velde out of the race with a broken collarbone. This is a big loss for the team time trial.
Astana is without any doubt the team whose profile has increased since the start the Giro d'Italia. This is not only because Alexandre Vinokourov will wear the pink jersey from Savigliano to Cuneo. "With four riders in the top 26 in the prologue, we've showed the consistency of our team," Enrico Gasparotto told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 3 in Amsterdam. "For the team time trial, it's better to have several riders at a good average level than one or two champions like BMC with Cadel Evans and Brent Bookwalter."
Already in stage 3, Evans felt the lack of support as none of his teammates was with him to help their leader get back on to the leading group after being blocked by a crash.
Gasparotto knows what it feels to win a team time trial at the Giro d'Italia. He did it three years ago with Liquigas in Sardegna. "Because I've lost 33 seconds on day 2, there's no way that I'll steal the pink jersey from Vinokourov," he said, joking about the time in 2007 when he crossed the line ahead of Danilo Di Luca in Liquigas' winning effort and raised controversy by gaining the pink jersey over his team captain.
There's no such rivalry at Astana these days. "I'm sure we'll be one of the five best teams," Gasparotto predicted. "Sky is the strongest in my mind. Liquigas will be competitive as well. They're here to win the Giro."
"We have a great team," confirmed Vincenzo Nibali who was a late inclusion on the Liquigas-Doimo line up after the exclusion of Franco Pellizotti. "For sure, we're going good. We always do well in the major team time trials. Personally I don't know the course because I wasn't meant to be here. We'll have to ride it during the rest day and decide our positioning properly."
His compatriot Marco Pinotti played down the chances of HTC-Columbia who won last year's opening team time trial in Venice. The American team doesn't have the likes of Michael Rogers, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Thomas Löfkvist anymore but still features good specialists with Adam Hansen and Frantisek Rabon. "We have a competitive team and we won't be far I think," Pinotti said. "But I still believe Garmin and Sky are the favourites."
Like Astana, Saxo Bank has also given positive signs of competitiveness during the first three days of the Giro d'Italia. They also had three riders in the front group of 29 at the end of stage 3 with Baden Cooke and Laurent Didier accompanying best young rider Richie Porte who lays in second place on the general classification with the same time as Vinokourov.
Track specialist Michael Mørkøv will be a great help. He's at the beginning of his first Grand Tour and doesn't feel any pain in his right knee anymore, which is something that worried him in March in the lead up to the corsa rosa.
"This will be my first team time trial as a professional," the Danish rider said. "But I've done it at national championship level and I love it. We'll have a super motivation to defend Richie's white jersey."
Who knows, the Australian rookie could as well end up in pink in Cuneo but the competition is widely open with David Millar being only at one second on GC and Nibali at five.