Analysis: Handicapping the Giro field after the first week

We examine the top riders in the Giro field after the first nine days of racing

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MILAN (VN) — No one can ever accuse the Giro d’Italia of being boring. The opening nine days of racing proved yet again that the Giro rarely goes according to script.

After two full weekends of racing, there is some clarity to the GC picture. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has emerged as the man to beat. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) is not out of it yet, but he is a spooked man every time the road goes downhill. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) revealed some chinks in his typically resilient armor when he unexpectedly ceded time Sunday.

With the top-5 all stacked within 90 seconds of each other, the Giro is set up for a wild and thrilling final two weeks. Here’s a look at the “Giro big” and what they have to do to win the pink jersey:

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) — 1st

Nibali roared into the pole position, and the pink jersey, following a steady first week and an exceptional time trial effort Saturday. Nibali was lucky, however. Two crashes in the first week could have easily derailed him. Considered one of the best descenders in the pack, Nibali uncharacteristically kissed the pavement going downhill. Luckily, he was never seriously injured and never lost time. The Italian’s hard work in the offseason to improve his time trialing skills, already respectable by any measure, paid huge dividends Saturday. Though he is the first to admit it’s still a long way to Brescia, Nibali has established himself as the man to beat in this Giro.

What he has to do: More than anything, Nibali needs to capitalize on his advantage. Waiting until the final week would be a mistake, especially if Nibali has the legs now to make a move. Being aggressive too soon always has its risks, especially in a climb-heavy final half of the race like this year’s Giro, but racing too conservatively could undo his momentum he is carrying out of the time trial. He has the team to hold onto the pink jersey.

Where he can make his move: Nibali could deliver a knockout punch in Tuesday’s first major mountain summit at Montasio. While all eyes are on the final week, with the Galibier, Stelvio, Val Martello, and Tre Cime waiting like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the first real climb of this year’s Giro could prove a race-breaker. If he has the legs and the confidence in his team, Nibali could blow open the race Tuesday. It would secure his hold on the pink jersey and set the tone for the remainder of the race.

Where it can all go wrong: Nibali can be too aggressive when he doesn’t need to be. His attacks in last year’s Tour often seemed ill timed, and his crashes while descending in the first week of the Giro proved that he’s not afraid of taking chances. Riding aggressively wins races, but it can also spell doom if not administered judiciously. One more crash could end everything.

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) — 2nd at 0:29

When the Giro started, almost no one counted Evans as a serious threat for victory. The 2011 Tour de France champ revamped his racing schedule to race the Giro, in large part to chase form ahead of July. As he’s proved time and again, Evans is a tenacious and experienced veteran, with the motor to go the distance. After an underperforming 2012 season, which saw him saddled with illness and setback before riding to a disappointing seventh in his yellow jersey defense, Evans will certainly be poised to take advantage of any openings that come his way. Evans has matured over the past decade into an ever-steady, more experienced rider who is fully aware of his own capabilities. Whether he has the legs to seriously challenge for the pink jersey in the mountains remains to be seen.

What he has to do: For Evans, it’s all about surviving and hanging in there. Now that he’s in a good position, Evans will be riding to defend his GC spot to go into the final week with his options intact. Should Nibali drop the ball, Evans will be right there to scoop up the pink jersey.

Where he can make a move: Evans’ strong point is that he’s strong as an ox. Durability and stubbornness are his strengths. If he can hang in there and survive the super-steep climbs that are not his strong suits, Evans will be able to ride into the Dolomiti as a real threat. Nibali will have to control the inevitable attacks from other more-distant rivals, so Evans can ride Nibali’s wheel, and then try to counter-attack him. The Tour-like, 203km penultimate stage, with five hard climbs in a long mountain stage, is just the kind of grueling terrain on which Evans thrives.

Where it can all go wrong: The real question about Evans is just how deep he can go. By his own admission, he didn’t start the Giro thinking he could win. He could simply blow at any moment.

Robert Gesink (Blanco) — 3rd at 1:15

Gesink is in ideal position after coming out of the TT with a very strong performance. If the Dutch climber can avoid crashes and other mishaps that have knocked him back over the past few seasons, Gesink could easily pedal himself into the pink jersey. The brutally hard final week is ideal for Gesink’s climbing strengths.

What he has to do: Simple enough; avoid crashing. Gesink has made it through the opening week in one piece, an important milestone for the Dutchman who’s suffered a steady string of bad luck. Blanco almost has no pressure to control the race, so Gesink will be able to ride in the slipstream of his rivals and keep his tank full for the final week.

Where he can make his move: Gesink is the purest climber among the favorites, so the long, brutal climbs waiting in the final week are ideal for him. Gesink must be licking his chops when he looks at the profile of stage 19. The Gavia and Stelvio, two epic climbs, provide the perfect scenario for Gesink to make a move. The stage is short enough to provoke longer-distance attacks, so the pack should be well busted up before the final hump up Val Martello. If he’s on a good day, he could ride into pink in one shot.

