MILANO, Italy -- The 96th Giro d'Italia ended Sunday after three brutal weeks that left the peloton in shreds. Only Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) seemed immune to the wind, cold, rain, and snow that pelted the pack from Napoli to Brescia.
The first week of this year's Giro was the best. With the likes of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) throwing down, no one knew what to expect. But early departures from Hesjedal and later Bradley Wiggins (Sky) took the air out of the fight for the pink jersey. As the Giro turned toward the north, all Nibali needed to do was to stay on the bike to win his first pink jersey.
This year's Giro wasn't without its surprises or revelations. The week saw the emergence of several new faces as well as the reconfirmation of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and the reappearance of the Colombians.
More than anything, this Giro was the coming-out party for Nibali, who emerged as unbeatable over three nearly perfect weeks of racing.
10 things we learned from this Giro
1. Nibali is a badass: Italy found the new superstar it needed in the form of the 28-year-old Sicilian. The "Shark of Messina" took a bite out of the peloton early, snagging the pink jersey in stage 8, and rode it all the way to Brescia.
Against a relatively thin field, after Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) both fizzled out, all Nibali really needed to do was to stay upright.
Still, winning the Giro is big news, especially in Italy, where fans and media cheered the rise of "Vince Nibbles." The Astana captain is just hitting his sweet spot, and after winning the 2010 Vuelta a España, the hype is already building in Italy that he could be the first Italian winner of the Tour de France since Marco Pantani in 1998.
There won't be any talk of the Giro-Tour double, at least not this year. Nibali is taking aim at the rainbow jersey, and will race the Vuelta in September to hone his form before an ideal worlds course on home roads.
Nevertheless, throughout these three weeks, Nibali revealed he is a complete rider, handling the stresses and demands of racing both on and off the bike. With an entire generation of Italian riders fading away, with the likes of Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, and Michele Scarponi looking past their prime, Nibali comes along at just the right time. A few more grand-tour wins seem all but assured.
"I have been working for this Giro since November," he said. "The Tour is unlikely. The Vuelta and the worlds are what's next for me. It's a dream to win the pink jersey. The Vuelta was big, but winning the Giro as an Italian is much more important."
2. Betancur is pure dynamite: Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) was the revelation of this Giro. With two second places, including a fourth in Saturday's epic stage up Tre Cime, Betancur rode with panache throughout the Giro. His attacking style lit up the climbing stages and helped confirm that the Colombians are once again a force in the peloton.
A winner of the BabyGiro in 2010, the 23-year-old Betancur proved he has the guts and the aggression to win the real Giro someday after his down-to-the-wire battle for the white jersey with Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), clinching the best young rider's jersey and finishing fifth overall in his grand-tour debut. With third at Flèche Wallonne and fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Betancur is a man for all terrain.
"I won my Giro," he said. "I was thinking about the white jersey for months now. I really wanted it, so to reach the podium in my first grand tour only gives me more motivation for the future. I hope someday I can win a grand tour."
3. Evans will go down swinging: Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) didn't quite have the snap to follow Nibali in the decisive moves, but the veteran Australian proved that he can still be a factor in grand tours.
Many were quick to write him off following his frustrating 2012 campaign, and some insist Tejay van Garderen should be given a free ride at the Tour. But Evans' steady consistency in a highly explosive Giro convinced BMC brass that Evans is their man.
At 36, Evans not only becomes the oldest rider to reach the Giro podium since 1928, but he also proves that he has a few more grand tours left in him.
"I wasn't even planning on racing this Giro until a few weeks before it started, so to be [third] isn't so bad," he said. "I came here with the idea of preparing for the Giro, but sometimes when you're close to winning, you want to win."
4. Cav has his mojo back: This year's Giro was a reconfirmation for Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who proved yet again he is the fastest man in a full gallop inside the peloton.
A winner of five stages, all five bunch sprints that he contested, Cavendish also became the fifth rider in grand-tour history to win points jerseys in all three grand tours.
Omega Pharma is still perfecting its lead-out train for Cavendish going into the Tour, but the Manxster takes renewed confidence not only in his new teammates, but also in his ability to survive the mountains.
This year's Tour will be brutal for Cavendish and the pure sprinters, and he wanted to get through this Giro to improve his climbing form ahead of July. With five wins and the points jersey, it was more than mission accomplished.
