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Handicapping the Maglia Nera

Several of the competitions are about to turn upside down as the Giro d'Italia hits the Dolomites starting tomorrow. Daniele Bennati will be locked into an internal struggle to haul himself to Milan in the points jersey, possibly even needing to fend off a surge from Riccardo Riccò or another of the mountains contenders. Emanuele Sella has had the mountains jersey all to himself, at least until he handed it to his dad today, but his 37 points are an amuse bouche compared to the scores of KOM points still left on the road. The young rider prize will almost certainly slip out of Visconti's hands, with a gaggle of youthful climbers ready to pull it on, led by Nibali but with Riccò breathing down his neck.

And then there's the maglia nera. It's been a two-man race so far, but the caboose will be swelling with bodies over the next nine days. Plus, the mountains stages offer an added complication: the danger of falling too far back and being eliminated. Frankly, this competition hasn't really taken shape yet, the early stages lacking the elimination danger that defines a true Black Jersey. Recall, the origins of slow-riding competition go back to the 19th century, when prizes were given for covering short distances in the longest time, without falling. Anyone can sit still and do nothing; these competitions, like the upcoming mountain stages, were about accomplishing something, in the largest time possible. Anyway, the contenders:

  • Ermanno Capelli, Saunier Duval -- This youngster has burst onto the scene from nowhere to launch a stunning maglia nera campaign. Except for a brief blunder in stage 11 when he came in 119th, he has consistently placed in the 170s and 180s on every stage, highlighted by dropping two more minutes in stage 12's flat affair. Inexperience could be an issue in dealing with the time cutoffs, but he's the only Italian in the contenders' list, and may know the roads better.
  • Markus Eichler, Milram -- Eichler, coming off a solid classics campaign (30th in Roubaix), is another surprise maglia nera challenger. He gave his fans a scare with his 36th place finish yesterday, while Capelli had managed to escape off the back, but Eichler rebounded today, sending a message that the race is not over. As the caboose approached the 3km neutralization zone, he jammed on his brakes and recouped an additional three seconds over a startled Capelli. With Milram mission-less, he's likely to battle for Black all the way to Milan.
  • Graeme Browne, Rabobank -- The veteran sprinter has all the elements of a maglia nera: experience, pure sprinter's stuff in a blatant climber's race, and another team on no real mission. Still, he's over 14' ahead of a determined Capelli, and at some point his sponsor will want to know if he has a realistic chance, or whether he should attempt one of the remaining sprints instead.
  • Chris Sutton, Slipstream -- Sutton overcame his team's victory in the opening Team Time Trial with some outstandingly late finishes, but I wonder if an American team, in its first Giro, can mount a serious maglia nera campaign. Already he's responded with some high finishes in this week's sprint stages, and his gap to Capelli has swelled to over 18'. This will be an uphill battle, for sure.
  • Raivis Belohvosciks, Saunier Duval -- Veteran Latvian classics rider dug himself a hole by finishing with his team in the opening TTT, though he's been impressive ever since. Still, there's a great deal of teamwork to be done, and Capelli has to be the maglia nera captain at Saunier Duval at this point. Belohvosciks gives them a card to play if Capelli falters, though.
  • Mikhail Ignatiev, Tinkoff -- Known more for winning races than anything else, the young Russian is an unlikely entrant here, and I wouldn't expect him to make a serious run with 22' in hand. More likely Petrov will put him to work, where Ignatiev can exhaust himself, but without being able to keep an eye on Capelli.
  • Lander Aperribay, Euskaltel -- Honestly, I thought he'd bagged the Urbino time trial stage with his +11'35" effort, until Browne came in a full 49" slower. More than anyone, Aperribay is free from any team duties to pursue the jersey, but I think it may be too little, too late. Being Basque means he's fairly certain to get over the mountains, should the other guys on this list miss a cutoff. I just don't know if he can climb them slowly enough.