Giro d'Italia
Vincenzo Nibali, Rafal Majka, and others during...

A Giro without a clear favorite for pink

Through the first nine stages of the Giro d'Italia, not one rider has emerged as the clear favorite to win. Will things change this week?

Who’s going to win the 99th Giro d’Italia? Try throwing a dart at the dartboard. Already nearly at the equator of the season’s first grand tour, the GC picture is as clear as the Tuscan mud the peloton’s been racing through.

With nine stages in the bag, no one has emerged as the clear favorite to win the pink jersey May 29 in Torino. Every time someone has stepped up, they’ve taken two steps back. Granted, we still have yet to hit a true mountain stage, and the Giro is typically decided in the final week of racing, but this Giro is still anyone’s race.

“Grand tours can be lost in the first week, but they are won in the last week,” Orica – GreenEdge sport director Matt White said. “We are exactly where we wanted to be going into the second week, when the serious racing really begins.”

White was talking about his Colombian climber Esteban Chaves, now 13th at 2:31 back. That might seem a long way back, but during a Giro without a clear leader, Chaves and just about everyone else are still in the hunt.

The Italian grand tour opened with three top favorites — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mikel Landa (Sky) — but none of them have demonstrated they are the rider to beat, at least not yet. Instead, it’s been the second-tier riders such as Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Esteban Chaves (Orica) who seemed to have the sharper edge.

Through two time trials, one mountaintop finale, a few tough transition stages, and four sprints, no one has taken a firm claim on the pink jersey. None of the favorites have imposed their will, yet none of them have crashed out, either. The best is yet to come.

“I don’t see a clear favorite in this Giro,” said Valverde, summing up the thoughts of many. “There are a lot of us very close, and the race is going to be very close and very hard.”

What does that mean for the Giro? First off, there’s not one dominant rider in the pack, and that means nearly all the pre-race favorites can still have a shot at the podium. And that means wildly, unpredictable racing for the coming two weeks. If everyone still believes they can win, no one’s going to be holding back and riding for position — at least not until the GC is further solidified. Aggressive racing could pay big dividends for riders feeling some kick in their legs.

Unlike the Tour de France, which typically sees one team and one rider absolutely smash the field in the first half of the race, the Giro is a different beast. Both Landa and Nibali looked a little wobbly coming into the Giro, each for different reasons, whereas Valverde seemed the finest tuned. Despite each having a few missteps in the first half of the Giro, all three are still in it. Landa looked almost out of the hunt until smashing it in Sunday’s time trial, riding superbly through the rain (there’s something to be said about growing up in Spain’s rainy Basque Country). Nibali seems to have misfired at every turn, yet his durability and experience means he’s still right there. Valverde looks sharp, but he’s missed a few opportunities to put his mark on the race early on.

Those three favorites are still close, with Nibali and Valverde virtually tied (fifth at 53 seconds and sixth at 55 seconds, respectively), and Landa in eighth at 1:18 back. The trio can take satisfaction from still being in the hunt to ride into the pink jersey.

“Now I have a rest day tomorrow,” Landa said of Monday’s second of three rest days. “For us, the [next week] is a really important part of the race for us. The first week has not been easy for anyone, but the team always supported me, and now is the moment to try to repay their confidence in me.”

There are a few names no one’s talking about. First is Steven Kruijswick of LottoNL – Jumbo, fourth overall at 51 seconds back. Back from a devastating leg injury, the spindly Dutch climber looks on track to beat his career-best Giro seventh from last year. Movistar’s Andrey Amador bolted back into the frame with a fine time trial, rising from 13th to third at 32 seconds back, and could be considered the “virtual pink jersey holder” after finishing fourth last year. Amador missed a chance to snag the pink jersey in stage 4 and vows to work for Valverde without disavowing his own podium hopes. He will need to really step up in the mountains. Kruijswick rolls out of the first nine days in ideal position and could deliver a surprise next week.

“Steven is in very good position and won seconds on most of his competitors,” Lotto sport director Jan Boven said. “The favorites don’t have much differences between them, so we have to stay focused.”

Dark horses Gianluca Brambilla, the overnight leader, and his Etixx – Quick-Step teammate Bob Jungels (at 1 second) are expected to fade in the deep mountains, but stranger things have happened in the Giro. Neither has finished in the top 10 of a grand tour and neither has that much of a head start on the favorites to be a serious threat.

Two riders come out of the weekend with dubious chances. The first is Dumoulin, who looked to be in the throes of topping his Vuelta a España surprise from last year. The Dutchman seemed to be thoroughly in control until things unraveled in Saturday’s steep and intense finale across the hills of Tuscany. He gained some ground in Sunday’s time trial, but rather than entering the second half of the Giro with the pink jersey and a big head start, he’s seventh at nearly a minute back and will surely suffer against the pure climbers in the deep mountains. The other is Zakarin, who was poised to take pink but crashed twice and was forced to have one bike change Sunday. He looked banged up after the stage, but luckily he has Monday’s rest day to recover. Of all the riders in the top 10, Zakarin looked like he had the best climbing legs.

“I am really motivated to keep fighting in this Giro,” Zakarin said. “The weather made the course quite dangerous [Sunday]. I have some injuries, mostly on the left leg, hip and around my knee. I hope to recover in the next days.”

That won’t be easy. The second full week of the Giro is perhaps its hardest. Tuesday’s stage across the rough hills of Tuscany ends with a very steep uphill finale to Sestola. There’s a reprieve Wednesday and Thursday, perhaps the last chance for sprinters until Torino, followed by two very hard mountain stages during which the GC contenders will race full-gas. The climbing time trial to Alpi di Siusi rounds out what will be some decisive days for the Giro GC. And after the final rest day, the Giro concludes with three summit finales packed into the final five days of racing.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka, still hanging in the top 10 at eighth. “I hope my sharp will keep improving, because it’s important to have a strong performance in the last week.”