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It seems only natural that the winner of the Tour de France is the major favourite when he starts another grand tour and there is no reason to take a different view prior to this year's Giro. The Sky captain must be the favour...

Photo: Sirotti

BRADLEY WIGGINS

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CADEL EVANS

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GIRO D'ITALIA

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MICHELE SCARPONI

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RYDER HESJEDAL

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SAMUEL SANCHEZ

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VINCENZO NIBALI

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06.05.2013 @ 09:02 Posted by Jesper Johannesen

After months of waiting the time has finally arrived. The race that the Italians have dubbed "The world's hardest race in the world's most beautiful country" is just days away from its start when three weeks of fascinating bike racing kicks off with a big bunch kick in the streets of Naples. Organizers RCS have managed to attract a formidable line-up of some of the world's best stage race riders who are ready to go head to head on the steep Italian climbs and the level of competition seems to be deeper than it has been for years. CyclingQuotes.com takes you through all the strengths and weaknesses of the race's major favourites and most dangerous outsiders.

 

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.

 

In just his second year as race director Acquarone's quest to convince the world's most formidable stage race riders to spend the month of May in Italy has been a successful one. Last year he had not had much time to make the necessary changes but the results of his efforts are evident this year. A much more modest and well-balanced route with fewer mountain stages and no excessively steep climbs, shorter and more human transfers and an more open mind towards the riders' wishes have all contributed to what seems to be the strongest line-up for the Italian grand tour for years.

 

What has previously mostly been a battle between the biggest Italian stars is now a multinational affair when home riders like Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso go head to head with the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Ryder Hesjedal, Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez and Robert Gesink on the steep Italian climbs. While the race has mostly been dubbed as Wiggins-Nibali duel the depth of the field means that it is much more than that and it would be a huge mistake to reduce the number of potential winners to just those two.

 

CyclingQuotes.com has assigned a number of stars to the 15 most likely winners of the Italian grand tour with 5 stars given to the number one favourite and 1 star to riders who have only an outside chance to win the race. Below we go through all the strengths and weaknesses of the race's 6 main favourites - riders with 3 to 5 stars - and in a separate article we take a closer look at the outsider - contenders who have been assigned either 1 or 2 stars.

 

Bradley Wiggins (*****)

It came as a surprise to many when Bradley Wiggins used a live interview on Eurosport at the presentation of the route for the 2013 Tour de France to declare that his 2013 season would be all about the Giro and that he would probably only ride the Tour in a support role for Chris Froome. He has later retracted the latter statement and now plans to go for the Giro-Tour double - on Monday he once again confirmed that the Tour captain should be the one in the best shape - but his dedicated attempt to win the Giro has not been questioned at all since that October day.

 

It seems only natural that the winner of the most recent edition of the Tour de France is the major favourite when he lines up at the start line of a grand tour and there is no reason to take a different view prior to this year's Giro. The Sky captain must be the favourite despite a very competitive field of established grand tour contenders. Since his sudden transformation from time trial and track specialist in 2009 he has gradually improved in the three-week races. After the breakthrough 4th place in that 2009 Tour (he has later been awarded 3rd place due to the disqualification of Lance Armstrong) he had some huge disappointments with a disastrous 23rd place in the 2010 Tour and an early crash and subsequent abandon in the 2011 Tour but in the 2011 Vuelta he got his first opportunity to really battle for the win in a grand tour. He came up short and had to settle for 3rd but the experience of being race leader and learning how to approach a three-week race proved valuable the next year during which he was on fire all season.

 

With victories in the Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine all taken in a certain controlled manner he had developed the perfect way to tackle a major stage race and during his preparation races he had fine-tuned his tactics and team bond perfectly. When the Tour started, the plan was executed in an optimal manner and only some internal rivalry with eventual runner-up Chris Froome disturbed the picture of an otherwise faultless performance.

 

Wiggins' stage race strategy is very simple and similar to the one of Miguel Indurain in the early 90s. The foundation of the win is a superior time trial and a formidable squad which is able to keep up an amazing tempo throughout a hard day to discourage any attacks and to remove the incentive to the stop-go kind of racing that is Wiggins' main weakness. The Brit does not have to attack in the mountains - he only has to ride defensively to keep his lead from the time trials.

