With five days to go to the start of the Giro d’Italia, Cyclingnews takes a look at the form of the main contenders and their chances of overall success in this year's race.
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Season to date: As he amassed victory upon victory early last season, Wiggins’ lament that journalists kept asking him if he had peaked too soon quickly became more tedious than the question itself. There’s been precious little danger of that this time around, as Wiggins has been far more low-key, completing just three stage races and failing to register a win.
That said, the Englishman did not seem stretched as he rode to fifth place at the Volta Catalunya in March and his climbing appeared to have gone up another notch by the time he hit the Dolomites at the Giro del Trentino. In between those two races, he had spent a lengthy spell training in Mallorca, and the signs are that his work there is paying out more than marginal dividends.
Final preparations: Wiggins’ last competitive outing before the Giro was at Trentino, and his race went to plan until his bike failed him on the final climb to Sega di Ala and he finished fifth overall. Either side of Trentino, Wiggins carried out reconnaissance of a number of the Giro d'Italia key stages, including the summit finish to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the 54.8km time trial on the Adriatic coast, where he was reported to be concerned by the condition of the road surface. Wiggins returns to Italy on Wednesday, three before the race.
Strengths: The long time trial at the end of week one presents Wiggins with a golden opportunity to take control of the pink jersey, and he demonstrated his capability to defend a lead in the mountains at last year’s Tour de France. Since finishing 134th in the 2008 Giro at the age of 28, Wiggins has undergone a transformation as a rider and is now a complete Grand Tour rider.
Weaknesses: Wiggins has a number of very able lieutenants in his Giro line-up, but Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers – his three key men in France last July – are not on hand this time around. Defending the overall lead for (potentially) the last two weeks of the race would be a big ask for Team Sky.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Season to date: Nibali has raced more often (27 days) and taken more wins than any of his fellow contenders for final overall victory. The Sicilian was solid if unspectacular at the Tour de San Luis and Tour of Oman, and looked set for more of the same at Tirreno-Adriatico before he turned the race on its head with an attacking display on the rain-soaked stage to Porto Sant’Elpidio.
As if that defiance of Team Sky’s dominance hadn’t heartened Nibali enough, he followed up with victory over Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino. The pair fought out a score draw on the first summit finish at Vetriolo Terme but Nibali was impressive in the way he won at Sega di Ala, even if Wiggins’ mechanical problems meant that there was to be no face off on the steep climb to the finish.
Final preparations: Immediately after Trentino, Nibali hopped on a plane for Belgium in a bid to add Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his palmares, but could only manage 23rd in what was, by his own admission, a tired performance. Nibali spent the week since at an altitude training camp with his teammates in the southern Apennines in Campocatino.
Strengths: Though a strong climber, Nibali will be mindful that he never really put Wiggins in real difficulty at last year’s Tour de France. But he showed at Tirreno-Adriatico that he can put his aggressive instincts to use in inventive ways. A natural attacker and a fearless descender, Nibali has the potential to eke out vital seconds on his rivals away from the set-piece mountain stages. His Astana team looked the strongest at the Giro del Trentino.
Weaknesses: Nibali has time trialing pedigree from his amateur days but he knows he is destined to lose significant time to Wiggins in the Saltara time trial. The timing of Nibali’s attacks has not always been the most astute in the past, although he did a nice turn in measuring his efforts during the second half of his victorious Vuelta a España in 2010.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)
Season to date: Why change a winning formula? Hesjedal kept a low profile in the opening months of last season and he has followed a similar template this time around, right down to the sustained show of form at the Ardennes Classics and the early abandon at the Tour de Romandie.
After spending much of the winter in Hawaii, Hesjedal began his 2013 campaign late and with anonymous displays at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country, but was a different man at the Ardennes classics. An aggressive presence at the Amstel Gold Race, Hesjedal then acted as a domestique deluxe for winner Dan Martin in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège the following Sunday.
Final preparations: Hesjedal’s final outing prior to the Giro was the Tour de Romandie, where he opted to pull out on stage 3 after making little impression on the race, although he insisted that he was feeling better than he was at the same point twelve months ago.
Strengths: At last year’s Giro d'Italia, Hesjedal limited his losses on his bad days (Pian dei Resinelli) and chose his moments to attack on his good days (Cervinia and Alpe di Pampeago). He will need to be just as intelligent this time around. With Wiggins and Nibali the outstanding favourites, Despite being defending champion, Hesjedal might be able to fly under the radar and hit out for pink late in the race.
Weaknesses: Though a solid time trialist, Hesjedal is going to concede time to Wiggins at Saltara, and he is not as explosive as Nibali in the mountains.
Cadel Evans (BMC)
Season so far: Evans began 2013 adamant that the Tour de France was the centre-piece of his season and that he – and not Tejay van Garderen – would be BMC’s leader in July. The hierarchy at the team seems to have shifted in the intervening months, with Evans’ low-key displays at the Tirreno-Adriatico and Critérium International prompting a rethink of his schedule. At the end of March he announced that he would ride the Giro “not as training but to get back to my best level.”