Where it can all go wrong: Now that he’s out of the first week, Gesink cannot afford to let his guard down. Racing is actually less nervous in the mountains, but a few tricky transition stages rife with traps remain. One lapse of concentration and Gesink could crash out again.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky) – 4th at 1:16

The opening nine days of the Giro have delivered a heavy dose of humility to the defending Tour champ. His late-stage crash Friday threw a wrench into Sky’s strategy of carrying pink into the second half of the Giro. Even though he took time on his rivals in Saturday’s TT — a puncture certainly didn’t help — the gains were dramatically smaller than Sky was hoping for. Unable to deliver the knockout punch in the time trial, Sky and Wiggins will have to race more aggressively than ever if they want the pink jersey in Brescia. Having the Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán hanging around the top-10 will give Sky an added dimension that other teams do not enjoy. Sky can send the Colombians on the attack, forcing Astana and the others to chase, opening the door for Wiggins to make a move.

What he has to do: Attack, something that he hasn’t had to do during any of his stage race wins in 2012. Rather than fending off attacks and riding defensively, as he did in last year’s Tour, Wiggins will have to be the one going on the attack. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall inside the Sky team bus. Wiggins already admitted he’s desperately missing the presence of Sean Yates, who abruptly quit Team Sky last year after guiding Wiggins to the yellow jersey. Taking nothing away from Sky’s current crop of sport directors, Wiggins admitted he leaned heavily on Yates’ experience and tactical acumen. Wiggins will have to rely on his own wits as well as legs to stay in the game.

Where he can make his move: Despite the hiccups, Saturday proved yet again that Wiggins and time trials are like Sonny and Cher; they go well together. Although compatriot Alex Dowsett delivered the stunner, Wiggins still took gains on his rivals. If he stays in the game, the short climbing time trial in stage 18 will still provide Wiggins a chance to regain the initiative and make a surge for pink.

Where it can all go wrong: As he revealed again Sunday, Wiggins is clearly spooked on wet descents. Sunday he was lucky that he could regain contact with the lead bunch. If the weather turns lousy in the northern mountains as it typically can be, Wiggins could see his chances for the pink jersey slip away on wet, dangerous roads.

Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) — 5th at 1:24

Throughout the first week of the Giro, Scarponi seemed stuck in the mode of “one step forward, and two steps back.” If he can turn that around the second half of the race, Scarponi could be a real threat for pink. He posted an excellent time trial, by his standards, and rides into the second half of the Giro poised for a run at the maglia rosa.

What he has to do: As Bernard Hinault always says when asked what someone has to do to win the Tour, the Badger replies: “Attack, attack, attack!” Sometimes being back on GC, but not too far back, has its advantages. Scarponi has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. With Astana having to mark Wiggins and the other GC threats, Scarponi can have a free ride going into the mountains and play off the moves of the others.

Where he can make his move: Stage 14, which ends up the very steep ramps at Bardonecchio, is ideal for Scarponi’s punchy, aggressive racing style. He will not be able to make one knockout blow; instead, he will try to regain the advantage in a series of shorter, but effective punches. Time bonuses will play to his advantage.

Where it can all go wrong: If the Giro turns into a grinder, things could go sideways for Scarponi. He reacts well to changes in rhythm and attacks, but wilts under higher, relentless pacing. If Sky takes control of the race and starts to race drone-style at the front, Scarponi could blow a gasket.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) — 11th at 3:11

The defending Giro champion surprisingly lost time on wet roads coming into Firenze on Sunday. By giving up more than a minute on top of his losses in Saturday’s TT, he’s going to have to radically alter his game plan if he hopes to defend the pink jersey.

What he has to do: First off, he cannot cede any more time to his rivals. Hesjedal said he’s in better shape than he was last year, but he suffered over the weekend. Now he’s so far back in GC, Garmin will be able to play off Astana and Sky and save its matches for the critical stages in the final week. Sky will be under pressure to try to take back something on Nibali, so Garmin can ride in Astana’s slipstream and conserve its energy over the next week, allowing Hesjedal to go into the final relentless string of stages with the tank as full as realistically possible.

Where he can make his move: The Galibier. Although Hesjedal won last year’s Giro, he’s more engineered as a Tour rider. The long, steadier climbs of the Tour favor the long, lithe Canadian better than the steeper, more explosive Giro climbs. Up the Télégraphe and ending atop the Galibier, stage 15 is ideal terrain for Hesjedal to make a strong attack to gain time and ever-important momentum going into the final week.

Where it can all go wrong: His 16-second winning difference last year to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was one of the smallest in grand tour history, and it came in a Giro without finish-line time bonuses in the key mountain stages. This year, the time bonuses are back (20, 12 and 8 seconds at the line for the top-3) and they could be his undoing against a speedier finisher such as Nibali.

And the others

Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) shouldn’t be counted out as a podium threat. The skinny climber will be hunting for a stage win in the final week, and could well ride into the pink jersey on a spectacular day. … The Colombians on Sky, especially Henao, could be the Giro’s wildcard. Whether the team lets them ride for their own interests remains to be seen. They were sacrificed to help Wiggins in stage 7, but with Wiggins not riding to defend the jersey at this point, Henao could be sent on the move to pressure Astana. … Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is too far back to be a real threat for GC, so he will be focusing on trying to win a stage. The same goes for Beñat Intxausti (Movistar), who imploded in Saturday’s TT.

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