 

For this strategy to be successful two requirements need to be satisfied: a route with a certain amount of time trialling and a really strong support crew. For the Giro Wiggins is able to tick off both boxes. In an attempt to attract more international stars the Giro organizers have decided to include the first long time trial in the race since the 2009 edition and there is no doubt that the 54,8km race against the clock in stage 8 is the key day for Wiggins in the race. He is superior to all of his GC rivals on the rolling course and he will be able to gain a huge advantage before the serious battles in the mountains. If one adds the presence of a short 17,4km team time trial on day 2 and a mountain time trial in the last week of racing, Wiggins has a number of opportunities to get into the pole position and so take an defensive approach to the climbs. He may not gain much time in the short collective event and his superiority in a mountain time trial is much less evident than in a flat one but with victories in uphill time trials in last year's Paris-Nice and Tour de Romandie he proved that he is also an expert in this very unique discipline and he should be able to further build on his advantage from stage 8.

 

The second important requirement is certainly also fulfilled as Wiggins is surrounded by a team that seems on par with the one that supported him in last year's Tour. Danny Pate, Salvatore Puccio, Xabier Zandio and Christian Knees are able to make sure that he is well-protected throughout most of a hard day and are all able to be at the front of the peloton for endless hours. Dario Cataldo and Kanstantsin Siutsou are the key riders that can set a suitable hard tempo on most of the climbs to discourage any attacks while formidable climbers Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran are able to stay with their captain until the very end of the hardest mountain stages to make sure that the Sky leader is never isolated. Hence, he should always have support close to him and this is essential to avoid the kind of stop-go racing that may break down the Brit. The strength of the team is of a calibre that makes it highly likely that the team will be able to defend an overall lead all the way from the stage 8 time trial - or maybe already from the day 2 team time trial - to the end.

 

However, the Giro is not the Tour and the nature of the course in the Italian grand tour is hugely different from what you see in France in July. First and foremost the climbs are of another standard. They are steeper and much less regular than the long, steady ascents of the Alps that suit Wiggins down to the ground. The Italian mountains make it much more difficult to get into a rhythm and just tap along at a sustained pace in the way that Wiggins likes it.

 

The Brit knows this and he has made plenty of efforts to familiarize himself with the Italian style of climbing and according to himself the work has paid dividends. He claims to be much stronger on the steep parts than ever before and regards his condition as even better than it was at the 2012 Tour. Many had anticipated the final stage of the Giro del Trentino which finished on the steep Sega di Ala climb as it was the perfect venue to see just how well Wiggins would handle a true Italian climb but unfortunately a mechanical meant that we never got the opportunity to see him go face to face with Vincenzo Nibali on the kind of climb that could be his undoing. The Giro route contains, however, plenty of possibilities to put the Tour champion under pressure on the steep slopes and while he is certainly happy to see excessively steep climbs like the Monte Zoncolan and the Mortirolo absent from the course, it is easy to point the steep slopes of the Tre Cime Di Lavaredo climb on the penultimate day as the perfect place to attack the Brit on a typical Italian climb.

 

And the main challenge for Wiggins will be his ability to tackle the Italian climbs and his ability to avoid any surprise attacks in the numerous lumpy stages which contain potential dangers. The importance of the mountain stages is also the main reason for his very unusual early-season schedule. Instead of lining up in events with a time trial his only appearances in March and April have been in the Volta a Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino in which there was no individual event. His own explanation for the unusual choice is an attempt to force himself out of his comfort zone and not be able to rely on the time trial. Even though he confirms that his Giro victory will require him to do exactly that - rely on his time trial and limit his losses in the mountains - the approach seems to have been a successful one. He was the best of the rest behind Valverde, Rodriguez and Quintana in Catalonia and in Trentino he seemed to be fully able to match the speed of Nibali in the first of two summit finishes while his mechanical forced him out of contention in the second one. Even if he failed to win, his two 5th places certainly give any reason to believe that the Brit - as usual - is perfectly prepared to tackle the Italian climbs and while he may lose a few seconds here and there, his superior time trial makes it very likely that the Brit will be the second rider of the current generation to win both the Giro and the Tour.