Final preparations: Evans showed some signs of life at the Giro del Trentino, his final race before the Giro d'Italia. His eighth place finish went largely unnoticed amid the hubbub of Nibali’s victory and Wiggins’ mechanical, but he put in a determined display to finish fifth on the steep climb to Sega di Ala. That result was born more of perspiration than inspiration and it’s hard to see how the 36-year-old can conjure up victory over Wiggins, Nibali et al.
Strengths: Solid in the mountains and against the clock, Evans is also consistent over three weeks. He has been there and done that, most notably at the 2011 Tour de France. His unspectacular two years since mean that he will have a freer rein than he did at his last Giro in 2010.
Weaknesses: Evans pinned the blame for his disappointing 2012 Tour on illness but 2013 has scarcely been better for the veteran Australian. This Giro will provide an indication of whether Evans’ decline is terminal.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale)
Season so far: Abysmal. A brief flourish at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali aside, Basso has been an anonymous figure in 2013. He began his campaign with a non-descript showing at Paris-Nice and was lagging well behind the level of Evans at the Giro del Trentino (19th), never mind that of Nibali and Wiggins. He claims he has been training hard, including a spell at Teide. but there has been little sign it has worked so far.
Final preparations: Basso’s final outing before the Giro was the Tour de Romandie and it was in keeping with the tenor of his season to date. Lying a lowly 62nd overall, Basso opted not to ride the final time trial on Sunday. That said, Basso was similarly lacklustre at Romandie three years ago before somehow locating the condition necessary to win the Giro immediately afterwards. At 35 years of age, however, there is a sense that Basso has been to the well once too often.
Strengths: In times past, Basso placed great store on his diesel engine and it was his reserves in the final week of racing that won him the 2010 Giro d’Italia. Since then he has climbed solidly for the opening halves of the 2011 Tour and 2012 Giro only to come up short in the final week.
Weaknesses: Since returning from suspension for his links to the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation (bags of his blood were found in Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ freezer in Madrid in 2006, the year of his first Giro d'Italia win), Basso has curiously forgotten how to time trial. In spite of the strength of his Liquigas team in the mountains at last year’s Giro, Basso was repeatedly exposed as lacking in ideas and explosiveness once his last man swung off.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida)
Season to date: Suspended for the three months during the off-season after admitting to undergoing tests with Dr. Michele Ferrari, Scarponi was withheld from racing by his own team in the early weeks of the season, allegedly because new sponsor Merida was concerned of a flood of negative publicity.
After some tough contract renegotiation and a reported significant cut in salary, Scarponi was welcomed back into the fold in time for the GP Camaiore in late February, before lining up at Paris-Nice. By the Volta a Catalunya, he was back in the thick of the action, finishing third behind Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), although he followed that up with an anaemic performance in the mountains at the Giro del Trentino, which came after a spell of training on Mount Etna.
Final preparations: Scarponi’s yo-yo spring continued at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he rode to fifth place at La Doyenne just 48 hours after finishing Trentino. Like Wiggins and Nibali, Scarponi opted not to ride the Tour de Romandie.
Strengths: A solid climber, Scarponi is most at home on hilly and medium mountain stages, and the opening two weeks of the Giro contain a number opportunities for the Italian.
Weaknesses: Scarponi’s Giro challenge could suffer a fatal blow in his native Marche during the time trial at the end of week one.
Robert Gesink (Blanco)
Season so far: With Blanco eager to attract a title sponsor to replace the departed Rabobank, Gesink began the season with the express mission to claim some early publicity for the squad. He was in the mix at the Vuelta Murcia (fourth) in February, although he abandoned Paris-Nice, his major early-season objective, citing illness. The Dutchman bounced back to finish 6th at the Volta a Catalunya, one place behind Wiggins. Gesink then went almost an entire month without racing before the Tour de Romandie, opting to forgo Amstel Gold Race in order to undertake a lengthy training camp at altitude on Mount Teide.
Final preparations: After his hiatus in Tenerife, Gesink returned to action with a distinctly low-key showing at the Tour de Romandie, finishing in 54th place overall and cheerily admitting that he treated the final time trial as a rest day before the Giro. Unlike Wiggins, Gesink eschewed carrying out detailed reconnaissance of the Giro’s mountain stages, telling Wieler Revue: “You should not overestimate these explorations. In my first Vuelta I knew no climb and I was seventh.”
Strengths: Gesink is a fine climber and usually a consistent performer over three weeks – provided that he avoids crashes. At 26 years of age, the eternal promise is at an age where he ought to start delivering and the strength of his team at the Giro d'Italia should not be under-estimated, with Wilco Kelderman (fifth at Romandie) and Steven Kruijswijk flanking him.
Weaknesses: Crashes have ruined three of Gesink’s four Tour de France participations to date, and his first challenge will be staying out of trouble in the frantic opening days of his debut at the Giro. Like many others, he will concede ground to Wiggins in the first time trial.