ALGHERO, Italy - Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali said top rivals and a "terrible" third week of the Giro d'Italia will fully test him as he targets a third pink jersey in the 100th edition of the race.
Less than two weeks after the tragic death of former Astana teammate Michele Scarponi, there is a nascent expectation on Nibali to honour the 37-year-old's memory by conquering his third Giro title.
But despite triumphing twice (2013, 2016), either side of a maiden Tour de France triumph in 2015, Colombian Nairo Quintana – not Nibali – is the favourite for a particularly gruelling 100th edition of the race, first held in 1909.
As a result, 32-year-old Bahrain team leader Nibali will opt for a "cautious approach" and try to keep his powder dry for a "terrible" third week that includes several punishing climbs at high altitude.
"We've put in the work as a team to be here in the best condition possible. I have a lot of respect for my adversaries," Nibali said. "It'll be a long challenge with a lot of unknowns. (Event director) Mauro Vegni has made the route even more difficult than in previous years.
"It's not easy to be on the highest (podium) step so if it's not possible to win the Giro again, I'll fight for second or third place to honor the race. But I prefer to go cautiously, because the third week is terrible."
On a 3,609km-long route that has something for everyone, more than a few rivals will be looking to throw a spanner into the works, and Quintana is the man on everyone's lips.
"Nairo Quintana is the favorite," said Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant), one of two Dutch contenders along with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL).
"In the past years and last month, he's been showing that even at 90 percent of his capacities, he can win."
But Quintana, the 2014 Giro champion and defending Tour of Spain champion, isn't content just to go for victory in Italy. He hopes it would spur him on to a rarely-achieved Giro-Tour de France double.
A two-time Tour de France runner-up, to Chris Froome in 2013 then Nibali in 2015, Quintana says he has enough Grand Tour experience to emulate now deceased Italian great Marco Pantani, the last rider to achieve the feat in 1998.
As well as Pantani, the race will pay homage to fellow Italian cycling greats Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi and Felice Gimondi.