 

Vincenzo Nibali (****)

The most likely challenger to Wiggins is the big hope of the Italian tifosi, Vincenzo Nibali. Unlike compatriot and former teammate Ivan Basso who regards a Tour victory as more important than one in the Giro, Nibali's dream race is his home grand tour and he was hugely disappointed when the Liquigas management forced him to focus on the world's biggest race last year. Having left his former employers to join the Astana team he has had complete support in his attempt to win the Giro and after having ended 3rd behind teammate Basso in 2010 and 2nd in 2011 (after the disqualification of Alberto Contador) he is ready to take the next step and finally win his home grand tour.

 

No one can doubt Nibali's motivation and his preparations appear to have been just about perfect. After low-key performances in the Tour de San Luis and the Tour of Oman, he showed the attacking nature and guts that make him a danger man in most stage races to take home his second consecutive win in the Tirreno-Adriatico. After a solid performance in the mountain top finish at the Prato di Tivo he struggled in the Chieti stage but when all hope appeared to be over, he surprised the complete cycling world by putting overall leader Chris Froome into trouble on the epic penultimate stage to Porto Sant'Elpidio. In a stage whose saw tooth profile seemed tailor-made for a long breakaway, Nibali used his braveness, climbing strength and formidable descending skills to drop the Sky leader and take over the lead.

 

The bad weather took him out of contention in the Milan-Sanremo after which he prepared meticulously for his Giro bid. He returned to competition in the Giro del Trentino and gave a convincing impression of strength when he took home the overall win by crushing the opposition on the steep Sega di Ala climb. That performance gave him an important confidence boost as it once again proved his abilities on a typical steep Italian climb and sent a warning to his Giro rivals that the Astana leader is very well-prepared for his most important objective. He had hoped to be in the mix two days later in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege but tired from his earlier exploits he ended up sacrificing his own chances for teammate Enrico Gasparotto when he had failed to join the key move on the Saint-Nicolas climb. Since then he has stayed with his teammates in the Apennines to finalize months of careful build-up.

 

His strength at this point in time gives Nibali a very good reason for optimism. Unlike other riders like former teammate Basso, his best grand tours have all come on the heels of strong performances in the build-up races. When he was third in the 2010 Giro, he got a late call-up due to the biological passport case of then-teammate Franco Pellizotti and was in peak condition for the Ardennes classics. His 2010 Vuelta win came just weeks after a dominant win in his final preparation race, the Trofeo Melinda, and he was 8th in Liege just weeks prior to the start of his 2011 Giro campaign which gave him a fine 2nd place. On the other hand he was invisible in his final outings prior to his disappointing 2011 Vuelta (he ended up 7th) and last year's Tour in which a 3rd place was certainly a good result but he never seemed to hit his peak condition.

 

Even though Nibali would probably have designed a slightly different course, had he been in charge of the route construction, there are certainly plenty of opportunities well-suited to his characteristics. First and foremost there are no less than 6 summit finishes in the race and these are extremely important as perfect opportunities to take out time of Wiggins. Some of them even finish on irregular, steep climbs which suit the Italian much more than the Brit and there is little doubt that Nibali has a secret plan to benefit maximally from the steep slopes of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo on the penultimate day of racing.

 

However, Nibali is a very versatile rider who does not need either a time trial or a mountaintop finish to attack. On the other hand his Tirreno win was just another testament to the fact that difficult, rolling terrain - preferably on a rainy day - are equally as suited to the Astana leader's plans. Unlike many others he is probably disappointed to see that all mountain stages finish at the top of a climb as a final, technical descent would provide him with a formidable opportunity to extend an advantage over Wiggins gained on the uphill section. However, the Italian grand tour contains a number of lumpy stages in which Nibali could put in a surprise attack and the 7th stage to Pescara takes place in the same area in which he defeated Froome in the Tirreno and has a very similar profile. This could be a day for Nibali to take some unexpected time out of Wiggins in a terrain that does certainly not suit the Sky leader and Wiggins has to be very careful as Nibali can attack almost any day.

