Final overall victory at the Giro d’Italia may usually fall to the best-equipped individual, but the scare Alberto Contador endured at the hands of Astana’s collective might last year was a stark illustration of the importance of the team.
Running the rule over the support available to the favourites for this year’s crown on Thursday morning, Gazzetta dello Sport trumpeted Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana team as the pick of the race, but questioned the Sky squad at the disposal of Mikel Landa. “Astana has the strongest team. Landa, who’s helping you?” read the headline.
While Sky has a solid team at this Giro – Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and Mikel Nieve have all finished in the top ten of Grand Tours, after all – it is true that the line-up supporting Landa is not as star-studded as was originally planned when he arrived at the British squad last winter.
For one reason or another, no fewer than three of the men originally slated to play key roles in Landa’s Giro bid were unable to make it to the start in Apeldoorn, with Leopold König, Beñat Intxausti and Sergio Henao were all ruled out in the weeks leading up to the race.
König began his season as normal with consistent showings at the Challenge Mallorca and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana but has not raced since finishing in 10th place overall in Valencia on February 7.
6th overall in last year’s Giro – and 7th in the previous year’s Tour de France – König’s absence from the Sky roster during the spring was the source of some puzzlement in the Czech press, due to an initial lack of information on the matter.
Sky manager Dave Brailsford told Cyclingnews on Thursday that König had suffered the recurrence of a knee injury, and had travelled to the United Kingdom to receive treatment during his time away from racing.
König has recently resumed training and there is a possibility that he might return to action at the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, though lining out at Chris Froome’s side at the Tour de France seems unlikely at this juncture.
Intxausti and Henao
Beñat Intxausti arrived at Sky from Movistar during the off-season and was expected to be a key lieutenant for his fellow Basque Landa at the Giro, but, like König, he has not raced since the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February.
Side-lined by mononucleosis, Intxausti initially sounded an optimistic note about his prospects of making it to the Giro, but in early March conceded that he would be in any condition to line out at the corsa rosa. As of this week, no date for his return to the peloton has been pencilled in.
The third missing element from Sky’s Giro team, of course, is Henao, who was withdrawn from racing ahead of Flèche Wallonne after the UCI’s anti-doping arm the CADF sought an explanation from the Colombian after highlighting a “potential anti-doping violation” based on the blood profile from his biological passport.
Henao had 20 days to respond to the UCI and, supported by Team Sky, he logged his submission on Monday. The team had previously withdrawn Henao from racing in March 2014, when it announced its plans to study the effects of living and training at altitude on his blood values following an anomalous blood sample from the previous October.
After the so-called ‘altitude research programme,’ Henao returned to racing at that year’s Tour de Suisse and Sky contacted the CADF and WADA with its findings. The study was carried out by researchers at Sheffield University, who have not yet published their findings in an academic journal. Dave Brailsford preferred not to comment on the case – or, indeed, the Giro itself – on Thursday.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.