Giro d’Italia preview: Key contenders

We’ve previewed the teams. We’ve previewed the key stages. Now it’s time to cast a critical eye on the key riders to watch during the 2013 Giro d’Italia, which starts tomorrow in Naples.

The main men

If the bookmakers are to be believed, the Giro is a straight head-to-head between Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali and Sky’s Bradley Wiggins. However, I would dismiss defending champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) at your peril. For me they form a definite top three from which the 2013 winner is most likely to emerge.

There’s no doubt Nibali is the man with the hot hand. The Sicilian has finished on the podium at all three grand tours (winning the Vuelta in 2010) and comes into the Giro off the back of overall victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino, where he overcame Chris Froome and Wiggins respectively. Nibali is an explosive climber, one of the very best descenders and is also strong against the clock. The only real question marks against him are whether he can sustain his form and how well his Astana team matches up against Sky’s formidable line-up.

Nibali is the man in form (Image: Astana)

Nibali is the man in form (Image: Astana)

Wiggins has raced a light programme so far this year, making it difficult to judge his form. This is in stark contrast to 2012, where he romped to victory at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine en route to his historic victory as the first British rider to win the Tour. However, he has shown flashes here and there, and it’s hard to believe that Sky’s rigorous approach will set him up with anything other than exemplary levels of fitness. He will look to gain time in both team and individual time trials and follow wheels in the mountains, aided by Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, who finished ninth and seventh in last year’s race.

Can Hesjedal repeat his 2012 victory? (Image: official Giro website)

Can Hesjedal repeat his 2012 victory? (Image: official Giro website)

Hesjedal, like Wiggins, has shown flashes of form rather than sustained performance, with an impressive ride to set up Dan Martin for victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege his only high-profile display so far. But, again like Wiggins, he is an elite time-trialist and a far more proficient climber than many credit him with being. And, as he showed last year, he is rock solid under pressure. The presence of the experienced Christian Vande Velde, back after his six-month ban, alongside him is a huge plus.

The second wave

Behind the front three comes a bunch of riders who are all decent bets for a podium, and in the right circumstances could potentially achieve even more.

Will we see Sanchez cracking open the champagne? (Image: Susi Goetze)

Will we see Sanchez cracking open the champagne? (Image: Susi Goetze)

Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez is probably the strongest challenger to the leading trio, having centred his 2013 campaign on a race he has only ridden once before (2005, when he finished 17th). The former Olympic champion has finished third, fifth and sixth at the Tour de France, as well as both second and third at the Vuelta. He has trained more than he has raced, but like Wiggins and Hesjedal has shown glimpses of good form. His consistency across both time trials and climbs could see him quietly establish himself in the podium positions without anyone really noticing, in the style of Denis Menchov.

Sadly the field has been weakened by the late withdrawal of two-time champion Ivan Basso through injury, but 2011 winner Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) looked to be riding himself into decent form at the Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino.

Who else? Blanco’s Robert Gesink looked set to burst into the elite GC set when he finished fifth at the 2010 Tour, but a serious leg injury in 2011 slowed his progress. However, he bounced back impressively last year, winning both the queen stage and the overall at the Tour of California and then finishing sixth at the Vuelta. He has quietly produced good results so far this year. Maybe this Giro will see him take the next step?

Will we see a smile or a frown from Cadel? (Image; Danielle Haex)

Will we see a smile or a frown from Cadel? (Image; Danielle Haex)

Depending on who you listen to, BMC’s 2011 Tour champion Cadel Evans is either taking the Giro seriously or using it as a springboard to prepare himself for the Tour. Either way, while his best days are now arguably behind him, it would take a brave man to write off the gritty Aussie’s chances completely. A contender for overall victory? Probably not. A podium finish? A distinct possibility.

Beyond these four, we start to venture into the realms of the speculative. Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) is an exceptional climber on his day. Movistar’s Benat Intxausti is another who will be looking to move up a level after finishing tenth at last year’s Vuelta. And should Wiggins falter, the Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran have proven pedigree as top-ten finishers, although neither is a huge fan of time trials. The same could also be said of Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale), a talented climber who is far more comfortable riding against gradients than he is the clock.

But my eye will be on Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio. The Italian former BMC rider is blossoming as a leader on a smaller team, with strong rides to seventh at Tirreno-Adriatico and then second (behind Nibali) at the Giro del Trentino, so he has great form. He’s a small enough name to be given a degree of leeway, but talented enough to be able to defend any advantageous position he finds himself in. He’s my tip as an each-way bet at odds of 50/1 (at the time of writing).

I haven’t covered the contenders for the mountains classification separately, as the nature of the parcours makes it highly likely that the King of the Mountains ranking will end up being a shadow of the general classification.

The sprinters

In truth, this year’s Giro sprint field is as notable for its absentees – Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) – as it is for those who will take the start line tomorrow. Nonetheless, there is plenty of top talent on display, with a chance for some of the understudies and second-tier fast men to step up and make a name for themselves.

Can Degenkolb repeat his five-star Vuelta performance? (image: Susi Goetze)

Can Degenkolb repeat his five-star Vuelta performance? (image: Susi Goetze)

The two star attractions who we can expect to dominate the sprints are a pair of former HTC-Highroad teammates: Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano). 2011 world champion Cavendish is the seasoned old hand with ten Giro sprint wins under his belt, but question marks remain over his rejigged OPQS lead-out train, which has underperformed with alarming regularity so far this season.

Degenkolb had been on the fringes of the elite category for a couple of years, but announced himself to the world in a big way with five victories at last year’s Vuelta. His Argos-Shimano team will be one of the dominant sprint trains from the get-go here, and we will see an intriguing battle for supremacy on the opening week’s flat stages.

The man most likely to upset the top two is Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ). The French champion is still only 22 but possesses a formidable kick and has four wins under his belt already, including the opening stage of Paris-Nice.

Two experienced sprinters who have shown a recent return to form after a disappointing second half of 2012 are Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Francesco Chicchi (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia). Goss, the 2011 winner of Milan-San Remo, won a stage at last year’s Giro but then went ten months before his next victory at Tirreno-Adriatico. Similarly, Chicchi won several races in the first three months of 2012 but then went winless before picking up two wins at the Tour de Langkawi early this season. Both are quick enough to battle for stage wins on their own merit in the right circumstances.

Beyond that comes a selection of second-tier sprinters – some experienced, some up-and-coming – who could easily pick up a stage win should any of the bigger names falter. In no particular order, watch out for Elia Viviani (Cannondale) – who will benefit from Basso’s withdrawal by becoming the team’s sole focus – Sacha Modolo (Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox), 2012 stage winner Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Kenny Dehaes (Lotto-Belisol), Francesco Ventoso (Movistar), Giacomo Nizzolo (RadioShack-Leopard), Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff), Adam Blythe (BMC) and Leonardo Duque (Colombia).

So those are the main runners and riders. Now all we need to do is wait for the flag to drop …

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