 

Nibali's other main strength is a formidable team. The Kazakh squad was by far the strongest in the Giro del Trentino in which it was capable of placing no less than 6 riders in a favourite group reduced to just around 15 men. His key lieutenant will be veteran Paolo Tiralongo who showed that he is approaching peak condition when his strong work blew the final Trentino stage to pieces and he could be an important man as the second option on the Astana team. He played that role last year when Roman Kreuziger was the team's captain and he seemed to be on his way to a top 10 overall until he faded in the last week. With the likes of extremely talented Fabio Aru - 4th overall in the Giro del Trentino and the next big Italian climber - Valerio Agnoli, Andrey Zeits, Tanel Kangert and Fredrik Kessiakoff, Nibali has the support to put Sky under pressure in the mountains while Dmitriy Gruzdev and Alessandro Vanotti will keep him well-protected on the flat stages. Kessiakoff, Kangert, Grudev and Nibali himself will also make sure that the team is not too far off Sky in the team time trial.

 

It is, however, the timed events that makes Wiggins the race favourite and not Nibali. The Astana team knows this and has done a tremendous job to improve the Italian's abilities in the race against the clock. The work seems to have paid off. A 4th place in San Luis and a 12th place on a real specialist course in the Tirreno indicate that he has made major improvements in the discipline and he should be able to limit his losses compared to last year's Tour when he lost 2.07 and 3.38 to Wiggins in the two long time trials. Nonetheless, he will without any doubt have plenty of time to make up after the 8th stage and the only consolation for Nibali is that the long time trial will be out of way early in the race so that he knows just how much time he needs to gain back when he starts the first mountain stage.

 

Nibali's seconds major weakness is his inconsistency. While Wiggins never has a bad day, history proves that Nibali is completely different. It was last put on display in the Tirreno where he clearly struggled just 24 hours prior to his race-winning attack which dropped all of his main competitors. In the 2010 Giro he was way off the mark on the Zoncolan stage, in the 2010 Vuelta he struggled to keep up with the best in the Cotobello stage, in the 2011 Giro he had a bad day to the roads to Sestriere and in last year's Tour his performance in the Peyragudes stage was below expectations. He always seems to be able to limit his losses but as he will probably need any second to win the Giro, he cannot afford to lose unexpected time to Wiggins on a bad day in the mountains. The first and most important requirement if Nibali is to win the Giro, appears to be an ability to improve his consistency. If he fails in this attempt, the 2013 Giro could very well end up as another missed opportunity for the Italian.

 

Ryder Hesjedal (****)

At the start of last year's Giro very few mentioned Ryder Hesjedal as a serious contender for the overall victory but all predictions turned out to be wrong as the lanky Canadian ended up raising his arms in triumph at the end of the final time trial in Milan. His victory came on the heels of another big surprise when he suddenly emerged as a GC contender in the 2010 Tour and took home a 6th place that very few had expected.

 

After a disappointing 17th place in the 2011 Tour during which he had his first experience as one of several designated leaders for the race, he put an immense improvement in the mountains on display in last year's Giro. Main rivals Joaquin Rodriguez, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso all expected to be able to drop the Canadian in the final hard week of the race but instead of a fading Canadian they were confronted with a Garmin leader who just got stronger and stronger.

 

It would be a wise decision for the likes of Wiggins and Nibali not to make the same mistake this time but nonetheless history appeared to be about to repeat itself. A repeat of his low-key start to the 2012 season saw most people forget about the defending champion in their pre-race talks as he was a shadow of his former self in his first two outings in the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.

