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FIRENZE, Italy (VN) — One year ago, Robert Gesink quietly arrived to the start of the Amgen Tour of California unheralded as a pre-race favorite. He kept tabs with the top GC contenders, rode a strong time trial, and then won the race in the mountains, taking the biggest win of his pro career.
A year later, the Dutch rider may be following the same script at the Giro d’Italia.
While Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) were hailed as the riders to watch for this Giro’s overall win, Gesink (Blanco) has again quietly kept up with the leaders, and again delivered a strong TT performance; next up, the mountains.
After eight stages of racing, Gesink sits third overall, 1:15 behind Nibali and 36 seconds behind Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), but ahead of Wiggins and Hesjedal.
For a rider who has yet to reach the podium at a grand tour — he finished fifth at the 2010 Tour de France, and has been in the top 10 at the Vuelta three times — Gesink now sits in the best position of his career following a strong stage-8 time trial performance over a hilly, technical course.
He finished 11th on the stage, yielding 1:12 to the best-placed GC rider on the day, Wiggins. He finished behind Wiggins, Nibali, Evans and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), and ahead of Hesjedal.
“For me it was just a really good first week. Everything went according to plan,” Gesink said. “It was a difficult time trial. I had a good ride and gained some time on some, lost some time on some others, but at the end, I’m really satisfied with as far as we’ve come. But still, you look in the race book, and you see so many hard stages in a row. We haven’t done any real mountains yet. So far, so good.”
And with the Italy’s high mountains ahead, the 6-foot-2, 155-pound Dutch climber finds the Giro delving deeper into his preferred terrain.
Asked if he believes the upcoming climbing stages will work to his advantage, Gesink answered: “Normally, yes. And I did a good time trial, so the shape must be good. First though, I’m looking forward to the rest day, because it’s been a very tough Giro.
“If you look at a map of Italy, we’ve done almost all of Italy in a little more than a week. A lot of transfers, some days we were doing 150km in the car after the race still. It makes the Giro really tough, but it’s the same for the whole peloton.”
Though he didn’t come to the Giro with the clearly stated objective of winning the race, Gesink is now in position to fight for a podium finish, and maybe more. However, he said his approach would be to simply assess each stage as it comes.
“If it’s possible in the end, then, of course, winning is the objective, but I can’t look that far ahead yet,” Gesink said. “First, like always, I look at a grand tour stage by stage. You never know what can happen.
“Look at the day in the rain [stage 7], where Wiggins lost time. No one expected it to be that hard. I expected a tough day, but not that. If you start skipping ahead, mentally, for me personally, it doesn’t work like that. I just look at it day by day, and if I get better in the mountains, then I think there is a lot that is possible, but for now I think I can be really satisfied with the place I’m at.”
Asked to assess the race’s GC favorites after eight stages, Gesink acknowledged that race leader Nibali is in the driver’s seat.
“Nibali for sure, he’s looking really good,” Gesink said. “Evans is also looking better than I expected, and Wiggins showed himself in the time trial, again, to be really strong.
“It will be a nice fight, I think. Hesjedal is really racing. He’s trying to score bonus time wherever he can, he’s riding really aggressively.”
And though time trials haven’t historically been Gesink’s strength, the one remaining TT at the Giro is an all-uphill affair — 20.6km, with a 6 percent average gradient.
“It’s really, really difficult,” Gesink said. “First I have to see how it really goes in the mountains, compared to the other guys, but I can be confident if I look at how I was riding the last few days.”
If Gesink were to step off the final podium in Breschia wearing the maglia rosa, it would clearly be the biggest win of his career. At the moment, that doesn’t change the fact that, as the Amgen Tour of California kicks off on Sunday, he’s not there to defend his title.
“It’s strange, because I’d love to be there. It was one of the best races I’ve done in my career, and one of the best experiences, as a person and as a rider,” he said. “But that’s cycling. There are more goals in the season, for the team. We’re looking for a sponsor, and we want to show ourselves.
“We came here with a team, with a plan, an idea, and it happens the Tour of California is at the same time.”