The weather got worse, Bradley and Ryder called it a day, Cavendish became a centurion and Nibali strengthened his grip on the maglia rosa. Our blogger Blazin' Saddles looks back at the second phase of the Giro d'Italia and makes some predictions for the final week.
The big story of the last six days in Italy was the persistent adverse weather conditions which brought about the withdrawal not only of the defending champion but also the peloton's most decorated rider. With Sir Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal throwing in their snotty towels, the grip of maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali on the 2013 Giro became all the more secure.
While it seems like Nibali has yet to break a sweat in the 96th edition of La Corsa Rosa, former British cyclist Robert Millar has described this year's Giro "not really bike racing anymore, [but] survival training".
Such has been the hellish combination of snow, relentless rain and chilly temperatures that you half expect Bear Grylls to pop up at the side of the road during the feed zone, explaining to the riders how to skin a rabbit with their spokes and how to use the inside of their bike frame as a percolator through which to purify their own urine in the case of emergency.
Sadly, because none of the host TV cameras seem to be operating in the kind of weather seen in northern England and Scotland for 51 weeks of the year, spectators will not be able to view such scenes. But fans will be safe in assuming that whatever Nibali does, Cadel Evans will do just moments later.
The never-ending rain must be particularly galling for the peloton's South American contingent – and in particular those Colombians who had been tipped to shine during the Giro's two weeks of mountains. As it is, most of the stages have either been shortened, altered or ridden at an enforced go-slow rate.
At one point, online betting patterns put Mark Cavendish as favourite for Sunday's stage to the Col du Galibier after rumours started to circulate that both the Galibier and the preceding climb of Mont Cenis were to be scrapped from the parcours.
With Nibali looking pretty much like he can canter to the overall victory in Brescia, most of the excitement has come from the battle for lesser places – and in particular the fight for the white jersey.
A string of second places has put Carlos Betancur into the white jersey at the expense of the exciting Pole Rafal Majka, while Vini Fantini's Mauro Santambrogio did the honourable thing in acting as a beacon for the main pack to follow during the misty ascent of the Jafferau.
Following his victory in stage 10, Rigoberto Uran has been very quiet indeed – even in the wake of being elevated as Sky's captain following Wiggins's departure.
One senses that neither Uran nor Evans has the power to put Nibali under any significant pressure – and you must remember that the Colombian's stage win only came about because he was allowed to zip clear given his then lesser standing within the grand scheme of things.
Besides, given Alexandre Vinokourov's management position at Astana, perhaps the roof of London 2012 silver medallist Uran's expectations is capped at finishing runner-up behind Nibali come next Sunday?
Dutch fans were once again dealt that Ge-sinking feeling when their 'eternal hope' from Blanco shipped four minutes on the Jafferau to complete his bi-annual drop down the standings of whichever Grand Tour he enters with the hope and expectation of a nation hanging round his narrow shoulders.
It was certainly a good week for Centurion Cavendish after his ton of professional wins took him back into the red jersey – while Stefano Pirazzi will be happy not to have had his own blue jersey prized off his back by a mob of angry Colombians.
Time for an alternative recap of the past six days before looking ahead to the remaining six days of action...
Stage 10: From Wet Wet Wet to Uran Uran
"Everything went perfectly for me and for the team," says Rigoberto Uran after he solos effortlessly to victory atop the Altopiano del Montasio while Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins concedes more time in the battle for GC. At the end of the day, Wiggo trails Uran by one second on GC amid claims that the Colombain should take over as leader.
Defending champion Ryder Hesjedal trickles over the line almost 21 minutes down to end any lingering chances of retaining his Giro crown as Nibali extends his lead at the top. Carlos Betancur finishes second yet again – but this time doesn't celebrate so wildly.
Stage 11: Garmin sweetener from the Honey Bear
Ramunas Navardauskas drops Daniel Oss on the final climb of the day to solo to a much needed win for Garmin following the freefall of their man Hesjedal. The Canadian is seen punching his fist in celebration on hearing the news of Navardauskas's win, somewhere off the back of the main pack and alongside his makeshift walking stick for the week, Tom Danielson.
In other news, Frenchman Sylvain Georges tests positive for the stimulant Heptaminol – a vasodilator which helps relax the blood vessels and is sometimes used in the treatment of low blood pressure. The Ag2R-La Mondiale rider withdraws from the race of his own accord – and although he claims he only took the over-the-counter product because he had 'heavy legs', his team could now be ejected from the Dauphine in June.
Besides, most riders with heavy legs during this Giro would only have to take off and wring out their sodden leg warmers if they sought a bit of leg levity.
Stage 12: Cycling or synchronised swimming?
