Handicapping the Giro favorites: Three-man race for pink

The year's first grand tour kicks off May 6, and three riders stand above the rest of the field as favorites to win the overall.

Three riders line up Friday as the overwhelming favorites to battle for the final podium when the Giro d’Italia ends in Torino on May 29.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Mikel Landa (Sky) are generating the most pre-race buzz, and rightly so. Nibali and Valverde know what it takes to win a grand tour, while Landa seems anxious to continue his impressive Giro trajectory that went into overdrive with two stage victories and third place in 2015.

This year’s Giro is perhaps its deepest and most competitive in recent years. Though defending champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), 2014 winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Chris Froome (Sky) are focusing on the Tour de France, the corsa rosa won’t be without favorites. Behind the top three, there are nearly a dozen riders who pack legitimate top-10 credentials, including Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale), Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge), Rein Taaramae and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal (Trek – Segafredo), and Jean-Christophe Péraud and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale).

While those teams and riders will be aiming to disrupt the race, the tone of the Giro should evolve around the three strongest riders who bring the three strongest teams.

Unlike the Tour de France, which is typically a much more controlled grand tour with a stronger, deeper field, the Giro favors the audacious. Erratic weather, the steep and varied terrain across Italy’s boot, and the day-in, day-out stresses of racing in Italy all add up to make the Giro one of the most unpredictable and chaotic races of the season. The top favorites bring Tour-quality teams to the Giro with hopes of imposing more control on the chaos. If they can impose their collective will, outsiders will have a harder time breaking out.

Here’s our look at the Giro favorites:

Nibali: The race will pivot around his form

Among the GC favorites, Nibali is perhaps the most enigmatic ahead of Friday’s start. While Valverde, Landa, and others confirmed their Giro credentials with substantial early season results, Nibali didn’t do much to impress, at least not in Europe. A stage win at Green Mountain set him up for the overall at the Tour of Oman, but that was back in February. Since then, Nibali has been discreet to the point of almost being invisible. Sixth at Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth at the Giro del Trentino hardly engenders much optimism ahead of a race as difficult and challenging at the Giro.

That’s just fine for “The Shark,” who is the master of hitting his peak when it counts, managing a race, and delivering a big hit when his rivals might not be expecting it. After an up-and-down 2015 — he fell short of the Tour podium and was ejected from the Vuelta a España for an embarrassing tow, but also won the Giro di Lombardia as well as a stage in the Tour — Nibali will have something to prove in what’s a contract season.

Now 31, he’s returning to his Italian roots and will line up with every intention of winning his second pink jersey. Backed by a very strong and deep Astana team, with former winner Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang, and Tanel Kangert helping him in the mountains, Nibali will set the tone in the peloton. If he’s on top of his game, he will be very hard to beat. If he’s not, then we’ll have a race on our hands.

Valverde: Learning to wait

Throughout the first half of his career, Valverde was the master of pulling defeat out of the hands of victory. Arguably one of the most versatile riders in the peloton, the Spaniard bungled early attempts at GC, finally winning the Vuelta in 2009 in what was his 10th grand tour start up to that point. Valverde’s since learned that patience and consistency is key to grand tours, and that experience has paid off.

After riding to 20th in the 2012 Tour, his first grand tour following his two-year racing ban, Valverde scored four podiums in the next seven grand tours, never finishing worse than eighth. It will be interesting to see how Valverde handles the Giro, which he starts for the first time of his career after racing 10 Vueltas and eight Tours. Many laud Valverde for his attacking style, but he barely attacked at all last summer en route to his first Tour podium (third place overall).

Following wheels and measuring efforts might work in July, but the Giro is a different kind of race that often awards aggression and risk-taking more than the Tour. Now 36, an experienced and more mature Valverde will be supported by a strong and deep Movistar, with Carlos Betancur, Andrey Amador (fourth last year), Rory Sutherland, and Giovanni Visconti, so expect the blue jerseys to be keeping Valverde out of trouble. If he goes on the attack, he could well blow the race wide open. If he plays the waiting game like he did at the Tour, he might find the Giro train has already left the station.

Landa: Ready to surprise again

At the start of last year’s Giro, few beyond Spain’s Basque Country knew much about Landa. That quickly changed over the ensuing three weeks as he emerged as the strongest climber in the race, challenging eventual winner Contador and his then-Astana teammate Fabio Aru. Until last year’s Giro breakout, Landa had never finished better than 28th in four previous grand tour starts, but he returns to the Giro this year a very different man.

With two stage wins and third place overall last year, Landa revealed a fiery character and fierce competitiveness that landed him a fat contract with Team Sky. The British juggernaut won its first monument with Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and now it’s hoping Landa can deliver the franchise a pink jersey following a couple of false starts over the past few years. The 26-year-old has the resolve and climbing chops to put him at the top of the favorites’ list, and a recent overall victory at the Giro del Trentino confirmed he’s on form despite an early-season illness that delayed his 2016 debut until March.

Landa’s big question mark remains time trialing. Last year, he was terrible against the clock, bleeding time to Contador to eliminate himself as a genuine GC threat. Despite working on his TT position, he was equally unimpressive in his lone individual time trial so far this season with 28th (granted, in the rain and still lacking top form), but if Landa wants to truly challenge for the pink jersey, he is going to have to limit his losses against Nibali and Valverde, both of whom can put down good times. Landa will see excellent support from Sky, with Nicolas Roche, Ian Boswell, Phil Deignan and David Lopez (though without Sergio Henao, who is sidelined for a review of his biological passport numbers), so it will be up to him the deliver. Landa was the big surprise last year. With all eyes on him this time around, he will need to be even better.