5. Giro rules: Despite horrendous weather nearly from start to finish, the Giro was able to deliver the goods. After the pink jersey was confirmed up the Col du Galibier, Italian fans turned out in force to cheer on Nibali in the closing week.
Snow forced the cancellation of Friday's stage in its entirety, but the final climb through a spring blizzard up Tre Cime on Saturday provided an epic backdrop for a race marred by cold, wind, rain, and wintry conditions across the breadth of Italy.
Taking the race over the high cols in mid to late May is always a gamble. Most years the Giro can pull it off. This year, the race got bitten in the hand a little bit, but as race director Michele Acquarone said, you can't do anything about the weather.
6. Colombians are back: Rigoberto Urán (Sky), Betancur, and Team Colombia proved that the South American "escarabajos" are back in true form.
Urán delivered a huge ride, winning stage 10 and then stepping up for Sky after Wiggins bailed. His second place, the best Colombian finish since Olivier Rincón was fifth in 1995, confirms his countrymen are once again a force in the peloton.
Urán's strong climbing time trial Thursday trimmed the difference to Evans by just 10 seconds. On Saturday, riding through the blizzard with compatriots Betancur and Fabio Duarte (Colombia), he had the entire nation the edge of its seat.
Duarte surged to second in the stage, and although the Colombian squad couldn't deliver a stage win, this Giro confirmed a new generation of Colombians have arrived. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who won the Vuelta al País Vasco and skipped the Giro, will be lining up for his Tour debut in July.
7. Wiggins' wig-out: It was hard to read Sir Bradley Wiggins' performance during this Giro. He arrived full of confidence, perhaps even bluster, but it quickly became evident that he is no fan of cold, wet descents. He got spooked early with some falls and close calls, and soon lost the edge needed to stay with the leaders.
Races are rarely won descending, but they certainly can be lost, as Wiggins found out in a wet, rainy first half of the Giro. He later was zapped by a chest cold, and was sent packing home before the race hit the Alps.
It was a huge blow for the Giro, which lost its marquee name, but also cast doubt on Wiggins' preparation and seriousness for the race. Some whispered that he came in undertrained, others that the Giro was just a ploy to set up a face-off with teammate and nemesis Chris Froome at the Tour. Team Sky will have a Brazilian soap opera on its hands in a few weeks' time.
8. "Honey badger" steps up: With Garmin-Sharp struggling to keep up its spirits following the unexpected departure of defending champion Ryder Hesjedal, the squad's salvation came from an unlikely figure. Ramunas Navardauskas, nicknamed the "honey badger" for his attacking style, saved the day.
With Hesjedal's GC chances doomed, Garmin gave Navardauskas the green light to attack. And attack he did, riding to victory in stage 11, and second and fourth in two others. The Giro proved a revelation for the 6-foot-3 Lithuanian, who proved to himself what everyone on Garmin already believed: The kid has an engine.
9. Intxausti lines up: Beñat Intxausti (Movistar) delivered on the hype. Some in Spain have called him the next Indurain -- usually the kiss of death for young, promising Spanish riders --but the 27-year-old delivered a breakthrough ride with a stage victory, a day in the pink jersey, and eighth overall on GC.
A solid climber and decent time trialist, it was his race against the clock in the long TT in stage 8 that torpedoed his podium chances. Still, he hung in there, and took a surprise stage win in an exciting finale in stage 16.
Movistar won four stages, and riders on the team scored themselves a trip to Ibiza, thanks to veteran team member Pablo Lastras. Following wins by Alex Dowsett and Giovanni Visconti (who would later win a second stage), Lastras told the team he'd spring for a trip to Ibiza for everyone if they won another stage. Intxausti delivered that very same day.
10. Gesink keeps sinking: Robert Gesink (Blanco) could be the best stage racer in the peloton who's never won a major race. His win last year in the Amgen Tour of California bolstered his confidence, but Gesink fell flat yet again when taking on a grand tour.
Still only 26, Gesink has a lot of road in front of him, but many in Holland are wondering how far he can go. Once hailed as a future Tour challenger, Gesink can't deliver the consistency he needs to truly fight for a grand-tour podium.
Hobbled by crashes and illness, Gesink pulled out despite sitting 10th overall with only two stages to go. Gesink will now ride the Tour de France, where the pressure and expectations will be even higher.