 

That all changed with the Ardennes classics in which Hesjedal showed that he has timed his build-up to perfection and even seems to be way stronger than last year. He made a fantastic effort to bridge solo to the chase group in the final part of the Amstel Gold Race and he bounced back from an untimely puncture and long chase to finish 19th in the Fleche Wallonne. Finally, he appeared to be strongest man in the race when he finished off a long solo break by doing a huge work for Dan Martin which was the main reason for the success of the final 6-man move. As it was the case last year, he started the Tour de Romandie but stopped early to get a little more rest ahead of the Giro and afterwards he confirmed what everybody could already see: he is stronger than last year.

 

Hesjedal's main strength is his consistency and his formidable recuperation. While most other riders fade in the final week of racing, the Canadian keeps getting stronger and the 2010 and 2011 Tours and the 2012 Giro are all testament to his strength in the third week. Hence, Hesjedal is once again favoured by a route in which all the major climbing stages are concentrated in the back part of the race. His main rivals will have limited opportunities to take out time on him in the early part of the race but it could be a wise decision to not repeat the mistakes of last year where  his main rivals failed to exploit his troubles in the stages to Lago Laceno and Pian dei Resinelli. When they realized that the Canadian was a serious threat it was too late and he was way too strong.

 

Last year he was also aided by a very strong team which gave him an early advantage as they won the team time trial. This year he is once again surrounded by a number of strong time triallists and the likes of David Millar, Thomas Dekker, Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde should all be able to contribute to another good performance in the collective effort on the second day of racing. In the mountains he will not have the same kind of support as Wiggins and Nibali but Danielson, Peter Stetina and Vande Velde - when he has hit some kind of form in the final week of racing - should make sure that he will not feel too lonely on the climbs.

 

His main weakness seems to be his lack of outstanding abilities. While he is solid and consistent, it is hard to imagine the Canadian put in the blistering attacks that are able to trouble the steady pace of Wiggins in the mountains and it is also not obvious that he should be able to respond to all of Nibali's accelerations. He may be able to exploit a bad day by the Italian to gain time on the Astana captain but it is difficult to see where he should take back the time on Wiggins after the time trial. Furthermore, he will be closely watched this year and he will certainly not be allowed to slip off the front as it was the case in last year's stage to Cervinia.

 

The individual event will be his other main problem. Last year he was almost dubbed time trial specialist but that was purely due to the fact that his main competitors were the likes of Scarponi, Basso and Rodriguez. He is a solid but unspectacular time triallist and it is important to remember that he was even beaten by Andy Schleck in the final time trial of the 2010 Tour when he went all out to get the best possible GC result. There is no doubt that he will lose time to Wiggins in stage 8 and like Nibali it will be a game of catch up during the remainder of the race when he tries to gain back the lost time.

 

Michele Scarponi (***)

When Michele Scarponi failed to live up to expectations in his defence of the 2011 Giro title last year and took a hugely disappointing 4th place and when he was almost invisible the rest of the year - despite a number of breakaway participations in the Tour de France - it was easy to write off the Italian as a remnant of the past. Indications early this year are, however, that it could turn out to be a costly mistake to completely write off the wily Italian in an expected Wiggins-Nibali battle.

 

Due to his relation to banned doctor Michele Ferrari he was banned for three month during the off-season and new sponsor Merida kept him away from competition in the early part of the season as the bike manufacturer feared bad publicity. It took a concerted effort from Scarponi's lawyers to land a deal which allowed him to return to racing and part of the agreement is that his contract will be terminated at the end of the season.

 

As soon as he lined up in a race, he did, however, prove that he had done his homework.  He was one of the strongest in his comeback race, the GP Camaiore, and only an untimely puncture in the penultimate stage denied him a clear-cut top 10 result in the Paris-Nice. In the Volta a Catalunya he appeared to be close to the level of Wiggins in the mountains and used at gutsy attack on the final day of racing to land an overall podium place. The Spanish race was followed by a long training camp near the Etna volcano and he returned to racing in the Giro del Trentino. The Italian race ended, however, as a huge disappointment as he was nowhere near his best and he admitted frankly that his performances were way below his expectations.

 

Just as many had started to write off the Italian, he bounced back with a fantastic performance in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege in which his acceleration on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas created the 6-rider front group that had to fight it out for the win. He came up short on the final climb to Ans but there is no doubt that his 5th place have given him the confidence boost that he needed this close to the Giro.

