The first Grand Tour of the season is finally among us. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying the Giro d’Italia has the greatest history and the best climbs- something I do every May. By July, I’m absorbed with the madness of the Tour de France and I’m always staggered by the difficulty of the climbs in the Vuelta come September. It’s a cycle I go through every year, never getting any closer to deciding which of the Grand Tours my favourite is. Right now, however, I’m in full on Giro mode, immersed with stories from Bartali to Basso, Gimondi to Garzelli. There’s nothing quite like the site of the Maglia Rosa attacking into Sestriere or on the Stelvio Pass.
With July’s Tour De France cycling’s main attraction, the Giro is always skipped by at least a handful of the leading GC riders and top tier sprinters. The Classics riders are also often happy to take a lull in competition as they reflect on their spring successes. This opens the door for the Giro-mad Italian riders to claim stages and become national heroes, if just for 200km. Take Enrico Battaglin. Though recently only showing tepid form at the Tour of Turkey, he could be eyeing his third Giro stage in as many years. In 2013, aged 23, he claimed Stage 7 before sprinting to second three days later. Last year he grabbed three top five finishes, including his tremendous victory over Dario Cataldo on a climb into Oropa. The Bardiani sensation has rarely performed well outside of his home country and has very few other wins to his name. Teammate Stefano Pirazzi has also struck gold at the Giro, claiming the mountains jersey in 2013. Paolo Tiralongo is another multiple stage winner who, at 37, has had little success elsewhere. In the 11 races from 1997-2007, spanning Armstrong’s Tour de France monopoly, the Giro crowned only Italian champions. The first I remember well was 2004 and Damiano Cunego. ‘Il Piccolo Principe’ saw off competition from former winner Gilberto Simoni and claimed a win aged 23. It was the beginning of a great spell for Cunego which saw him take the young riders jersey at the Tour and grab three monuments- all at Lombardia. He has since tailed off but returns this year with wildcard team Nippo Vini-Fantini. The Italians have found opposition from others in recent years with Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana adding the race to their palmares. Vincenzo Nibali was the last Italian winner two years ago and whilst he and Quintana have skipped the race this year, Contador returns. The Spaniard wants to complete a famous double and is expected to race the Tour de France in July. Not many riders attempt to ride back-to-back Grand Tours (except Adam Hansen, who always does all three) and if Contador lands both it will be an incredible achievement. Let’s take a look at this year’s race, starting with the route itself.
The Giro is known for being a purists’ race. Like the Vuelta, the routes tend to be traditional and the mountain passes harsh and untouched. The Italian stages often come to life when conditions take a turn for the worse and, being the earliest Grand Tour in the calendar year, snow, rain and winds are not that uncommon. Many of the greatest showdowns in cycling have taken place in the Italian Dolomites and, rain or Trentino sun, the key stages are always fantastic. This year the route introduces the climbs slowly with just two summit finishes occurring prior to Stage 15. Stages 5 and 8 will certainly shake up the standings and the former really intrigues with an easy opening 115km, followed by a long climb, the best part of 40km, to the summit in Abetone. Generally, though he has proven me wrong before, Contador prefers the short, sharp stuff and this will be an interesting climb for teams to plan tactics. Being the first in the race it could also be cagey with nothing more than testing late moves. Stages 15, 16, 19 and 20 are where the race will be decided, with my pick being Stage 15 and its finish on the Madonna Di Campiglio. They are the typical all-out-climbing days with mountain pass after mountain pass and exciting summit finishes as opposed to downhill dashes. The Giro organizers have thrown four together in an incredibly hard week. My feeling is that they will shape the race more than Stage 14’s long time trial particularly with the favourites having the potential to nullify each other against the clock. Still, at 59km we will certainly see some significant time gaps, which should not be the case in Stage 1’s team discipline. On first glance there’s not much here for the sprinters (is it any wonder they prefer France?) with the first week containing many lumpy stages as the race snakes through northern Italy. However, more than a handful of stages should come back together for a bunch sprint and teams will try to take control and chase the breaks. Those who survive the third week will enjoy the flat finale, a farewell sprint in Milan on May 31.
His preparation does not look as good on paper as previous years. He had good reason to play safe in Catalunya but looked a little quiet in Tirreno-Adriatico. He really should have won Andalucía when he gave way to Chris Froome on the penultimate day. However, few remember the results of the minor tours and with sky high goals this year Contador can be forgiven for not going full cylinders in the first three months of the year. Contador is returning to the Giro for the first time since his scratched out win in 2011 and has eyes on the famous Giro-Tour double. When all said and done, the feeling is that he is still the best climber in this year’s race and should still be the best long distance time-trialler of the contenders. His Tinkoff team have looked a little light in the domestique department at times this year but in Roman Kreuziger and two time winner Ivan Basso he may have the best support in the whole race.
