Let's face it, the beauty and spectacle of the Giro d'Italia, and the nation which hosts (most of) it, makes us root for a great race. At its best, the Giro is full of wonderful quirks combined with the best that a grand tour can/must provide -- soaring peaks, massive physical challenges and a shared give-a-shit factor that makes it all worthwhile. Just dropping 21 stages on the Italian map will accomplish the first few items, but it takes a little extra for a race in the shadow of the Tour to pull off that last one.
This year's Giro has been a stonking affair in large part because of that last one. The level of competition is well beyond the all-too-frequent collection of motivated Italians (who go missing in July) and foreigners just getting in their miles. The appearance of Bradley Wiggins, reigning Tour de France champion, is part of that, but so too are the depths of teams on hand. So too is the fact that the biggest Italian star, current maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali, is racing for a foreign outfit, giving powerful Astana a bigger presence than they might otherwise seek. So too is having a defending Canadian champion, intent (along with his team) on another triumph. These aren't factors you can count on every year, and they were all but nonexistent in the
Armstrong Era. So, welcome back, give-a-shit factor!
Who's Up? I mean, really up?
1. Everyone who cares about the Giro and is not associated with a particular team or rider
Seriously, it doesn't get much more fun in week 1 than this. Oh, and note to Signore Aquarone, this southern swing is almost always the best way to start out. Yes, I am biased, and if you want to swirl around Belfast for a few days, I'm sure we'll be entertained. But whenever possible, a turn around the Mezzogiorno gives the race excellent terrain, a slightly more peaceful buildup, and a chance for the fans to take in the whole of Italy.
Anyway, we knew ahead of time that this would be an unusually well-contested Giro. What we didn't know was whether it would be a blowout or not. Now we know. Yay!
Astana, number one for time triallists. All other teams have inferior time triallists.
Overlooked behind Vincenzo Nibali's very tidy first week is the performance of Tanel Kangert, who actually pipped the Shark for third on the long crono stage Saturday, by 7 seconds, and now sits threateningly at 3:02, tenth on GC. Should he be on form in week three, he gives Nibali a lieutenant that the other teams will have to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, Fabio Aru dropped 20 minutes, giving Nibali a lieutenant he can send up the road on long breakaways if need be. Overall, the team is intact and presumably ready to defend the jersey.
3. Cadel Evans
I'll name Cuddles here instead of his team, but you can look at it either way. Evans performed well on the long crono and otherwise showed his veteran savvy throughout the first week, always being where he needed to be, en route to a lead in the points competition and a real shot at the maglia rosa. Personally, I'm counting more on the former than the latter in the long run, but can you ever rule Evans out of anything? Doesn't hurt having Santaromita and Morabito riding well by his side. For all that BMC don't do in the classics, while waiting for SuperPhil to arrive, they are much sharper when it comes to managing matters in the grand tours.
4. Blanco and Gesink
No doubt if Blanco are in negotiations with sponsors to keep the dream of a Dutch Cycling Hegemony (beyond Vos) alive, that's something that was already happening, so winning the Giro d'Italia won't make a sponsor suddenly fall from a tree. But it will perhaps convince a skeptical sponsor to say yes, or a likely sponsor to increase their investment. True fans of Gesink have always known that he could ride a solid time trial, occasional blips (ages ago) notwithstanding, so it's no surprise that he didn't get blown out Saturday. It's a very nice surprise that the alleged bike-handling-challenged Condor of Varsseveld made it thru a devilish eight days in excellent shape, just one minor slip that I can recall, and he now is pointed toward the type of terrain where he can do some actual damage to his rivals. Having Kelderman in white is nice, and Kruijswijk might still be a factor before we're done. Certainly, there's teamwork for him to do.
5. Vini Fantini/Katusha
I don't expect this to last, but then again, the Giro quite frequently plucks an Italian from the "climber who can't extend three weeks" file, even in the hardest Giri, and drops him on the podium. Mauro Santambrogio, anyone? Also, Vini Fantini did a very nice job of getting on camera, even if we all know that Fabio Taborre can't finish what he started.
Katusha might also slip into irrelevance as the race wears on, but two stage wins and a turn in pink was a nice reward for their determined spring campaign.
OK, now who's down?
1. Ryder Hesjedal
Nobody did more damage to their top-level GC candidacy than Hesjedal, who struggled on the final climb yesterday and punted another minute, on top of the 2:23 he dropped in the crono (2:13 to Wiggins). And the time itself isn't the issue, it's how he looks on the bike. This is the guy who literally tore up Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Apparently Hesjedal is talking up his fitness, ascribing his losses to some brief power outages. But he's not the climber that Nibali or Gesink is, so his margin for error in week 1 was a lot smaller than everyone else's, given the terrain ahead.
Oh, and the rest of his team hasn't been much better. Tom Danielson is hanging around the relevance fringe, and Peter Stetina may be saving his climbing legs for week 3, but David Millar couldn't help out this week when he was needed most.
2. Team Sky
After a no-good, very-bad, dogshit first week, Wiggins sits in fourth place, 1.16 down. The reason he and his team are counted as "down" for this column is that at least two of the guys ahead of him are people he needed to draw blood from in the crono -- Nibs and Bobo -- and those superior climbers have Wiggins about where they'd like him to be. The other reason is that his wet descending was so pitiful. And there was nothing he and his powerful team could do to stop the bleeding.
But don't hear what I'm not saying. While they've squandered their expected strategic advantage, Sky and Wiggins are still in excellent shape. I've been reading "My Time" in my few free moments, and Wiggo talks there about his experience in the Vuelta two years ago, where he got the lead but couldn't hold it on the Angliru. The Lion of Lancashire likes the 6% gradients of the French Alps more than the 20% gradients of the Picos de Europa (amen bro!). Well, if his fitness is there, and I think it is, Wiggins will have a chance to use his team and his own ability to tap out a rhythm to dangerous effect in the upcoming French stages. Should he gain any time on Nibali or Gesink, then he may only need to hold their wheels in the more threatening Dolomite stages, and stomp the uphill ITT, to win.
Me, I am enjoying the Education of Sir Bradley. There's more to the sport than velodromes and French highways. I'm sure he knew this coming in and subjected himself to this very vulnerable position, for kicks and for the chance to get better at it. Win or lose, Wiggins will be a better rider by the time we reach Brescia.
3. Mark Cavendish
I've covered his Points Prospects before and they aren't good. In fact, they got worse yesterday when Evans won another sprint out of the Bigs gruppetto, showing both the interest in and ability to win the maglia rosso passione! Cav's new margin of error is approximately... nonexistent.
I'm not sure they're doing any less than their best, but it's tough for an Italian squad of their stature to be so undergeared for their home tour. Viviani needs to get a stage on a day where Cavendish can't make the finale, starting perhaps Thursday, to get them the face-saving they need right now.
Hm, Arnold Jeanneson's abandonment yesterday wiped out a pretty good-looking first week. Maybe it's best he save it for July. Also, Bouhanni hasn't come close to a stage, despite some decent chances. C'est la vie a Italie.