Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Unassuming Giro starts throwing out pink jerseys on Saturday

The first of cycling’s grand tours, the Giro d’Italia, starts Saturday, unheralded in the States as usual. Which is a shame, because it’s often a tougher test for the riders than the more glam Tour de France.

The mountain passes in Italy tend to be steeper, and the unmelted winter snows often make conditions more challenging. Transfers between stages often are longer, so rest comes at a premium. The race, on paper, can present more challenges for riders. Yet, the winner is so spent that he’s a non-factor by the time the Tour rolls around in July.

Consider the case of last year’s winner, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin. He became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour yet dropped out of the Tour following a crash on the sixth stage.
Hesjedal is back to defend his pink jersey as winner in Italy last year and again is counted among the favorites.
I remember following Hesjedal’s progress through last year’s Giro with my mouth open. How did he do it? He didn't appear to be in the same category as Joachim Rodriguez and Michele Scarponi as a climber, and he isn’t as thought of as a time trialist . Yet he won last year, thanks to limiting his losses in the mountains and out time-trialing the climbers. The mountains aren’t so steep as last year, though riders can make them tough with aggressive riding. The same formula that worked last year could see Hesjedal at the top again: hang tough in the mountains, take back time on the climbers in the time trial.

Ryder and Ashley Hesjedal. Kathleen Nelson photo.
It's hard to root against Hesjedal, because he’s an honorary St. Louisan, married to McCluer grad Ashley Hofer. He’s spent time relaxing here. His Canadian roots bring a hockey sensibility and accent to cycling. He’s refreshingly honest and straightforward. He did it once. He can do it again. He turned in a strong performance at Liege-Bastogne-Liege recently, when he set up winner Dan Martin. But Hesjedal will be a marked man this year, not a surprise.

Here are some other riders to watch

Vincenzo Nibali: He enters as the bookmakers’ fave, after victories at Tirreno Adriatico and Giro del Trentino. Winning his home tour would mean as much -- maybe more -- to him and all of Italy than a victory at the more prestigious Tour de France. Though renown as a dynamite descender, the skill has yet to nab him a stage victory when he begins a descent with the pack.

Bradley Wiggins: Wiggo exudes the air of a guy who wants to be just another unassuming rider. He’s been that this year, with unremarkable performances. So, the Giro seems suited to him, since he’s called it less pompous than its counterpart in France.

He set the bar so high last year, winning Paris-Nice and the Dauphine leading up to his Tour victory and gold-medal performance in the Olympic time trial. How much does he miss the limelight? We’ll find out if his climbing form is as good as advertised, which means better than last year. There’s a long time trial tailor-made for his skills on Stage 8. If he seizes the lead on the stage, the spotlight will return to him for the second half of the race. If not, we’ll see how much he likes being just a guy in the daily media grind of a grand tour.

Wiggins showed promise in his final tune-up for the Giro, finishing fifth at the Giro del Trentino, done in by an ill-timed mechanical on the final stage.

Cadel Evans: Something of a last-minute entry. He has been off his game since winning the 2011 Tour de France, most of which has been blamed on illness. This year’s highlight has been finishing third in the Tour of Oman in February. Results since then, especially at Tirenno Adriatico (22nd) and Criterium International (51st) don’t offer much. Some reports say he’s riding the Giro as preparation for the Tour. Others say he’s in it to win it.

Sammy Sanchez: Since abandoning last year’s Tour because of a crash with a spectator, Sanchez has been cycling’s forgotten man. The injury left him unable to defend his Olympic title. He’s one of our favourites for years because he attacks like he means it and can ride away from the best climbers. His time trialing has held him back in the past, but the Giro is his focus this year. He’s been out a long time and itching to show that he isn’t too old at age 34.

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