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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
With just over a week to go, with the toughest six mountain stages remaining in the 97th Giro d’Italia, it’s far too soon to say the race is over. Admittedly, Rigoberto Urán’s dominating time-trial victory on Thursday was impressive—defeating Cadel Evans by 1:34 to take the Australian’s pink jersey—but the 27-year-old Colombian now has to defend the leadership in a grand tour for the very first time.
What Urán has going for him is a strong team (Omega Pharma-Quick Step placed four riders in the top 10 on the time-trial stage), a teammate who finished on the Giro podium two years ago (Thomas De Gendt), and his own experience of finishing eight grand tours in the past five years (including his second-place finish at the 2013 Giro, albeit a long way behind winner Vincenzo Nibali).
It’s possible that Urán will “do a Nibali” and greatly add to his 37-second GC margin over Evans before the Giro finish in Trieste on June 1, but with the six coming mountain stages all ending up climbs where a rider having a bad day could lose minutes, nothing is guaranteed. As I wrote in this column a week ago, “expect the unexpected” at this Giro.
For most pundits, the biggest surprise so far was not only the fact that Urán won the Barbaresco to Barolo TT but also his wide margin of victory. The Colombian is not known for his time-trial expertise. In fact, of the 47 previous time trials he’d raced since he turned pro in 2006 (at age 19), Urán placed top 5 only three times. Not a great record!
In 2007, with the Unibet.com team, he placed second in his national TT championship (two minutes behind winner Santiago Botero over 40 kilometers) and won the 20.5-kilometer TT at the now-defunct Euskal Bizikleta (one second faster than Spanish specialist Isidro Nozal)—his only TT victory until this week, seven years later. More relevant was his fourth-place finish at the closing TT in the recent Tour de Romandie, where the only men to beat him were his former team leader at Sky, Chris Froome; his current teammate and world TT champ, Tony Martin; and the talented young Kiwi on Trek Factory Racing, Jesse Sergent. And Urán lost only 15 seconds to Froome over the 18.5 kilometers.
Building on that ride, and with his accelerating form through the first half of this Giro, Urán’s second career TT victory was not the big shock that it seemed. What was a surprise was the mature manner in which he tackled this 42.2-kilometer stage through the vineyards of Barbaresco and Barolo over the chalk hills of the Langhe. There were three distinct sections: the opening 12.6 kilometers, gradually up hill to the village of Boscasso; the middle 13.7 kilometers, almost entirely downhill to the city of Alba; and the final 15.9 kilometers, which started flat and ended with two significant uphills.
These three sections revealed three different tales. The climbers crunched the first part, with Pozzovivo averaging 35.632 kilometers per hour with a split of 21:13, followed by Urán in 21:28 and Aru in 21:39. Evans, a notoriously slow starter in time trials, dug himself a big hole on this long uphill start, coming through only ninth best, 38 seconds slower than Urán, losing a whopping 3 seconds per kilometer to the Colombian.
The long downhill section was a disaster for Pozzovivo, who has always been deficient descending on wet roads; he covered these 13.7 kilometers in 15:03, 1:22 slower than Urán—who blasted this middle part in 13:44, averaging almost 60 kph. Next best, conceding 15 seconds, was Lampre-Merida’s Diego Ulissi—who conceded four minutes on Wednesday’s stage following a particularly nasty fall (and without that loss, the young Italian would be up into fourth overall instead of his current 14th place). Evans picked up his pace on this downhill part, covering it in 14:05, losing only 1.5 seconds per kilometer to Urán.
The Colombian was most impressive on the challenging final third, which he covered in 22:22. Evans was the only other rider to cover these rolling 15.9 kilometers in less than 23 minutes, this time conceding only 2.2 seconds per kilometer. To finish third on the stage was a good performance for Evans; but losing 94 seconds to Urán was not.
With another time trial coming up at the Giro next Friday, it would seem to be logical to predict another hefty time gain for Urán—especially as the 26.8-kilometer stage 19 ends with the 19-kilometer, 8-percent climb to the top of Monte Grappa. But Urán hasn’t been outstanding in the four uphill time trials he has ridden in his life: 27th up Arcalis mountain in the 2007 Volta a Catalunya; seventh, 55 seconds back of runner-up Evans, in the Plan de Corones TT at the 2010 Giro; 10th, 1:06 behind winner Brad Wiggins, in the Col d’Eze TT at the 2012 Paris-Nice; and sixth, 1:26 back of Nibali, in the Mori-Polsa TT at last year’s Giro.
That uphill Giro stage is the most relevant to the one coming up next week because Urán was then in a team leadership position after his Sky teammate Wiggins abandoned the race. Of the riders he’ll again be facing this year, Urán was slower than Samuel Sanchez (now riding for Evans at BMC Racing), Michele Scarponi (who’s now supporting Fabio Aru at Team Astana) and Rafal Majka (the promising Tinkoff-Saxo team leader who’s sitting in third at this year’s Giro), and faster than Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman (sitting in fifth this year), AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo (now in fourth), and Evans (who last year was still searching for his best form after being knocked sideways by a persistent virus in 2012).
Right now, Evans’ biggest handicap may be his age, 37, a decade older than Urán; though the Aussie’s great experience in grand tours, including his victory at the 2011 Tour de France, make him a fierce competitor. That’s particularly true in adverse weather—and rain is forecast for the final three mountain stages on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Before then, we should expect some truly aggressive stage finishes this weekend.
The riders who really have to attack this Saturday and Sunday are the pure climbers Aru (3:37 down on GC), Movistar’s Nairo Quintana (at 3:29) and Pozzovivo (at 2:32). Of this trio, Aru and Pozzovivo showed in the opening part of the time trial that they are on great climbing form, while Quintana has been suffering with allergies that may continue to restrict his ambitions until later in the week. The finishing climb to Oropa Saturday is not as long or as steep as Montecampione on Sunday, but both climbs offer true chances of major time gains. When Marco Pantani outduelled Pavel Tonkov to clinch overall victory on Montecampione in 1998, the Italian climber gained 57 seconds on the Russian, and more than three minutes on the third-place finisher, Giuseppe Guerini.
Pozzovivo should excel on both these stages, but he may struggle on next Tuesday’s giant stage over the Gavia and Stelvio passes—where the Italian will likely struggle on the two long, potentially dangerous descents—before the uphill finish to Val Martello. While the tifosi will be hoping for big results from their Italian challengers Pozzovivo, 31, and Aru, 23, Evans will be planning to counterattack after Urán and his teammates, notably Wout Poels, do all the chasing.
It all adds up to a fascinating finale to a rugged Giro, but the eventual decisions will take place on those three, likely rainy stages at the end of the week—with the vicious climb to Rifugio di Panarotto on Thursday, the Monte Grappa TT Friday and, the steepest of them all, the double-digit climb of Monte Zoncolan next Saturday. Should Urán keep his cool and still have his strongest teammates to help him, the Colombian is the favorite to win the Giro—but no one can rule out more upsets coming from the likes of Aru, Evans, Pozzovivo and Quintana.