The 96th Giro d'Italia opens Saturday in Naples with one of only a few sprinters' affairs. From day 2 on, the GC riders will take center stage often over a route that could see frequent lead changes and guarantees aggressive racing throughout the race's three-week run north to Brescia.
With the reigning Tour de France champion, defending Giro champion, and a cagey, tactical local each in the mix, this year's Giro cast is headed by arguably its strongest list of contenders in years. While the long-range attackers and brave sprinters will capture our imaginations throughout the corsa rosa, these are the men with the most realistic shots at wearing pink on May 26. Here, VeloNews editors lay out their cases for the men they expect to shine in this Giro.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky): He hasn't won a race since August. He's never stood on the podium at the Giro d'Italia; his top finish was 40th overall, in 2010. He's not an explosive climber and he's unproven on the steep ramps of the Dolomites. So why is Bradley Wiggins a top favorite to win this year's race? Simple -- in 2012 the Londoner emerged as the best stage racer in the sport, capable of taking massive time gains in time trials and holding his own the mountains.
Wiggins stormed through the 2012 season, winning four stage races, including the Tour de France. Quite simply, Wiggins proved last year that he possesses the ability, and mentality, to dissect his competition and execute a strategy that ends with him standing atop the general classification after three weeks of racing.
The defending Tour champ has taken a different approach to his 2013 season, taking on the Giro and returning to the Tour for an undetermined role alongside teammate Chris Froome. Wiggins started his season at the Tour of Oman, where he rode in support of Froome, the overall winner; he opted not to defend his title at Paris-Nice, instead concentrating on a training camp in Tenerife.
Wiggins pointed to Astana's Vincenzo Nibali as the Giro favorite, citing the Italian's laser focus on his national tour. (Third at last year's Tour de France, Nibali is not expected to race in France in July.) Yet Wiggins also revealed that he's trained his biggest weakness -- following accelerations on steep gradients -- specifically for a run at the maglia rosa.
"We've trained more consistently to climb better on the steeper climbs," Wiggins said on Monday. "And based on what we saw a couple of weeks ago, I've made huge improvements."
Wiggins squared up against Nibali at the Giro del Trentino last month, leading Sky to victory in the team time trial, but lost time due to a mechanical on the final climb of the final stage. (He ended the race in fifth overall, 1:40 behind Nibali, the overall winner.) It's likely Wiggins could lead Sky to another TTT victory at the Giro on stage 2. From there, he'll attempt to control the race, limit the damage in the high mountains, and destroy his rivals against the clock in the 54.8km individual test on stage 8. It's a strategy that's worked before, and one that will be tested again on the open roads of Italy. -- NEAL ROGERS
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): For Italian Vincenzo Nibali, this is the moment he's been waiting for his entire career. He's flying right now, having won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino this spring, and will get a very good crack as his beloved Giro d'Italia, a race any Italian rider values as much as, or even more than, the Tour de France.
It probably won't get any better than right now for "The Shark." His fitness is good, and this is a parcours that, while not perfect for him, still suits him better than, say, last year's Tour, in which he finished third, behind the incomparable Sky duo of Wiggins and Froome.
Wiggins will be Nibali's nemesis in Italy, where they'll face off in their second grand tour clash. We like Sky's team strength here -- who wouldn't -- but think Nibali may have enough sharpness to cut through Wiggins' metronomic fashion on the race's steep climbs. He's more dynamic than Wiggins when the road gets steep, both up and down.
And one shouldn't discount Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Sharp's defending Giro champ. The Canadian is one of a few riders capable of taking advantage of the Giro's unpredictable finales, but is a stronger time trialist than his Sicilian counterpart.
The mountains in the middle leg of the Giro likely won't give us a clear picture of the winner, but should cull the serious contenders to four or five. The third week of the race is special, with an uphill time trial to Polsa on a Thursday, and the following two days are absolutely savage, steep up and down, suited perfectly to Nibali. The Friday and Saturday stages of the third week end uphill. If the Italian is close, he could crack Wiggins -- and Hesjedal -- late in the race.
All this -- the climbs, the field, the rising fortunes of the Giro -- means the racing in Italy will be chaotic and wide open. And that's something "The Shark" can handle just fine. -- MATTHEW BEAUDIN
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp): Bradley Wiggins may be the Mod, but Ryder Hesjedal has the target on his back. Come May 4, the 32-year old defending Giro champion will confront a fusillade of competitors, like Wiggins, who have freighted this year's Giro with more punch than the Tour itself.