 

If the early indications of renewed strength are confirmed in the Giro, the Lampre captain could be right in the mix for the overall win. His 4th place in the 2010 Giro and especially his win in the 2011 Giro (after the disqualification of Contador) in which he was the best of the rest behind Contador and beat Nibali, both prove that he is a formidable grand tour contender. When at his best he is one of the best climbers in the world and when he avoids his tendency to dig too deep too early just to explode a little further up the climb, he could be the man to challenge Wiggins on the steepest slopes. With strong support riders like Przemyslaw Niemiec, Kristijan Durasek and Jose Serpa the Lampre team will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the mountains.

 

Furthermore, he is more explosive than most of his main rivals and he could use those abilities to take bonus seconds in some of the tricky finishes in the early part of the race. Finally, he is a careful, wily competitor who could be a close ally for Nibali in a surprise attack in one of the lumpy stages in the race. His performance in the final stage of this year's Volta a Catalunya shows that he has the guts to attack in unexpected places and he has the strength to finish off the work.

 

Nonetheless, he has one major weakness which makes it hard for Scarponi to emerge as the final winner in Brescia: his time trial. While he has been able to defend himself in the discipline in the past, his main rivals have never been time trial experts of Wiggins' calibre. There is no doubt that the Lampre captain will be left with a huge gap to close at the end of the long time trial in stage 8 and keeping Wiggins' climbing strength in mind it is hard to see where Scarponi should gain back all of his loss. Furthermore, his Lampre team has never been team time trial experts and even though the squad delivered a surprisingly good performance in the discipline in Trentino, he will certainly lose time to Wiggins on stage 2 also.

 

Samuel Sanchez (***)

After Carlos Sastre hung up his bike, Samuel Sanchez has taken over the title as "Mr. Consistency" in the grand tours and barring accident he seems to be almost guaranteed to bring home another top 10 result when he lines up in the Giro for the second time in his career. Since his 17th place in his debut in the Italian race he has been in the top 10 in all of his grand tours until a crash forced him to abandon last year's Tour de France, and a 7th place in the 2006 Vuelta, 3rd in the 2007 Vuelta, 7th in the 2008 Tour, 2nd in the 2009 Vuelta, 3rd in the 2010 Tour and 5th in the 2011 Tour are testament to a rider with all the abilities to be competitive in a three-week event.

 

It may be a surprise to some to see the Spaniard line up in Italy but his ambition is the same as the one that made Sastre focus on the Giro in the last part of his career. Sanchez has won stages and finished on the podium in both the Tour and the Vuelta and he hopes to complete his list of results by similar performances in the Giro. Thus he lines up with a dual objective: he wants to win a stage and stand on the podium in Brescia on May 26.

 

His focus on the Giro has changed his early-season schedule and he has not been his usual prominent self in the first part of the year. Unspectacular performances in the Vuelta a Murcia and the Klasika de Almeria were followed by a modest 18th place in the Tirreno-Adriatico during which he showed a glimpse of form with a strong performance on the epic penultimate day. He returned to racing on home soil in the GP Miguel Indurain where he was way off the pace, and his 15th place in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco was far away from the performances that saw him win the race one year earlier. Finally he lined up in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and finished an invisible race in 37th.

 

There is, however, no reason to be concerned. No one knows how to prepare for a grand tour like Sanchez and he has always been a rider to be way off the pace in his final preparation races. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 he used the Criterium du Dauphine to finalize his build-up for the Tour and his performances in the Alps did not indicate at all that he would be right at the pointy end of the race in the French grand tour. Hence, it would be a surprise not to see Sanchez in the mix during the next three weeks in Italy.

 

He may be a little off the pace in the first part of the race but that is due to his diesel engine. Like Hesjedal he is a rider who gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on and he is usually at his best when his competitors have started to tire in the final week of the race. He approaches the climbs in a similar way: he is often dropped early on but has a formidable ability to pace himself back and pass numerous riders in the final part of a hard ascent.

