Liquigas delivered a dominant team time trial victory against pre-stage favorites Team Sky and Garmin-Transitions to put the first Italian into the pink jersey as the 93rd Giro d’Italia returned to home roads.
Wednesday’s 33km team time trial from Savigliano to Cuneo saw Liquigas power to an impressive victory in 36:37 that saw all nine team riders cross the line together.
Vincenzo Nibali — who started the day just five seconds behind race leader Alexander Vinokourov and who was called up as a last-minute replacement for Franco Pellizotti last week — takes the Giro’s fourth pink jersey in as many stages.
“This pink jersey is like a dream for me,” said Nibali, seventh overall in last year’s Tour de France. “This is for my teammates, because we went really strong throughout the course. I still cannot believe it and I have goose-bumps.”
Some big names lose time
Sky powered to the fastest intermediate time of 19:31 (29 seconds faster than Liquigas) but struggled later in the race to only finish with six in 36:50.
Garmin, starting without Christian Vande Velde who crashed out Monday with a broken clavicle, finished a distant eighth at 49 seconds off the pace. David Millar started the day third at one second back and slipped to ninth at 45 seconds back.
Mid-race starters saw a heavy downpour midway through the course and later, a change of wind direction from the side to more of a tailwind seemed to favor the later starters.
Vinokourov (Astana) saw his grip on the pink jersey melt in the final kilometers. Liquigas was strongest in the final quarter of the course while Astana struggled to stay together, stopping the clock tied with Cervélo at 37:15. Vinokourov slipped to sixth at 33 seconds back.
“I had hoped to take some more time off the climbers,” lamented Vinokourov, the winner last month of the hilly one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
“The weather conditions didn’t do us any favors.”
Several big names lost a lot of time, including Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni (Lampre), 13th at 1:43; Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d’Epargne) at 18th at 2:21; Michele Scarponi (Androni), 19th at 2:24; and Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), 21st at 2:39.
Carlos Sastre, who crashed hard in Sunday’s second stage and lost more time Monday, was very pleased with Cervélo’s performance that limited his losses against Liquigas and gained back some time to riders like Cadel Evans (BMC) and the Italians. He slots into 32nd at 2:13, but realizes things could have been even worse.
“This team time trial has been a positive balance. To finish sixth, with the same time as Astana, in a time trial course like that after the first two stages and the rest day has been important to recover lost time with some important riders,” Sastre said. “The team did a sensational job and, frankly, it was important to be well-organized and have a motivated team.”
Evans was hoping for more from his young BMC squad. The team, one of only two teams starting with less than nine riders (Garmin was the other minus Vande Velde), posted an early fast time at 37:58, but soon saw the big guns take important gains.
When the dust settled, Evans lost 1:21 to Liquigas, but the team took solace that against other GC rivals, such as Vinokourov or Sastre, the losses were less than expected.
“It was a regular time trial that didn’t cost Cadel too much time,” said BMC sport director John Lelangue. “With the team we have here, and those conditions, the guys were really working to make it happen. Liquigas made a really good time, but there are a lot of mountains to come.”
Can Nibali pull a Contador?
The 25-year-old Nibali will be heralded as a hero in the Italian press, hungry for new idols after a string of devastating scandals have seen much of the past generation of stars nabbed by one doping imbroglio or another.
In fact, Nibali wasn’t even expecting to race the Giro until teammate Pellizotti was called out by the UCI for alleged abnormal levels revealed in his biological passport. Even though Pellizotti and Liquigas have criticized the process, Pellizotti was out and Nibali is in.
Whether he can take a page from Alberto Contador’s playbook remains to be seen. Contador was famously on vacation in 2008 when Astana received a last-minute invitation to start the Giro and he went on to win the race.
Nibali, who hails from Italy’s southern island of Sicily, is a consistent climber who can time trial very well. If he can stay with the most searing attacks in the final week of the Giro, he might be in with a shot.
“I am still looking ahead to the rest of the Giro. The last week will be hard, but I am not ruling anything out,” he said. “I don’t know the stages of the Giro. I was supposed to ride the Tour. I know some of the climbs from 2008, but the one that worries me to the most is the climbing time trial at Plan de Corones.”
Nibali is a consistent all-rounder, but the brutal climbs in the final week should favor Liquigas teammate and 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso, who slots into second at 13 seconds back, putting Liquigas into the driver’s seat as the Giro heads south into Italy.
“Having Ivan by my side can help me during the Giro and in the future,” Nibali said. “I always said I will take it day by day. Basso has a lot of experience and that carries me and the team forward.”
The 93rd Giro continues Thursday with its first road stage in Italy. The 164km stage from Novara to Novi Ligure pays homage to Italian legend Fausto Coppi, who died 50 years ago of malaria.
The route features to moderate climbs in the middle of the route, but should provide another shot for the sprinters.
André Greipel (HTC-Columbia) will be doubly motivated to try to snag his first of this Giro. He and teammate Matt Goss at 26 seconds back are the only sprinters still within reasonable shot of the pink jersey.