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CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Muscat Municipality/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

GIRO D'ITALIA

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05.05.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Giro d'Italia was once known as a predominantly affair but a clear strategy to internationalize the race has paid off. For the third year in a row, two of the biggest favourites for the Italian grand tour are international stars as Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde prepare themselves for a great battle against local hero Vincenzo Nibali. The start list may not be quite as star-studded as it was two years ago but with a great mix of some of the most exciting stage race talents ready to take on the three stars, the scene is set for three weeks of great racing in Italy. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.

 

When Michele Acquarone took over the reins from Angelo Zomegnan as race director of the Giro d'Italia, he had a firm objective. He wanted to internationalize what was by many seen as a mostly Italian race in an attempt to challenge the position of the Tour de France as the world's leading bike race and the first premise for success in that regard was the attraction of more international stars to the race's line-up.

 

The effort has clearly paid off as a more balanced route design with shorter transfers, no excessive climbing and more time trialing has convinced several international stars to make the Giro a big  target of the season. In the last few years, the race has been the big objective for riders like Bradley Wiggins, Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Richie Porte and this year it is the first big objective for Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde.

 

At the same time, the Italian fans will be celebrating the welcome return of Vincenzo Nibali who goes into the race with the firm ambition of returning to the top step after his 2013 victory. He will be joined by Domenico Pozzovivo and youngster Davide Formolo in carrying the Italian flag while the likes of Rigoberto Uran, Ilnur Zakarin, Esteban Chaves, Rafal Majka, Steven Kruijswijk, Ryder Hesjedal, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Tom Dumoulin add more international flavor. The line-up may not be quite as star-studded as it was in the memorable 2014 edition but the organizers have nothing to be ashamed of as they invite the cycling world to one of the most beautiful cycling festivals of the year.

 

CyclingQuotes.com has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to five of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the big 5-star favourite.

 

Vincenzo Nibali (*****)

For several years, the cycling-mad nation of Italy has been longing for genuine Tour de France contender that could realistically challenge for the top step of the podium in Paris. 10 years ago they seemed to have found the perfect candidate but the Operacion Puerto brought an end to Ivan Basso’s hopes of ever winning the biggest race in the world.

 

Hence, Vincenzo Nibali is a godsend for a country that has been struggling for the last couple of years. By winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, he showed signs that he could go on to become a serious Tour de France contender but it was his dominant performance in the 2013 Giro d’Italia that elevated him from podium candidate to a potential winner of the race. In between his two grand tour victories he may have finished on the podium in the Giro twice and in the Tour once but in neither of those races he was close to the win.

 

That all changed in 2013 when he claimed the Giro in a superior fashion that was reminiscent of the greatest performances in the grand tours. At no point, the Italian seemed to be under pressure and his dominant stage victories in the mountain time trial and on the steep Tre Cime di Lavaredo put him up there with the very best climbers.

 

Already moments after he had stepped down from the podium in Brescia, Nibali made it clear that his intention was to target the Tour de France in 2014. Despite his impressive palmares and dominant showing, Nibali was still the outsider for the 2014 Tour which was widely expected to come down to a battle between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Both riders crashed out of the race but Nibali went on to deliver a dominant showing and claim one of the most convincing Tour victories in recent years, thus elevating himself into the very select group of riders that have won all three grand tours.

 

 Even before he had been on the podium in Paris, Nibali’s win had been questioned by cycling fans who claimed that he had only benefited from the bad luck of the pre-race favourites. However, it is an unjust assessment of Nibali’s performance. Before the race-ending crash, Nibali had followed Contador pedalstroke for pedalstroke in the first mountaintop finish in Gerardmer and compared to the rest of the rivals, he was in a class of his own throughout the entire race, only showing a brief sign of weakness in the very final metres of the Port de Bales where Thibaut Pinot briefly distanced him. Team Sky that are known for their meticulous preparation and use of data, have analyzed the numbers and admitted that it would have been hard for Froome to beat the Italian.

 

Nibali may have won the Tour but he has never done anything to hide that the Giro is the race he loves. Already last year it was clear that he would have preferred to head back to his home race instead of focusing everything on the Tour but as the defending champion, he was convinced by his team to skip the pink race. Already at that point, however, it was evident that it would just be a one-year postponement and that the country’s most decorated grand tour rider would be back in 2016.

 

Ever since he confirmed his intention to focus on the Giro, Nibali has been regarded as the top favourite but things have been far from easy for the Astana leader in the last few years. Once known as one of the most competitive and consistent riders in the peloton, it has been a bit of a gamble to put any kind of money on Nibali in recent years as he has been far from his best level for extended periods of times.

 

It all started in the early part of the 2014 season when a poor spring did nothing to suggest that he would go on to win the Tour that year. He showed the first signs of form by winning the Italian National Championships and by the time he rolled out from Leeds for the Grand Depart he was better than ever. However, Nibali struggled with the many commitments as reigning grand tour champion and when he turned up for the first Astana training camp for the 2015 season, he realized that he was far behind in his preparation. That put him on the back foot throughout the entire season and it wasn’t until the final week of the Tour de France that he finally approached his best level.

 

Since then, Nibali has been back on track. Spurred on by his critics, he was aiming for revenge at the Vuelta a Espana but it all came to a spectacular and very early end when he was expelled from the race for holding onto a team car already on the first road race.

 

The incident may have harmed his image but it proved Nibali’s true character. With rules preventing him from racing for several months, it would have been an easy decision to put an end to his season but the Astana leader was intent on proving his critics wrong. He travelled to Sicily to train hard and he ended the season in dominant fashion by winning Tre Valli Varesine and claiming his first ever monument at Il Lombardia.

