It seems strange to think it now, but Alberto Contador's Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double attempt was inspired in part by the notion that this year's corsa rosa boasted a relatively benign opening week of racing, ideal for a man looking to peak again in July.
As Contador was helped into the pink jersey at Abetone on Wednesday afternoon, he must have been wondering how much, precisely, this Giro is going to squeeze out of him. Nobody could have anticipated that the race would be so tough so soon, and while the time gaps at the business end of the general classification are still tight, there is a sense too that the battle for overall victory has already been reduced to just three riders.
Certainly, Contador, Fabio Aru (Astana) and Richie Porte (Team Sky) are the only of the pre-race favourites who can declare themselves pleased with how the opening five stages have panned out. On the climb of Biassa on stage 4 and again in the finale at Abetone, that troika seemed in a league of their own, as they matched one another blow for blow but quickly distanced the rest of their overall rivals.
Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep), for instance, is very much on the back foot, steadily haemorrhaging time and already 1:22 down on Contador. 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) is more than six minutes behind, while Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is out of the race altogether, having crashed on stage 3.
The rate of attrition is higher than anyone anticipated, though mercifully, the next two stages ought to provide a degree of respite. "Nobody expected three days as tough as this, but when the race is on you have to accept it and give it everything," Astana's Dario Cataldo said on Wednesday evening. "I think tomorrow there'll be plenty of riders looking for a bit of a breather."
Contador himself has already intimated that he will be looking to farm out his maglia rosa to a willing breakaway on stage 6 – and procure an ally or two of circumstance for himself into the bargain – but nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted in this breathless opening week of the Giro. As the dust settles on the opening five days of racing, Cyclingnews takes a look at the lie of the land among the Big Four of pre-race favourites.
Contador began his Giro with a fine team time trial performance and his Tinkoff-Saxo squad seemed set to continue to live up their reputation as the strongest in the race as they controlled affairs on the twisting coastal roads in the opening days. It will be a concern, however, that they have been outmatched by Astana in the past two days, and the Kazakhstani team's forcing left Contador surprisingly isolated at La Spezia. At Abetone on Wednesday, Contador decided that attack was the best form of defence, responding to Astana's pace-setting by ripping clear alone. Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing notwithstanding, Roman Kreuziger (fourth at 22 seconds) is a redoubtable ally.
Best moment: His acceleration at Abetone
Worst moment: The absence of his Tinkoff-Saxo team – Roman Kreuziger excepted – in the finale at La Spezia.
Like Contador, Aru began with a solid team time trial in San Remo, and the strength in depth of his Astana team has been particularly striking, with Diego Rosa, Paolo Tiralongo, Dario Cataldo, Mikel Landa and Tanel Kangert, who all trained together at Sestriere in the build-up to the race, all operating at a startlingly high collective level of performance. Manager Giuseppe Martinelli denied that their express aim was to isolate Contador from his teammates, but it is striking that the team is doing so much so soon. Aru is benefitting from their work, but so too, perhaps, is Vincenzo Nibali. Contador is being forced to race far sooner than he might have liked at this Giro.
Best moment: His attack on stage 4, the strength of his team.
Worst moment: The two minutes after every stage when he is swarmed by Italian television crews.
Porte's Sky squad kicked off their Giro with a surprisingly low-key showing in the team time trial and the men in black have been conspicuous by their absence at some important junctures thus far, with only Leopold König (12th at 1:24) offering reliable support late on. Porte himself, however, has been faultless. He responded promptly to Aru's attack on stage 4 and to Contador's the following day, before opting to respond in kind. With the lengthy Valdobbiadene time trial still to come, the Australian will be more than satisfied with his showing to date.
Best moment: His calm in the face of Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo's various shows of forcing
Worst moment: Sky's lacklustre team time trial on the opening day
Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep) – 12th at 1:22 minute
After successive second place finishes at the Giro, Uran arrived here with only victory in mind but he is already clutching to the stage 14 time trial to resurrect his race following a disappointing opening five days. To lose time once, as he did at La Spezia, could be an accident. To do so again at Abetone suggests a trend, and Uran will surely be gladder than anyone of a couple of days of détente among the overall contenders as he looks to steady the ship. He cannot afford a further slip up on Saturday's stage to Campitello Matese, even if on Wednesday night he struck an optimistic note about his chances of recouping time in the final week.
Best moment: Uran will hope that it is yet to come, perhaps in the Valdobbiadene time trial
Worst moment: Losing ground on successive days in the opening week is a significant blow
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