 

Hence, he is another riders to be favoured by the many mountain stages in the final part of the race. At the same time he is an unpredictable, versatile and aggressive rider who - like Nibali - may use a lumpy stage and his formidable descending skills to put Wiggins under pressure in terrain that does not suit the Brit. When at his best, he has all the abilities to challenge for the win and in the 2010 Tour he and Denis Menchov were by far the strongest behind the superior duo of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

 

Nonetheless, he has never been able to finish off the work with an overall win and it is hard to imagine it happen in one of the most competitive editions of the Giro in recent years. Furthermore, the 35-year old Basque rider is no longer one of the youngest riders in the peloton and because of his crash we have not seen him at the pointy end of a grand tour since he won the mountains jersey in the 2011 Tour. Despite his win in the 2012 Vuelta al Pais Vasco and 2nd place in the Tour of Lombardy at the end of last year, there will always be a doubt as to whether the Spaniard will be able to get back to his best.

 

Finally, Sanchez is another rider who is hampered by the long time trial. He is certainly not a bad time triallist - he even won the time trial in last year's Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the final race against the clock in the 2007 Vuelta - but his results have all been delivered on either a lumpy course or in the final part of a three-week race. This year's long time trial has plenty of flat stretches and comes very early in the race and in a direct battle with a specialist like Wiggins there is no doubt that Sanchez will lose plenty of time. Since his team is also one of the weakest in the team time trial, Sanchez will have a huge gap to close before we have even started the mountains and it is hard to imagine the Spaniard make up all of the lost time.

 

Cadel Evans (***)

It was never really on the cards that Cadel Evans should be at the start line in this year's Giro but another disastrous start to the season made the Australian change his plans. After an illness-plagued 2012 season in which his Tour de France defence ended terribly, he was encouraged by a 3rd place in his season debut in Oman and felt that his woes were now behind.

 

That ended up not being the case and his performances in the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Criterium International were even worse than last year in which he won the latter event. This was the reason for the schedule change as the BMC leader felt that he needed more racing to get back to his best and while he insists that the Tour remains his main objective, he has pointed out that he is not in Italy for pure training.

 

Had it not been for the Giro del Trentino, it would have been easy to write off the Australian but when he lined up in the Italian event he suddenly gave glimpses of hope. After a non-impressive performance in the first summit finish on the second day of racing, he was his usual stubborn self when he fought valiantly on the steep slopes of the Sega di Ala climb to finish 5th. Despite a bad performance from his BMC squad in the team time trial, he ended up 8th overall and both he and sports director Fabio Baldato were highly encouraged when they left Trentino.

 

Nonetheless, he still lost 1.02 on Sega di Ala to Vincenzo Nibali and it is hard to see the Australian close such a big gap in only a few weeks - especially when one keeps in mind that Evans is usually very strong in his preparation races and has finished 2nd in the Criterium du Dauphine in both 2008, 2009 and 2011. Furthermore, he was previously known as "Mr. Consistency" who was always able to battle for the win even when he was not supposed to be in form and he was a rider who was in the mix all the way from February to the season end in October.

 

That has all changed and these days there are too many races in which Evans in nowhere near his best. Even though there is a slight cause for optimism due to his Trentino performance, it does not change the fact that he is far away from the rider he once was. If one adds the fact that the Australian is now 36 years old, it is natural to conclude that he is now over the hill.

 

When the Australian despite all his woes deserves to be mentioned as a favourite, it is due to his former strength and the fact that he showed some kind of improvement in Trentino. As his form seems to be on the rise, he will be another to benefit from the concentration of the mountain stages in the last part of the race, and if he manages to get close to his 2011 Tour condition he is one of the very few who has the abilities to battle the likes of Wiggins and Nibali. It is no problem for him to handle irregular, steep climbs and his careful and meticulous nature could make him another one to exploit a Nibali attack in one of the lumpy stages along the way. Finally, he is the strongest time triallist of the overall contenders behind Wiggins but nonetheless he will surely lose plenty of time to the Brit. As it is the case for most of the contenders, it is hard to see where Evans should bring back all that time in the final part of the race.

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