 

Those results prove that Nibali is back on track and he has learned his lessons from last year’s disastrous winter. This year he trained extremely hard throughout the off-season and he was firing in all cylinders right from the start of the year. He battled through illness at the Tour de San Luis before going on to win the Tour of Oman for his best start to the season since 2013. After riding in support of Jakob Fuglsang at Strade Bianche, he was aiming for victory at Tirreno-Adriatico but the cancellation of the queen stage prevented us from seeing what he could do. That incident left him hugely frustrated and he briefly contemplated skipping the Giro as he didn’t want to risk that cancellation of key stages would take away his chance to win the race. In the end, it was more of a threat than a real plan and there has never really been any doubt that Nibali will be ready for the Grande Partenza in Apeldoorn.

 

In March, Nibali looked like he would be very hard to beat in his home race but since then things haven’t gone according to plan. When he won the race in 2013, Nibali headed to the start with lots of confidence after he had crushed the opposition at the Giro del Trentino. This year he was aiming to follow a similar formula and was ready to go for the victory in the mountainous warm-up race after he had had his usual high-altitude training camp. However, both Nibali and the Astana team were very surprised to see him getting distanced whenever the road ramped upwards and his poor state of form was confirmed when he headed to Belgium for Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

 

There is no doubt that the poor performances have raised some concerns in the Nibali plan and they were definitely not part of their plans. Instead of slowly maintaining his progression, he is now desperately trying to get back on track and there are definitely several doubts surrounding the home favourite when he heads to the Netherlands for the start.

 

However, Nibali is still the top favourite for the race which is based on a number of factors. First of all, Nibali has changed. In the past, he was always on fire before he headed to the grand tours but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. When he won the Tour de France in 2014, he was far off the pace at the Dauphiné but by the time he headed to Leeds for the Grand Depart, he was on fire. It was the same scenario in 2015 but last year he failed to get into peak condition in time for the Tour. However, that year his poor winter meant that he didn’t have the necessary basis to perform well in France. This year things are different as his strong spring season proves that he has the right foundations for doing well.

 

Furthermore, Nibali is helped by the nature of the route. This year there is only one key stage in the first week, the long time trial in stage 9. There’s an uphill finish too but it’s an easy affair that won’t do much damage. The second week is tough but as the hard stages all come in the penultimate weekend, Nibali will have plenty of time to build his condition. The key stages are all gathered in the final third of the race and so there will be plenty of time to get back to 100% like he did for the final week of last year’s Tour de France.

 

Secondly, the nature of the course suits him really well. He may not be a time trial specialist but this year none of the great time triallists will go for GC. Nibali has made huge progress in the last few years but the lack of time trialling in the grand tours he has done, has prevented him from showing just how strong he is. However, his performances at Tirreno-Adriatico and last year’s Tour de France on courses that didn’t do him any favours, are clear indications that the TTs are now a big asset for him.

 

That’s hugely important in the battle against Mikel Landa who is likely to be his key rivals. The 40.5km time trial in Chianti has a rolling nature that is tailor-made for a technically strong rider like Nibali. It is even better suited to him than the long time trial in the 2013 Giro where he finished fourth and since then he has become a lot stronger. Over that kind of distance, he can gain a significant time on Landa and this will allow him to approach the mountain stages with a more defensive mindset.

 

Furthermore, the nature of the mountain stages is an advantage for Nibali. This year there are only two really hard uphill finishes right at the end of the race while most of the earlier key stages have downhill finishes. Nibali is known as one of the best descenders in the world and he is stronger in flat terrain than Landa. This means that he will have time to erase any potential time losses on the climbs and so he doesn’t need to be able to match Landa pedal stroke for pedal stroke to win the race for a second time. If one adds the fact that the race will hit the Strade Bianche gravel roads which suit Nibali very well, that he always excels in bad weather and the fact that he is a great rider for mountain time trials, Nibali couldn’t have asked for a better course.

 

Nibali has also gained consistency. In his early time as a grand tour rider, he rode fairly irregularly in the mountains. He has always had a fantastic ability to limit his losses and knows how to gauge his effort – his impressive grand tour palmares is a testament to that – but the 2013 Giro and the 2014 Tour are still the only three-week races where has avoided any kind of bad day. It may be that his superiority has been enough to hide those bad moments from an outside perspective it seems that he now has the consistency that has always been the trademark of the best grand tour riders.

 

Finally, Nibali is surrounded by a formidable team. Jakob Fuglsang is constantly improving on the climbs, Tanel Kangert has been riding better than ever, Michele Scarponi is back on track after his crash earlier in the year and Andrey Zeits seemed to be on fire in Romandie. The team may not have the depth that it had one year ago but it is still a formidable force in this race. In the Giro del Trentino, Sky looked vulnerable to say the least and even though they have brought in a few key reinforcements for this race, Nibali is likely to be able to count on strength in numbers late in the mountain stages.

 

In the end, however, the legs will have to do the talking, most notably in the key stages late in the race. Nibali has proved that only Mikel Landa can realistically hope to match him if he reaches his best condition for the crucial final week of the race. If he can get back to his 2014 level, it will require enormous strength to get rid of the only rider in the race that has won all three grand tours. The Giro del Trentino has raised concerns but with a solid foundation from the off-season and a perfect course, Nibali still has the cards he needs to return to the top step of the podium in the grand tour that he loves the most.

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