Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) lines up in the pole position as the Giro d’Italia clicks back into gear Tuesday following three spectacular days of racing in Ireland.
The 27-year-old Colombian returns to Italy in ideal position, taking the “virtual” maglia rosa among the legitimate GC contenders, with eighth overall at 19 seconds back.
Urán avoided mishaps in Ireland, and profited from Omega Pharma’s surprisingly strong team time trial Friday, finishing just five seconds off Orica-GreenEdge’s winning time.
“The truth is everything went very well. We started with a great team time trial, and the team couldn’t have done a better job in the two road stages,” Urán said during Monday’s rest day. “As a leader, I’ve had very good sensations.”
Urán was second overall last year, and returns to the Giro with ambitions of riding all the way to the top. After riding three seasons with Sky, where he was a second-tier rider behind Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, Urán joins Omega Pharma as the team’s outright GC captain.
It’s a natural next step for Urán, who despite only being 27 has been a professional for nine seasons, and for Omega Pharma. The Belgian outfit has long been king of the classics, and has a strong tradition in sprints and weeklong stage races. With Urán, the team is spreading its wings.
“It’s a new experiment for us to have a GC captain for grand tours,” said Omega Pharma sport director Rolf Aldag. “We have an experienced team, so it’s not that much different from riding to win in shorter stage races, but it does change the focus. We are here to support Rigoberto, and see how far he can go.”
Urán is trying to downplay his favorite status, pointing to other riders, such as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), as the top pink jersey candidates.
“I was second last year, so now everyone expects me to win, but it’s not so easy,” Urán said. “Many things can happen in a grand tour. The most important thing is to concentrate on each stage, not lose any time, and take advantage when you can. [Today] is only the fourth stage, and the race is very hard. My sensations have been good, every day I am feeling better.”
Urán and Evans, 14th at 21 seconds back, left Ireland best positioned among the GC contenders. Rodríguez, 116th at 1:47 back, and 2012 champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), 156th at 3:40 back, have the most time to make up.
“It’s clear we have to attack,” Rodríguez said. “The team time trial didn’t go as well as we had hoped, but all we can do is turn the page and look ahead. There is some terrain this week that favors us, and we must take advantage.”
Tuesday’s fourth stage, the Giro’s shortest road stage at 112 kilometers, would have been ideal for Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), the winner of the first two road stages, to complete his Giro hat trick. But a fever forced him to withdrew from the race before the rage start. His exit opens the door for several other sprinters, including Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Nacer Bouhanni, (FDJ.fr), and American Tyler Farrar (Garmin). Friday’s seventh stage to Foligno also favors a mass sprint.
Two punchy stages Wednesday and Thursday will favor riders with a hot sprint after a short, intense effort. Wednesday’s stage to Viggiano ends with a 5.5km climb at 5.5 percent, while Thursday’s finale atop Montecassino ends with an 8.7km climb at 5.2 percent.
Overnight leader Michael Matthews (Orica) is also eyeing a victory in these two stages.
In a wide-open Giro, the first real test of the climbing legs will come over the weekend in the Apennines during the Giro’s first two real mountain stages. Saturday’s finale at Montecopiolo, at nearly 19km with ramps as steep as 13 percent, will reveal who doesn’t have the legs to win the Giro, while Sunday’s climb at Sestola, at 10.7km with ramps as steep as 13 percent, will provide a chance for the first real attacks from the GC candidates.
For Urán, the advantages he took in the TTT will allow him to ride more conservatively during this week’s varied terrain, and save his legs for the decisive final week across the Alps, but he didn’t discount attacking if he sees an opportunity.
Matthews will fade into the rearview mirror as the road tilts upward, and perhaps Ivan Santaromita, fifth at 14 seconds back, can inherit the pink jersey, but Orica by its own admission does not have a legitimate candidate for the final podium in Trieste.
Urán could end up in the pink jersey, but the team might not want to have it too soon. The squad put the brakes on Alessandro Petacchi in the opening day sprints because it did not want to risk earning the pink jersey and the responsibility that comes with it. Petacchi will see his chances in the sprints later in the Giro, but for now, the team is concentrating on protecting Urán through the opening days of the race.
“The most complicated is Thursday’s stage to Montecassino at 240km. I think this week riders like Purito will have a go. I will wait. I have a small advantage, and I will follow the attacks if they come from ‘Purito’ and Nairo,” Urán said. “Everyone is at a good level, even though there hasn’t been any real mountains yet, and we couldn’t check the condition of the favorites.”
This week will not crown the Giro winner, but it will surely reveal who will have the legs to challenge for the maglia rosa.
Urán is hoping to survive the week with all of his options intact.