If there's an Achilles heel in Hesjedal's Giro defense it is the 65 kilometers of individual time trials organizers piled into this year's route. Wiggins has made it clear that he is headed to Italy to win, not noodle his way through three weeks of Chianti and cannoli; that's a dangerous proposition for Hesjedal, a decent rider against the clock, but no Wiggins, who is both the 2012 Olympic time trial gold medalist and a man who wins WorldTour time trials with metronomic regularity.
On the Canadian's side is the fact that he is going into this year's Giro four pounds lighter than he was this time a year ago. Also, the second stage of the Giro is an 11-mile team time trial on the volcanic island of Ischia. Hesjedal's then-upstart Garmin team put its name on the map by winning a TTT at its first grand tour, the 2008 Giro and the team has made a name for itself with its pragmatic approach to the discipline.
Those memories, along with the goodwill Hesjedal built with his team by depositing his body and soul on the Ardennes pavement to pave the way for Dan Martin's Liège-Bastogne-Liège win in April, may give him the human advantage he needs to best Wiggins' dispassionate Sky brigade by the close of this year's Giro. -- MARK JOHNSON
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): Samuel "Samu" Sánchez has only raced the Giro d'Italia one time. For a rider who's been on podiums at both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, the asturiano has some unsettled business with the Italian tour. So much so, that Sánchez -- the 2008 Olympic road champion -- is skipping the Tour altogether, simply because he wants to make one big shove for the Giro podium, holding nothing back.
"It would be nice to 'close the circle,' so to speak," Sánchez told VeloNews. "The top goal is a stage win, but the podium would be nice as well. It would make it podiums for all three grand tours."
For Sánchez, who was third in the 2010 Tour and twice in the top three at the Vuelta, the Giro is somewhat unknown territory. His lone Giro appearance was back in 2005, when he was 17th, and just starting to find his grand-tour feet. Since then, he has never been worse than 10th in seven grand tour starts, until he crashed out of last summer's Tour.
Now 35, Sánchez is targeting goals to round out his palmares. With one Tour stage and the king of the mountains jersey in 2011, and five Vuelta stages, the Giro remains an unchecked box.
"Above all, I want to win a Giro stage," Sánchez said. "And we'll see how the GC battle goes. I am certainly an outsider, so I have no pressure. We'll give it my all, and see what happens."
Robert Gesink (Blanco): Robert Gesink aims for a top-five finish in the 96th Giro d'Italia, but there is no reason he cannot step on to the podium if all goes well.
The Dutchman has the credentials: fifth in the Tour de France in 2010 and several stage race wins to his name, including last year's Amgen Tour of California. Blanco is also anxious to get him and the team on the podium, which would do wonders for its sponsorship search.
Rabobank pulled its name off the team over the winter and agreed to pay its sponsorship bill only through 2013. If Blanco, and indeed its stage-racing protégé Gesink, don't strike before the Tour, then all could be lost.
"For us, it's really important, that's why we came here with the strongest team possible," Gesink said Thursday in the pre-race press conference. "We want to get a sponsor on our jersey."
The 26-year-old can time trial well, particularly compared with his rivals for the lower podium places. His ability against the clock will give Gesink a head start with the long time trial weighing down the first half of the Giro. As with Wiggins, Gesink could find himself defending his position in the third week and putting home favorites like Nibali on the back foot in the high mountains.
First, however, Gesink must overcome the bad luck and crashes that have vexed him on occasion, and kept him from repeating his 2010 Tour success. -- GREGOR BROWN
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing): Cadel Evans' 2011 Tour de France victory was years in the making. But the former world champion has struggled to recapture anything approaching world-beating form over the past 22 months. Even his respectable seventh-place finish at the 2012 Tour was largely overshadowed by the fifth-place showing of his BMC Racing teammate Tejay van Garderen, who took the Tour's best young rider jersey.
Though Evans has found some success in 2013, landing a podium spot (third) at the Tour of Oman and placing eighth overall at the Giro del Trentino late last month, the team's March announcement that he would ride the Giro has led to speculation that his participation may have been designed to clear the decks for a van Garderen-led Tour squad.
Evans insists that no such debate exists within the team and that his participation is designed solely to improve his form in advance of the Tour's Grand Depart on June 29. But make no mistake; Evans' Giro d'Italia will be a critical test of his leadership. Though the Aussie would appear a longshot to score the maglia rosa, his performance holds the promise to either sweep him into renewed Tour contention or bump him straight out of a leadership role this July. -- DAN WUORI
Juanjo Cobo (Movistar),
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida),
Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale).