Cadel Evans enters the second rest day of the Giro d’Italia with a 57-second lead over his nearest rival in the overall standings. Recent evidence suggests that he’ll need a far bigger cushion should he still want to be pretty in pink come Trieste.
But let’s not start with doom and gloom.
There’s no denying that the opening phase of the Giro d’Italia couldn’t have gone much better for Australia. We have seen a stage victory and long stint in pink for the impressive Michael Matthews, a win for Orica-GreenEDGE in the opening team time trial and for their Dutch climber Pieter Weening in stage nine, and the evergreen maglia rosa Cadel Evans currently looking very much the strongest of all the GC favourites.
From the moment Svein Tuft led his Orica-GreenEDGE team-mates over the line in Belfast to the time Evans shadowed his big rival Rigoberto Uran over the finish line in Sestola on Sunday, the 97th edition of the Giro d’Italia has been a complete ball for Australia sport.
There were echoes of the 2013 Tour de France when a pulsating opening week saw Orica-GreenEDGE win the team time trial and both Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey wear the maillot jaune for two days, Gerrans after his masterful win in Calvi.
But that opening week in France proved to be the zenith of the Tour for Australia, swiftly followed by Evans’ demise on GC and a sharp petering out during the rest of the race.
There are no guarantees that we won’t see the same in Italy.
Matthews has been utterly superb – but with only four more stages remaining for the sprinters, he may find his options limited. Besides, ‘Bling’ has looked far more accomplished in uphill sprints rather than the out-and-out flat-track bunch affairs – plus it remains to be seen how his rump recovers from that painful-looking crash on Sunday.
Both Michael Hepburn and Luke Durbridge will harbour hopes for Thursday’s 41.9-kilometre time trial to Barolo – but the rolling Langhe hills of Piedmont’s famous wine region may be enough to ensure the Prosecco corks are popped by someone of a more uphill ilk.
As for non-GreenEdge Australians, Nathan Haas has looked in good knick since recovering from his dramatic fall in the opening TTT and the Garmin-Sharp rider will look to be in one of the stages suited to a break, for instance the long and lumpy stage 11 to the costal town of Savona.
Let’s not kid ourselves, however. What all Australians are getting most excited about is the prospect of Evans adding to his 2011 Tour crown by becoming the first Australian in history to win Italy’s premier stage race.
First up, the elephant in the room – Evans’ startling omission from my predicted top 10 before the start of the race. I received a fair amount of stick from readers for that – readers who are no doubt rubbing their hands together in glee, amid boastful mutters of ‘I told you so’.
But let’s not get carried away. Evans is undeniably in superb form – better form, I admit, than I perhaps gave him credit for ahead of the race. Their ethics and fair play aside, his BMC team have been extremely strong too, with Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato and Steve Morabito in particular protecting their leader with real gusto.
What’s more, it’s not as if Evans enters this race with no pedigree on the Giro, having finished third last year when riding with a distracted eye on his principal target of the season, the Tour.
We are, of course, just nine days into a 21-stage race – the first of two long individual time trials. That is a discipline Evans has struggled at in recent years – is yet to come, not to mention a gruelling final phase of the race that includes five Alpine summit finishes.
When Evans defended his 2011 Tour title he was just 10 seconds down in second place after stage eight and ahead of an opening ITT in which he shipped 1:43 to eventual winner Bradley Wiggins.
Now let’s not pretend that there’s anyone of the same calibre of Wiggins in this Giro when it comes to racing against the clock. So perhaps it would be more fair to compare Evans’ performances to those he faces in Italy.
Evans came a solid seventh in last year’s opening ITT in the Giro and took more than a minute off Uran, the man who now trails the Victorian by 57 seconds on GC.
If that sounds promising then consider this – if Evans was only 29 seconds down on eventual race winner Vincenzo Nibali at this stage of last year’s race, he was over two minutes ahead of Uran.
With Evans going on to take the third rung on the podium in Brescia – almost six minutes down on Nibali and over a minute behind Uran – that means Evans contrived to concede over three minutes to the Colombian in the second half of the race.
And now let’s consider that Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Uran may not even be the strongest Colombian this year.
Nairo Quintana has been quiet thus far, an injury to his buttocks in that large crash in stage six damaging his ability to respond to attacks in the opening mountain stages of the race last weekend.
But Quintana suffered a similar fate at the start of last year’s Tour, crashing on numerous occasions and only becoming Movistar’s main man after Alejandro Valverde’s bad day in the crosswinds.
From that point, Quintana became Chris Froome’s main rival – and come the third and final week, the Colombian youngster seemed to be climbing better than Froome, ruing his previous time losses as he secured the white jersey and a runner-up spot in his debut Tour.
Quintana is still only 1:45 in arrears – which is a fraction of the time many top riders may lose to him during the 26.8-kilometre mountain time trial up the Cima Grappa for stage 19.
And come next weekend’s back-to-back summit finishes at Oropa and Plan di Montecampione, I expect Evans to be severely under the cosh from both Quintana and Uran. And don’t forget the solid Pole Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), the Dutch youngster Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) and the pocket-rocket Italian climber Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale), whose punchy acceleration on the final ramp to Sestola in stage nine saw him rise to fourth on the overall standings and perhaps provided a little taster of things to come.
So let’s just put it out there – I’m not being anti-Evans. I’m just preaching caution.
A victory for the veteran Australian in the Giro may cover my face with enough egg to make a family-size Spanish omelette – and I’d be first to say that it couldn’t have happened to a better, more respected and likeable consummate pro. But, at the same time, I’m not going to hold my breath for a rider who in recent years has struggled to go the distance in three-week tours.
Wearing the pink jersey may provide the old man with an extra gear and ounces of self belief – but it may also act as a yoke around his neck when the going gets tough. To win this race, Evans will in all likelihood have to have worn the maglia rosa for 13 consecutive days.
That is a big ask. Too big, in my books.