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Giro d'Italia

Analysis: Giro shaping up to be a three-horse race

With the first week of the Italian grand tour in the books, three riders have emerged as the leading trio chasing the pink jersey

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PUERTO RECATINI, Italy (VN) — Any grand tour starts with many dreamers, but it can only end with one winner. Three weeks of attrition, bad luck, and smart tactics ultimately deliver the final victor.

So far, the 2015 Giro d’Italia has followed the typical grand tour script. More than a few have already seen their dreams of glory dashed in an instant. Crashes, illnesses, and bad luck inevitably separate the wheat from the chafe. That’s the cruel nature of the law of selectivity in any grand tour, and the hard-fought, challenging first half of the 98th Giro has proven no different.

Pre-race favorites such as Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step), who started the Giro with a chest cold, and 2012 champion Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), who missed a key move in stage 4, are both facing headwinds to get back into the frame.

Crashes have impacted the GC, with podium hopeful Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) surviving a harrowing crash on an otherwise benign corner in stage 3. The worst came in a finish-line pileup caused by an over-eager fan in stage 6, leaving Daniele Colli (Nippo-Vini Fantani) with a broken arm, and five-star favorite Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) hobbled with a dislocated shoulder.

Like any grand tour, this Giro has delivered its fair share of surprises, both pleasant and otherwise. Italian cycling continues on its generational resurgence, with Davide Formolo (Cannondale), 22, and Fabio Aru (Astana), 23, serving as the leading lights. So far, weather hasn’t been a major factor, but that could change as the Giro pedals north into the Dolomites and Alps, where the gravel-road Fenestiere climb featured in the Giro’s penultimate stage remains mired in mud and snow on its uppermost reaches.

La Gazzetta dello Sport has dubbed a trio of riders the “Three Sopranos,” and the Giro is already shaping up to be a three-horse race. Following the Giro’s first of two rest days, VeloNews handicaps their chances:

Alberto Contador, first overall

The peloton’s “master and commander,” Contador has had plenty of highs and lows in his career, and this Giro reflects his rough ride. Snagging the pink jersey early, Contador soon found himself on the deck in a nasty pileup in stage 6. A dislocated left shoulder threw his Giro, and his entire 2015 campaign, in which he’s targeting both the Giro and Tour de France, in jeopardy. As the rider of reference in the race, all eyes are looking to Contador.

Best moment: Fighting back from a dislocated shoulder to defend the pink jersey at Campitello Matese. Had Contador buckled, it would have taken the air out of his hopes and his team, and it would have given a psychological boost to his rivals. Contador never gives up, and despite some rumors that he might be bluffing about the extent of his injuries, riding out of last weekend reconfirmed that Contador is among the toughest, most combative riders of his generation.

Could have gone better: Many were wondering why Contador was so near the front of the mass gallop into Castiglione della Pescaia. Once under the 3km-to-go banner, GC favorites typically float toward the back of the bunch to avoid high-speed crashes among the fearless sprinters, but that’s not Contador’s style. He always rides near the front of the bunch all the way to the line, just in case there is a split in the pack. It was a question of bad luck. One over-zealous fan could have torpedoed Contador in an instant.

Team strength: Tinkoff-Saxo started off with a bang, “winning” the TTT among the GC contenders, and then railing it through the narrow, challenging stages along the Ligurian coast. Astana has since proved more explosive than Tinkoff, with Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers both slipping backward in GC contention, and even leaving Contador isolated in Campitello Matese over the weekend. The team has the depth and experience to go the distance, but with the Tour de France also on their minds, the riders on Tinkoff-Saxo need to get back into the Giro before it slips away from them.

Where he needs to make a move: Contador will be able to play off Aru and Porte, so long as he has the pink jersey. There’s no one better at defending a leader’s jersey, but Contador will attack when he has the legs. A lot depends on how Saturday’s stage 14 time trial plays out, but he thrives in long, brutal mountain stages, and the Giro’s penultimate stage is right up his alley. He won’t want to wait that long, however, and the 236km grinder to Cervinia in stage 19 could well be where Contador sews up the Giro.

His chances: Like everyone else, the long time trial this weekend will dictate Contador’s tactics. If he’s behind Porte, he and Aru could link up to try to gang up on the Tasmanian. If Contador keeps things close in the time trial, and perhaps even defends pink, Contador will be able to manage the Giro on his terms.

