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Bradley Wiggins faces an uphill battle in quest for maglia rosa

Wiggins is an ace time trialist, but to be certain of winning the Giro, he must attack in the mountains

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SALTARA, Italy (VN) — After a hilly and technical stage-8 time trial, the general classification of the Giro d’Italia began to take shape Saturday, with a few major surprises among the overall contenders.

Bradley Wiggins had hoped to both win the stage and take the race lead, but the Sky captain was unable to do either.

A puncture and bike change, just 17 minutes into his 76-minute effort, proved to be the critical difference between Wiggins and stage winner Alex Dowsett (Movistar), who finished just 10 seconds ahead of Wiggins.

More importantly, Wiggins was unable to distance himself as he’d hoped from his major GC rivals, taking back only 11 seconds on Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, who emerged as the day’s biggest winner, and the new race leader.

Instead of winning, or taking pink, Wiggins now faces an uphill battle, figuratively and literally, as the race heads towards the mountains and one final test against the clock, an uphill time trial on stage 18.

Nibali, however, is in the maglia rosa — and in control. The Sicilian, who crashed out of the lead in 2010 and finished third, looked sharp on Saturday and has shown that he’s come to this Giro to win.

“I prepared all winter for this time trial,” Nibali said, adding that his team would fight to defend his maglia rosa all the way to Breschia on May 26. “I have the maglia rosa sooner than I had expected. But I never take anything for granted. I know all the GC riders will fight until the end.”

Though Wiggins is the best in the sport against the clock, given Nibali’s improved time trialing and his unquestionable climbing ability, the 20.6km climb on stage 18 could be too close to call between the two; to win the Giro, Wiggins must attack in the mountains to take time out of Nibali.

The GC looks to now be a battle among six team leaders. Of those riders, defending champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) was perhaps the day’s biggest loser, finishing 2:13 behind Wiggins, 2:02 behind Nibali, and 1:44 behind Cadel Evans.

In addition to Wiggins and Evans, also leapfrogging Hesjedal on GC was Italian Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and Dutch rider Robert Gesink (Blanco); the defending champion, who finished 18th on the stage, now sits sixth overall, 2:05 behind Nibali.

Yet Hesjedal said he was satisfied with his ride, and not overly concerned about dropping to sixth among the race’s key GC favorites.

“It was a tough day, but if you look at the guys in front of me, everyone is world class,” Hesjedal said. “It’s still early in the race. I’m happy with where I am. I respect everyone in front of me. I think the rides of the day belonged to Nibali and Scarponi, and being Italian, it’s good for them, it’s their home tour. It’s going to be a tough battle.”

Gesink, who has largely sat under the radar in this race, moved into third overall, 1:15 behind Nibali. He posted on Twitter that he was pleased with his ride: “A good day in today’s Giro time trial, finishing 11th, moving up to third in the classification. So far we’re going perfect!”

Evans now sits second overall, 29 seconds behind Nibali and 46 ahead of Gesink. The BMC rider announced he would race the Giro only a month ago, but over the past eight stages, the 2011 Tour champion has shown that he came to Italy to fight for the podium.

“Overall, it’s shaping up pretty well,” Evans said. “Things are finally starting to come together now. On the classification, I think I am looking fairly well. I think it’s a good position to be in at this point. I think the Giro changes a bit from here on in.”

With Nibali looking strong, and Evans the only rider within one minute on the classification, the rest of the top-six race favorites must now attack when the race hits the mountains on Tuesday.

“I think I’ve shown that I’m not afraid to attack and push the race, but you don’t have to attack to beat someone — people can have a bad day,” Hesjedal said. “There’s a lot of racing to go.

“Nibali put himself in a strong position, he showed that today, but to be a minute and half off the podium, I’m happy with that. I know I get better as these long races go on, so I’m looking forward to the last half of the race.”

Perhaps Wiggins put it best when he said, succinctly, “It’s going to be a hell of a race for the next two weeks.”