We’re four stages into the 3,454-km (2,146-mile), 21-stage Giro d’Italia, the first of three Grand Tours in professional road cycling (the other two being the Tour de France and Vuelta a España), and the race is starting to take shape. While 207 riders pushed off from Naples over the weekend, only a few have a real shot at standing atop the final podium in Brescia on May 26. Here’s who to keep an eye on:
Bradley Wiggins (UK, Team Sky)
Coming off a huge 2012 season that included the Tour de France win and an Olympic time trial gold medal, Bradley Wiggins has nothing to lose in the Giro. At the outset of the race, he announced his intentions to win in Italy and defend his Tour win, but team manager Dave Brailsford has already fingered teammate Chris Froome to lead Team Sky come July, which puts Wiggins in a support role. He has a crack at this race, thanks to three time trials and top-notch climber teammates—Richie Porte, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran—who’ve all finished well in this race before. Currently, he’s 6th, 34 seconds behind leader Luca Paolini (Katusha).
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy, Astana)
As with the other Grand Tours, there’s a lot of national pride at stake in the Giro. Italians have won 67 of 95 editions since 1908. Vincenzo Nibali is considered his country’s great hope this year, and for good reason: He finished third in 2010 and second in 2011. Last year, he skipped it to focus his training on the Tour de France, where he finished third behind the unassailable duo of Wiggins and Froome. He’s improved his time trial specifically for this race, and is already putting pressure on his old nemesis. Nibali is currently 3rd, 31 seconds behind Paolini.
Ryder Hesjedal (Canada, Garmin-Sharp)
Defending champion Ryder Hesjedal was a surprise winner at last year’s Giro. He wore the leader’s pink jersey twice early in the race, but most spectators expected him to fade in the final week’s torturous mountain stages. Instead, he attacked repeatedly, dropping Italian favorites Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi, and keeping himself in the hunt for the final podium. A strong time trialist, he took the win on the streets of Milan on the final day. This year, he’s shown flashes of strength in the Spring Classics, and he comes to the Giro confident and surrounded by a strong supporting team. He launched several attacks on a hilly Stage 3, showing off more of the unpredictable, aggressive riding that netted him last year's win. Currently, Hesjedal is in 5th, 34 seconds behind Paolini.
Mark Cavendish (UK, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step)
One of the world’s top sprinters, Mark Cavendish left a very powerful Team Sky after last season to join a team that would focus on sprint victories rather than on its general classification riders (Wiggins and Froome took precedent at Sky). Omega Pharma has done just that, giving him a peerless leadout train and all the support he needs to excel this season. Fortunately for Cavendish, too, several of his biggest competitors—including Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, who Cav recently said is “making us all look like juniors”—aren’t riding the Giro. He already drew first blood in Stage 1. Expect several more from the Manx Missile, though he may quit the race in the mountains to save his legs for the Tour. Currently, he's in 3rd in the Points Classification, 7 points behind leader Luca Paolini.