Fabio Aru, second at three seconds back

Riding just his third Giro, Aru has already emerged as a legitimate grand tour contender. Third overall last year, Aru is riding for the win and has brought a loaded team to back him up. By far, he’s been the most aggressive among the GC favorites. He’s come tantalizingly close to pink, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the Contador challenge going into the second half.

Best moment: Every time the road has titled upward, Aru has been the protagonist so far in this Giro. As the race’s pure climber, Aru hasn’t let any opportunity slip by without at least trying. The early climbs haven’t been long enough or steep enough for Aru to truly make a selection, but his accelerations have helped eliminate podium rivals, such as Urán and Hesjedal.

Could have gone better: For all of his aggression and strength in numbers in Astana, he should be carrying pink into the second half of the Giro. Contador is one of the toughest competitors in the pack, and he won’t cede an inch to true GC rivals, a lesson that Aru has been learning over the past few days. Even with a hobbled Contador, Aru was unable to erase a two-second gap to Contador to take pink. Instead, Contador managed to widen his lead to four seconds, thanks to a smart move to snag a mid-stage time bonus Saturday. Aru got back one second Sunday, but Contador carries the pink jersey — and the psychological advantage that comes with it — into the second half of the Giro.

Team strength: Astana has surprised the peloton by coming out gangbusters in the first half of the Giro. Tinkoff was stronger in the team time trial and opening two road stages, but Astana soon imposed its will on the peloton. The team has three in the top 5, with Mikel Landa and Dario Cataldo providing Aru solid backing and giving them extra cards to play that will complicate tactics for their rivals going into the deep mountains. A stage win with Paolo Tiralongo on Sunday gives Astana confidence going into the final two weeks of racing. With experienced hand Giuseppe Martinelli, a master at Giro tactics, behind the wheel, Aru will have maximum support going into the decisive moments of the 2015 Giro.

Where he needs to make a move: The Mortirolo stage ending at Aprica in the final week is ideal for Aru to make a long-distance attack that could blow open the race and electrify the Italian tifosi. If he could pull off a coup on the Cima Pantani, he would establish himself as Italy’s newest superstar.

His chances: Limiting his losses in Saturday’s time trial is key. If he bleeds minutes to Contador and Porte, Aru’s pink jersey hopes are done. Grand tours are won against the clock, and as a pure climber, Aru will have to at least keep it close if he wants to carry pink into Milano.

Richie Porte, third at 22 seconds back

The Tasmanian has been racing patiently throughout the first half of the Giro. He’s avoided mishaps, and has resisted the temptation to attack on unfavorable terrain. Porte has looked solid in marking Aru’s and Contador’s accelerations and looks to have more in his legs. Of the top 3 riders in the race, Porte has been the most conservative. He’s clearly holding his firepower until the Giro’s final two weekends.

Best moment: It hasn’t come yet. Porte has been the most discreet of the big three so far through this Giro. He’s been biding his time, marking the moves, and conserving his energy. Perhaps it’s not the most exciting style of racing, but Porte has been wisely conserving his energy, and doing just enough to follow the flares from Aru and Contador.

Could have gone better: Sky surprisingly lost quite a bit of time in the opening time trial, but that has proven little more than a hiccup. Porte has chosen a conservative game plan so far through this Giro, but at some point, he will have to take some risks if he wants to win.

Team strength: While Tinkoff and Astana have bashed each other’s heads in, Sky has discreetly been riding in their slipstream. Sky picked up an early stage win with up-and-coming sprinter Elia Viviani, who owns the red points jersey, and since then the team has ridden to keep Porte in position. Sky has some solid climbers in Mikel Nieve and Leopold Konig, who can help pace Porte into the final week. Sky has experienced riders surrounding him, including Bernard Eisel, Kanstantsin Siutsou, and Vasil Kirkienka.

Where he needs to make a move: Saturday’s time trial will be the make-or-break moment in Porte’s bid for pink. The long, undulating course plays to Porte’s strength, especially against podium rival Aru. Porte can expect to take up to a minute to Contador, and perhaps even more on Aru. That could catapult Porte into pink going into the mountains.

His chances: Porte will have pressure to shake his reputation within the peloton of cracking deep in a grand tour. His chances for pink will depend heavily on the stage 14 time trial. The trimmer and leaner Tasmanian is clearly climbing at the same level as Contador and Aru, so if he can take major time on his climbing rivals, this Giro could well be Porte’s.