As Vincenzo Nibali joined Alberto Contador, Ryder Hesjedal and Mark Cavendish in a cookery demonstration to kick off the presentation of the 2013 Giro d'Italia, Bradley Wiggins haunted their feast like Banquo's ghost.
Wiggins was not on hand in Milan on Sunday, but his was the name on everyone's lips when the curtain went up on the route of next year's Giro. With over 92 kilometres of time trialling on the menu, the Giro organisers could scarcely have done more to try and entice the reigning Tour de France champion to their race.
55.5km of that total comes in one fell swoop on stage 8 from Gabicce Mare to Saltara, while there is also a 17.4km team trial on stage 2 and a 19.4km mountain time trial to Polsa four days from the finish. After coming up short against the metronomic Sky pairing of Wiggins and Chris Froome at the Tour last July, Vincenzo Nibali is all too aware of the dangers posed by the marginal gains school of cycling.
"It looks like a great Giro, and the only off-key note for me might be the 55km time trial," Nibali said. "I'll need to work an awful lot on time trialling in the meantime. I could see from last year's Tour that riders like Wiggins and Froome can make up a lot of time there. It's certainly the most dangerous stage for me."
Asked if he expected Wiggins to be on the start line in Naples on May 4, Nibali stressed that it was too soon to tell. "I don't know his plans. Hey, I haven't even made my own plans yet," Nibali joked.
"I suppose we'll have to wait for the unveiling of the Tour and the Vuelta and then the various leaders will decide what they're doing. But with a long time trial like that, plus a team time trial and a mountain time trial, the Giro could be a good choice for Wiggins alright."
Tre Cime di Lavaredo
While the amount of time trialling miles was the most striking novelty of the 2013 Giro d'Italia route, many of the traditional trademarks remain firmly in place. Chief among them is the top heavy final week of racing, which features two tapponi in the last three days.
Stage 19 brings the race over the Gavia and Stelvio en route to a summit finish at Val Martello, while the following day, the riders must tackle no fewer than five passes, including the final haul to Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Nibali believes these final tests in the Dolomites will prove more decisive than the previous weekend's much-heralded summit finish atop the Col du Galibier.
"The Galibier is a stage that will provide a lot of spectacle, but I still reckon the most important and most decisive part of the race will be the final week and especially the stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo," he said.
"But in general, there's a good mixture of stages, and a lot them are days that could suit attacks from distance. You've got long stages, short stages, so I think it's a very balanced Giro that's been designed very well. On top of that, the rest days have been placed on the right days. It will be very competitive."
Nibali, of course, missed the Giro in 2012 in order to focus on the Tour de France. As he prepares to swap Liquigas-Cannondale for Astana over the winter, the Sicilian has yet to formalise his racing programme, but it seems likely that he will return to the Giro next year. After podium finishes in 2010 and 2011, the soon-to-be 28-year-old has eyes only for pink.
"I'm just missing that last step," Nibali winced, when asked about his chances. "Year after year, I'm up there and fighting. This year at the Tour, I did ok in the time trials and rode very well in the climbs and went on the attack. I'm not a guy who makes big predictions, but we'll see."
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