Talking Tactics: Key factors in determining the Giro winner

Rather than look back on the Ardennes, this week I’m going to look forward to the Giro d’Italia, which starts in Naples in just ten days’ time. This year’s edition looks set to be as close and unpredictable as 2012’s. There’s no doubting the class present in the field, and the outcome of the race will depend on a number of key variables. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on the five key factors which will decide the winner of the 2013 Giro.

1. The knife-edge of form

It’s generally states as ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’, with the emphasis on the second part of the statement. However, here it’s more relevant to turn the saying on its head and assess each rider’s form heading into the race. I’m not going to turn this into a detailed breakdown of each of the key contenders – that will follow on the blog during our Giro previews next week – but here are a few observations to consider.

Form is temporary. A top rider can only sustain peak form for at most 3-4 weeks before it starts to decay. We have seen a prime example of this during the spring classics season in the form of Peter Sagan, who came into top form during March’s Flandrian races but was starting to drop off as soon as April started (despite his narrow win at Brabantse Pijl) culminating in quiet showings at Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne. Similarly, Bradley Wiggins‘ all-conquering 2012 programme was based around short, sharp peaks focussed on Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Critreium du Dauphine and finally the Tour de France, with a strict training regime to manage his form in between.

Could Nibali have peaked too soon? (image: Astana)

Could Nibali have peaked too soon? (image: Astana)

You can have too much of a good thing. Conversely, it is possible to enter a big race carrying too much form. For a grand tour, where the greatest challenges lie in weeks two and three, you want to start the race on an up-tick with the aim of hitting top form somewhere in the second week. So a rider on an established hot streak potentially risks running out of form just as everyone else is coming into it.

That’s why I would sound a note of caution over Vincenzo Nibali. His overall victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and Giro del Trentino in the last six weeks have been hugely impressive. But has this been too much too soon? He will hope he has prepared himself just right but don’t be surprised if he suddenly pops in a final week which will ruthlessly seek out weakening form, with a run of three stages (18-20) which include a steep uphill time trial and then back-to-back summit finishes.

Lack of results does not necessarily mean poor preparation. The main question mark over Wiggins’ is his lack of results this year. He appeared uninterested at the Tour of Oman before a reasonable showing at last month’s Volta a Catalunya, where he was fifth overall, a placing he matched at the Giro del Trentino last week. At both races he showed enough flashes to suggest his form is developing and that he has been working on finding another gear in the mountains. Given Sky’s rigorous out-of-race training programmes, I suspect he’s close to where he needs to be and will peak on cue. Whether that will be enough for him to win is another matter.

Evans - not in top form yet, but is it coming? (image: Panache)

Evans – not in top form yet, but is it coming? (image: Panache)

Like Wiggins, a number of other top Giro contenders have had low-profile early seasons. Cadel Evans was also at Trentino and looked a little short of where he needed to be but fought well to stay in touch on the decisive final stage to finish eighth overall. If he has judged his preparation right, those crucial final watts of power which were missing last week will arrive in May.

And Samuel Sanchez has only participated in two major stage races this season – Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta al Pais Vasco – but a second place on a key mountain stage at the latter suggests that he too is heading into form at the right time.

Of course, all the above is supposition, with the observer’s judgement filling in the gaps in the scarce data we have available to us. It’s certainly much more difficult to tell whether a rider performing at 95% is developing form or just in plain bad form than it is to spot one who has peaked and is now on the downward slope. But hey, that’s part of the fun, right?

2. The parcours

In any grand tour, the balance of the parcours can have a signficant influence. For instance, compare last year’s Vuelta a Espana, with its ten summit finishes, with the Tour de France, which had just two high mountain finishes and two long time trials. The Vuelta route was built for pure, explosive climbers, whereas the Tour was designed to favour those as adept at racing against a clock as they are speeding uphill. No surprise, then, that the winners of those respective races were Alberto Contador and Bradley Wiggins.

