MARINA DI ASCEA, Italy -- Defending Giro d'Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) brought the race to the racers Monday in stage 3, attacking multiple times in the final 30 kilometers, and causing disruption among the race's GC favorites.
The stage 3 profile offered up two distinctive climbs -- the Cat. 2 San Mauro Cilento and the Cat. 3 Sella di Catona -- and the narrow, winding descent from the second bottomed out 900 meters from the finish line.
Hesjedal first attacked at the start of the second pitch on the di Catona climb, far from the finish, and opened a small gap; after he'd been reeled in, he followed a move by Astana's Valerio Agnoli on the descent, creating a split in an already diminished front group and causing panic among team leaders and domestiques alike.
Luca Paolini (Katusha) joined Hesjedal and Agnoli, and after they were brought back, Paolini countered an acceleration by Rigoberto Urán (Sky) to solo away for the stage win.
Though the Garmin rider wasn't ultimately able to ride clear of rivals such as Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), or Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Hesjedal had made a clear statement -- that he is here to defend his 2012 title.
"I wasn't necessarily trying to take time, but I was trying to be at the front," Hesjedal said. "I was trying to stay out of trouble, to go on the offensive a little bit, keep the pressure on, and when you do that, you open up more opportunities for yourself."
And though he didn't carve out much real estate on his rivals -- save for his third-place time bonus at the finish -- the chaos of the final climb did come with advantages for the Canadian.
While Hesjedal pushed the pace at the front, GC outsider Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) crashed and lost time. A number of riders went down on the technical descents late in the race, but Hesjedal was safe, by virtue of his positioning, and even avoided a crash at the front that all but erased Michele Scarponi's (Lampre-Merida) hopes for the GC.
The Canadian took third on the stage, behind Paolini and Evans, clawing back eight seconds of bonus time to cut his gap to Wiggins to 17 seconds. It's still a greater deficit than the one Hesjedal held over Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) in Milan last year, and with the 54.8km individual time trial looming on Saturday, it's likely Garmin will continue to look for opportunities where the team can find them.
"We had a plan; we spoke about it last night with the riders," said Garmin director Charly Wegelius. "On a stage like that, you could conceivably spend the same amount of kilojoules chasing after somebody else and trying to correct other people's mistakes. In that case, you might as well take the initiative yourself. Then you have a clear road in front of you. If you make a mistake, it's your own, and obviously you'll spend some energy. [In this case] you're spending energy to gain something, rather than to get back to zero, you know? It was a matter of taking control of your own destiny."
Wegelius acknowledged that Garmin had shown its cards, and could be expected to attack early and often during this Giro d'Italia.
"I think it's quite obvious that Bradley Wiggins is a highly quoted favorite, and the time trial isn't that far off, so we have to take the chances that we can," Wegelius said. "Let's look at last year's Giro; it was won by 16 seconds, so you don't win these races with big panache displays, but by sneaking things in here and there. I think that's the best way to do it. There are 21 stages, and every one of them has to be raced."
Asked if the effort had taken too much from him this early in the race, Hesjedal was defiant.
"I think you could see in my sprint that I was just fine at the end of day, and all day," Hesjedal said. "I'm not worried about what other people might think [of the tactic]. Everyone said I couldn't win the Giro last year, and they got that wrong, I'm just happy with my day. The team was fine, and we're here to race, to do what we feel we need to do to win."