Prior to the start of this year's Giro d'Italia, race director Mauro Vegni voiced his concern about a lack of star quality in the forthcoming race.
"I'm not going to pretend that that's not the case," he said, according to Andrew Dampf of the Associated Press.
It was a worry publicly prompted by Team Sky's Richie Porte pulling out of the Giro, adding to a list of absent contenders, including the Australian's team-mate Chris Froome and former winners Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). It was also one that encompassed ongoing dialogue within cycling about a calendar some believe is not serving the sport's most prestigious events as well as it should.
Porte's preparations for the year's first Grand Tour had been hit by illness, leading to Sky deciding to save him for the Tour de France. Given the meticulous nature of a team whose very foundation has been built on "marginal gains"—a mantra popularised by their boss, Sir Dave Brailsford—Vegni might have had more understanding on the matter.
He should also have had more faith in the ability of his own race to thrive, even without the perceived lack of big names (a slightly erroneous statement in itself).
The opening stages in Ireland were lit up by rising sprint star Marcel Kittel's dominant rides and a welcoming public, who embraced the Giro's visit and turned the country pink, on both sides of the border.
Back in Italy and heading into its final, mountains-dominated week-and-a-half, the battle for the maglia rosa has naturally come to the fore.
The prominent parts played by established names, such as former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC) and 2012 Giro victor Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), have dispelled the notion of few recognised names taking part. More importantly, the racing has not suffered for an instant with those of less decorated palmares also competing to top the general classification in most entertaining fashion.
By winning stages featuring race-defining ascents/decents, two of these lesser-known names—Italians Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF) and Fabio Aru (Astana)—have ensured some home pride amid the larger overall picture. While Aru's victory on Stage 15 up Montecampione also put him in GC contention, it has been the contest between two Colombians which has claimed the narrative for pink.
Rigoberto Uran of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Movistar's Nairo Quintana are hardly unknowns. Last year, both finished on the podium at the Giro and Tour, respectively, claiming the Young Rider jerseys in the process (and the King of the Mountains' polka dots for Quintana, too).
Uran took the lead from Evans in this year's race with a scintillating time-trial ride last Thursday. Though riding bravely with some occasional flourishes since then, limitations in the 27-year-old's ability to dominate a race as leader have been exposed, at least compared to the increasingly powerful riding of his compatriot.
Quintana has not had things all his own way these previous two weeks. The team and individual time trials saw him lose minutes on Evans and Uran, with a cold not helping his efforts.
Crucially, though, he was gaining time on them both over the weekend before Wednesday's epic, controversial Stage 16 saw him make what could be the race's defining move.
As the above tweet hints at, the already daunting climbs of Passo di Gavia and Passo dello Stelvio were worsened by conditions that had the peloton covering up as much as possible.
Concerns over rider safety while descending the Stelvio led to confusion over the possible neutralisation of its descent. The matter was subsequently cleared up, but not before Quintana and fellow Movistar man Gorka Izagirre joined Hesjedal and Europcar's Pierre Rolland in making the most of the uncertainty, racing full steam ahead behind Sky's breakaway man, Dario Cataldo.
Hesjedal and Rolland did not finish far behind Quintana on the long, unfolding and definitively less hostile ride up to the finish of Val Martello. However, their previous deficits, compared to the Colombian's, meant their moves were not as significant to GC matters as his stage-winning break proved to be.
Quintana has little to no swagger about him, but he is as cool as they come in those moments when the road swings upward and the legs of professional cyclists wince in despair. He will have tougher days, but on this demanding 16th stage, he rode with conviction and grace to put four minutes and 11 seconds into Uran, giving him an overall lead of 0:01:41 as of Tuesday night.
If he can build on this form, the 24-year-old may turn this healthy advantage into dominance over the remaining days of the Giro d'Italia.
For now, though, Vegni and the folks behind the race should be pleased with the competition they have seen so far, as they should be with their race's enduring ability to confirm the big-name reputations Vegni initially felt it was lacking.
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