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|As one pre-race favorite after another has folded, Vincenzo Nibali has risen above the field.|
VALLOIRE, France -- Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is on cruise control going into the final week of the 93rd Giro d'Italia.
Though the hardest climbs of the Giro still loom in the closing week, the stars are lining up in favor for Nibali to claim his first Giro victory.
As one pre-race favorite after another has folded, either by abandons (Sky's Bradley Wiggins; Garmin-Sharp's Ryder Hesjedal), or by underperforming (Lampre-Merida's Michele Scarponi), Nibali has emerged after two brutal weeks of racing as the master of the Giro universe.
Two grueling days in horrendous weather conditions across the Alps established Nibali as the man to beat, securing a slender, but convincing 1:26 lead to Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) going into the Giro's decisive final week.
With just six stages left to go, the 93rd Giro is Nibali's to lose.
"The hardest part of the Giro is still to come. We cannot anything yet," Nibali said. "We must remain prudent. Evans and [Rigoberto] Urán are still close and they are dangerous rivals."
Still, several factors are stacking up in Nibali's favor as the Giro hits the homestretch.
First and most important, Nibali is simply a step above his rivals. So far, other than the individual time trial in stage 8, no direct GC rivals have taken time on him. Urán (Sky) took time on Nibali up Montasio, but Astana let him ride away because he was further back on GC at that point. Now a direct threat, Urán has been kept under close guard.
"I came to this Giro with the highest ambitions," Nibali said. "It's a continuation of last year at the Tour, when I was also strong, but the Tour course wasn't good for me. This year's Giro course is much better suited for my capabilities."
It shouldn't come as a complete surprise to see Nibali dominate this Giro. Last July, he was the only rider strong enough to challenge the Sky juggernaut. Already a winner of the 2010 Vuelta, Nibali has emerged as Italy's most consistent grand-tour rider.
Of the past five grand tours he's started, he's won or been on the podium in four. His long hiccup was seventh in the 2011 Vuelta after riding to third in the Giro that May, a result that was bumped to second after Alberto Contador was disqualified as part of his 2010 clenbuterol case.
A surprising Evans has been steady, but unable to pose any serious threat to Nibali when the road has gone up. The 2011 Tour champ lost time Saturday that he couldn't afford, but he stayed with the moves Sunday. The big question remains: Will the Australian will have the legs to seriously challenge Nibali in the closing week come crunch time on Tre Cime and Val Martello?
Another key factor helping Nibali will be that riders and teams will now start shifting into defending their positions in the overall rather than directly attacking the pink jersey.
Riders are starting to show fatigue after 15 brutal stages, so teams will look to consolidate their gains. Few are willing to risk a daring do-or-die attack on the pink jersey. Instead, riders tend to play it safe and defend what they already have.
But the battle for the podium remains very much up for grabs, something Nibali and Astana can exploit to their advantage. Nibali can ride defensively against the podium moves, forcing his opponents to start attacking each other to try to make gains.
"We are already seeing a bit of that," Nibali said. "I cannot forget about Evans or Urán, but the others will be fighting for the podium. It's always better to have an advantage."
At 2:46 back, Urán's grip on third is tenuous at best. A few days ago, the Colombian was dreaming of taking it to Nibali. Two days in the Alps proved that he's no fan of cold weather and that he lacks the spark to seriously push Nibali into the red.
Now, Urán will be looking to secure a podium spot. Seventh in last year's Giro, a podium would be a huge achievement and help salve the disappointment of seeing pre-race favorite Wiggins flame out.
Nipping at his heels is Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia), fourth at 2:47. Scarponi is fifth at 3:53, and he will be attacking to ride onto the podium.
When asked if he thinks Nibali has any chinks, Scarponi just laughed.
"I think the race is now on for the podium," Scarponi said. "Nibali's been solid so far and the climbing time trial favors him as well. Unless he gets sick, I think it will be hard to beat him."
The old Italian game of alliances will also play in favor of Nibali.
Nibali did himself a huge favor Saturday by not challenging Santambrogio for the stage above Bardonecchia. It was the classic unspoken deal hatched on the road: "You get the win, I get the jersey, we both ride to the line."
Santambrogio was effusive in his thanks to Nibali and now Astana and Vini Fantini will likely become allies in the final week.
Evans is still too close for Nibali to breathe easy, so Santambrogio can become a natural ally. Both strong climbers, the pair could plot a repeat, attacking together to distance Evans yet again. The gains would be mutual; Nibali could tighten his grip on pink and Santambrogio could push closer to securing a podium spot.
Vini Fantini sport director Luca Scinto has made it no secret that he has no love for Team Sky. He's criticized the British outfit in the Italian media as being too aloof and distant from fans. He told reporters on the ground in Italy that he would rather see "an Italian" win the Giro than a Sky rider.
Nibali has the luxury of riding the wheels of anyone attacking for the podium. Scarponi will need to make some moves if he hopes to move up.
Urán might find some help with Team Colombia, a squad packed with his compatriots. Teammate Sergio Henao continues to struggle, so Urán might find the "Colombian factor" tilting in his favor. Though Team Colombia will be looking to get into breakaways to try to win a stage, a few friendly wheels in the most decisive moments of the final week could come in handy.
Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) said as much after he sprinted to second to snag the young rider's jersey.
"We are all friends," Betancur said of the Colombians. "We help each other when we can. Of course, our teams' interest comes first."
Nibali can also count on a strong Astana team and the experienced hand of Giuseppe Martinelli.
Astana stepped up its game Sunday, putting on an impressive demonstration of team strength as three friendly Astana jerseys herded the peloton up the Télégraphe and Galibier. Fabio Aru, Valerio Agnoli and Tanel Kangert led the way for the pink jersey.
Martinelli, meanwhile, is one of the most experienced and cagiest minds in Italian cycling. Martinelli has led such riders as Marco Pantani, Stefano Garzelli, Gilberto Simoni, Damiano Cunego, and Alberto Contador to the pink jersey.
Since moving to Astana from Liquigas, Nibali and Martinelli have bonded well. Both are meticulous and sit down nightly to study the GC, talk tactics for the next day's stage, and play out different scenarios they expect to see on the road.
And finally, the final week of racing is just the kind of racing Nibali loves.
Steep climbs, harrowing descents, and even a climbing time trial thrown in for good measure; Nibali is licking his chops.
"I hope to win a stage before this Giro is over," he said. "The most important thing is to keep the pink jersey. I like to attack, but sometimes you must be careful how you manage your efforts. Attacking is my nature -- if there's an opportunity, you will see the pink jersey on the attack."
Perhaps the biggest danger to Nibali right now is just that; his attacking nature. A one bad crash could spoil everything. At 28, Nibali has reached a new level of maturity and depth. Perhaps the lure of the pink jersey will help him take it just a touch easier on the descents.
This Giro is his to lose, and he knows it.