This year’s Giro route offers up a tricky conundrum which sits somewhere between the two and indeed offers encouragement for both grimpeurs and rouleurs. There are five summit finishes for the climbers to attack and build an advantage, but these are preceded by a 55.5km individual time trial, where some will lose four minutes or more, and a shorter team time trial, in which climbers’ teams frequently lack power. Intriguingly, three stages from the finish we also have a 19.4km time trial with over 1,000 metres of ascending. This could be wide-open: some pure climbers will do well, others will struggle, while all-rounders such as Wiggins and Evans, who are accomplished but not explosive climbers, will certainly excel.

Genuine contenders will need to be in top form to conquer days such as the penultimate stage 20

The penultimate stage 20 is definitely a climbers’ day, but will a climber or an all-rounder hold the advantage overall?

Overall though, based on the parcours alone, my gut-feel is that this is a year which will favour great climbers/good time-trialists over good climbers/great time-trialists. That puts Nibali at a slight advantage but also Sanchez and perhaps even defending champ Hesjedal. The likes of Wiggins and Evans will look to bank maximum advantage in the two early time trials and then defend their positions in the mountains.

3. The team

It’s still possible for a rider to win with a merely decent team – Contador has won many of his grand tours with squads which were far from the strongest in the peloton – but, of course, it helps. The Wiggins-Froome one-two in France last summer had its foundations in a Sky squad which was, man-for-man, clearly superior to any of their rivals’. Certainly, the final gap to third-placed Nibali of over six minutes was more down to the limitations of his Liquigas-Cannondale team than his own. Having a strong team allows a leader to conserve energy and reduce the threat of attacks from others. Sky set the template for this at the Tour, forcing other teams to shed their support riders on key climbs and with Froome always at Wiggins’ side.

Sky won’t have their A-team at the Giro, but Wiggins will certainly not be lacking for support as he will have both Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran – both of whom raced the Giro last year and finished in the top nine – alongside him. They will expect to dominate in the early TTT, where both Nibali’s Astana and Hesjedal’s Garmin-Sharp are also strong and Sanchez’s Euskaltel-Euskadi team – who are to time-trialling what elephants are to ballet – will concede unhelpful chunks of time. Whether any of this trio (or indeed anyone else) can match Sky’s strength in depth across the three weeks is questionable. Most likely, this is the one key area where Wiggins will have a distinct advantage.

4. Confidence

Bradley Wiggins winning a sprint in Romandie (image courtesy of Team Sky)

Will a lack of victories in 2013 dent Wiggo’s confidence? (image: Sky)

Another intangible! If you believe everything coming out of the Sky camp at the moment – and I take it all with a pinch of salt – Wiggins’ pre-Giro testing numbers are better than they were pre-Tour last year. That may be true, but even if it is that counts for little once the flag drops and battle is joined. Last year Wiggins sailed into the Tour knowing he could win, off the back of his three earlier confidence-boosting wins. This year he doesn’t have the security of strong performances to underpin him and he will enter the Giro merely thinking he can win. That final sliver of confidence might end up being the one thing standing between a good race and a winning one for him.

Nibali, on the other hand, must have (if you’ll excuse the pun) sky-high confidence right now. He beat a world-class field including Froome at Tirreno-Adriatico last month. He beat a strong field including Wiggins at Trentino last week. Even if his form does tip over the edge in the final week, confidence can take a rider to places his body alone can’t. It could be enough to transform the Sicilian from a serial podium finisher to a Giro champion.

5. Luck

Just because. A crash in the peloton. An unfortunate mechanical at the base of a climb. Food poisoning. Any number of things. This is the last of my five key factors, but don’t for one minute think it’s the least.

Conclusion

All the above proves is that we cannot be certain of anything going into the Giro. But the one thing it does demonstrate is that winning a grand tour is not just a case of the riders showing up and the best man winning. There are many factors at play, many of them indiscernible to the eye, and some of which may not surface until the crucible environment of the closing stages. But we will be privy to a game of ebb and flow, where the strongest rider at the end of the race is not necessarily the strongest rider going into it – or indeed the strongest rider half-way through it. Again, last year’s Vuelta was the perfect example. Who was the strongest rider three-quarters of the way through the race? Joaquim Rodriguez. Who won? Alberto Contador. If we get a battle half as good in May, the Giro will be spectacular. Over to you, guys.

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