With the stage finishing in Treviso, the home of Pinarello bikes, Sky do a spot of impromptu PR by team time trialling into the finish. Unfortunately, their seven-man squad (minus the Colombians but including Wiggins) trundle home on their Pinarellos more than three minutes down on the stage winner, Sky outcast Mark Cavendish.
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinter canters to a century, roaring to a routine bunch sprint win – his 100th scalp as a professional – after some brilliant climbing and descending in continued Apocalyptic conditions more conducive to synchronised swimming than cycling.
Funny that – because four of the five breakaway riders follow Maxim Belkov's lead and slide out on a slippery bend, with only Belgian journeyman Bert de Backer of Argos Shimano staying on his bike and hindering a full set of 10s from the judges.
Stage 13: Arrivederci Sir Bradley and Ryder
A chest infection (or, according to his critics, "smokers' cough") forces Wiggins to retire from the race, with an ill Hesjedal also following suit. With both men already looking forward to a spot of Froome-nobbling on the Tour de France, Cavendish gets his fourth win of the race thanks to some superb solo sprinting skills.
On the longest day of the race so far (ironically played out under sun and blue skies now that Brad and Ryder have flown home), OPQS swallow up a 13-minute breakaway advantage before Cavendish pulls the strings from distance in a clean bunch sprint (that's what you get when Nacer Bouhanni is no longer around).
Mistaking the finish town for the word 'Charrasco' (a Brazilian BBQ), the only Samba star in the peloton, Rafael Andriato, is one of the seven escapees seeking glory in Cherasco. Sweden's Tobias Ludvigsson was just 10 years old when two of his fellow fugitives – Danilo Hondo and Pablo Lastras – last won stages on the Giro, back in 2001.
Stage 14: Italians in the mist
With no live TV images until the last 400m of the deciding climb of Jafferau, frustrated spectators are on the edge of their seats until Vini Fantini finally provide justification of their garish fluorescent day-glow yellow jerseys after Mauro Santambrogio shines bright as he emerges like a beacon through the mist.
Hot on his heels is the equally illuminous Nibali, with an electric blue shorts and pink top combo. Together, like a Kazakh-style Battenberg cake on wheels, the duo scale the final hairpin bends before the maglia rosa magnanimously gifts the stage to his compatriot. A wise move given the earlier withdrawal of his collared team-mate Alessandro Vanotti – plus the growing talk of a Colombian alliance.
Stage 15: Visconti victorious in the snow
The irony of the Marco Pantani monument covered in a dusting of white snow is lost on most people – as is the fact that victory goes to a rider who sat out the close season while serving out a ban for dalliances with the dastardly doctor Michele Ferrari.
To his credit, Giovanni Visconti rides the entire last climb of the Grandes du Galibier solo, defying first rain, then snow, and then a bizarre Colombo-Polish four-way chase group (Niemiec & Majka with Betancur & Duarte). Taking second for the third time in the race atop a mountain, Carlos Betancur may decide to attack just that little bit earlier next time.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE FINAL WEEK
Saddles can hold his hands up and admit that his last predictions were complete and utter tosh. Gesink won no stage and is no longer in contention, Evans did not suffer the expected nosedive down the standings on the Galibier while Hesjedal, instead of turning things round with a win, was more Maypole Grief than Maple Leaf.
Cavendish did indeed win in Treviso but could not be denied by Degenkolb in Cherasco because the German Magnum P.I. had by then packed his bags with exhaustion. Samba rouleur Rafael Andriato was indeed inspired by the prospects of a Brazilian BBQ (or 'churrasco') but couldn't make his break last.
Worst of all was the assertion that Sky would have three riders in the top five – instead they have just two in the top 16 and one watching the race on the telly while rearranging his diary for the rest of the season.
In short, there's nothing Saddles can say now that will make him look even more of a cycling novice, so here goes nothing...
- Nibali will win the Giro with his Italian ally Santambrogio in second place and Evans third.
- The Colombian alliance will be a thing of wonder but on each occasion it will be thwarted at the last, leaving Betancur alone to pick up a flurry of second places and Uran to just miss out on a podium finish in Brescia.
- Any alliance will be immaterial because Nibali will win the mountain ITT on Thursday and build up an unassailable lead on GC.
- Nibali will also win the race's queen stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo on Saturday.
- Cavendish will win two more stages on his way to the red jersey.
- Friday's stage with the Gavia and Stelvio will feature a break of grizzled Italian veterans including Garzelli and Scarponi. They'll be chasing down a group made up entirely of Colombians (plus Robert Gesink), but the move will be thwarted by token Italian Jose Serpa, who will infiltrate and then undermine. Lampre team-mate Scarponi won't be able to deliver, so Polish rider Przemycoleslaw Niemiec will rise to the occasion. Ciao!
- Sports & Recreation
- Bradley Wiggins
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Ryder Hesjedal
- Cadel Evans
- Rigoberto Uran
- Mark Cavendish