Porte is two years younger than Contador but at the same age the Spaniard had two Tour de France wins to his name (and a Giro-Vuelta double) whereas Porte can boast just two Paris-Nice wins. Moreover, many, myself included, had written Porte off at the end of last season and the fact he is starting the Giro a close joint favourite is rather beguiling. In just four months the Tasmanian has answered questions about his climbing, and his character, that many were prepared to give up asking. He was an impressive winner of Paris-Nice and then followed it up with a strong showing at Catalunya. He won there too, even managing a cheeky move on Contador on Stage 4. To be fair, Porte has had just one bad race- last year’s Tour de France- and there he had prepared to be a helper and not the team leader he ended up. Before that he had been rounding into a useful rider and whilst his 7th in the 2010 Giro seems a while ago, it at least shows he has placed high before and can go the distance in a three week race. Leopold Konig should give good support and is Sky’s best bet for a plan B.
There’s an Italian climber on the Astana team who could win the Giro this year- and it’s not Vincenzo Nibali. Fresh from the Nibali-mould comes Fabio Aru who burst on to the scene last year with a brilliant third at the Giro and a double stage winning fifth at the Vuelta. This year he has been scarcely seen and mediocre at best when he has. He, and his team, have endured the wave of the Astana/UCI furore but he personally has seen twitter digs (and later an apology) from New Zealander Greg Henderson. The 24 year old is an enigma going into this race and may not be the home nation’s greatest hope. He does take to the field with a strong team and I look forward to him ‘having a go’ when the roads rise up. Packed with strong climbers, Astana’s Italian heavy team should enjoy this Grand Tour and hopefully put Iglinsky-gate behind them.
Sport Space readers will know I’m a fan of Pozzovivo and so I’ll try and hold back bias. In reality, he might not have the climbing legs to stay with the would-be Maglia Rosa. He should also lose time on the taxing 59km time trial and his team will struggle to support him when it matters. However, in my mind, he is in the form of his career and has taken two impressive stage wins this year in Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino. He also showed intent in Liege and I’m hoping last year’s fifth place finisher can go at least two better this year (or three, or four…). Pozzovivo is happy to follow attacks and, at the right moment, will look to jump away himself. He may end up hunting for a stage win, but Pozzovivo’s good year looks set to continue.
If it wasn’t for Nairo Quintana, Uran would be the future of Colombian cycling. Instead, he is left being the rather consistent all-rounder who left Team Sky and hasn’t landed too many wins. He is, however, the runner-up of the last two Giro d’Italias and should go well again this year. His rock star locks give him a recognisable Mick Jagger appearance making him easy to spot in the mountains. Harder to spot will be an Etixx-Quickstep team mate with few of their nine riders capable climbers. He is still a worthy challenger and his time trialling has improved to the point where he could actually deal some damage against the clock.
Italy’s leading UCI team have failed to challenge in the Giro for the last few years. Scarponi gave Lampre a win in 2011 but that was only after Contador was stripped of his title. I half-expected Rui Costa to give it a go this year but he is absent once again. Instead they have the exciting Diego Ulissi. A year ago he won two fantastic stages and was earmarked as a future star but then his abuse of the asthma drug Ventolin was unearthed and he was retrospectively banned for nine months. Fans of Ulissi treat this offence as an accident and most are ready to accept him back into the sport. Others will remain both peeved and suspicious but Ulissi is likely to be a star of Italian cycling and could find success in Grand Tours and the Ardennes Classics. This year, a top 10 sounds reasonable.
Cunego shouldn’t be on this list. His hot form of the mid 2000s is a distant memory and any renaissance he finds should still be in shorter stage races or the classics. However, he looked super strong in last month’s Giro del Trentino, riding with the best for the duration of the race. His sixth at the 2011 Tour is also too easily forgotten and I’m willing to cheer Cunego as he rolls his Grand Tour dice one last time. It’s very unlikely he’ll add a second Giro title, but sensible riding (if he’s capable of it) could lead to a top 10 placing
Ion Izagirre & Benat Intxausti
When Quintana was left out of Movistar’s start list the world of cycling would have taken a large and disappointed sigh. We’ll have to wait until France for a showdown of the greats. However, Movistar’s young pretenders will have welcomed the news and, with no Valverde to boss them around, now have a genuine chance to lead the team. They will all be prepared to help each other but Ion Izagirre and Benat Intxausti are the most likely to do something special. It will be refreshing to see the pair ride for high finishes and they both possess all the skills needed to succeed in the Grand Tours- Izagirre’s time trialling has been particularly impressive as of late. Movistar’s team remains strong and the Spaniards cannot be entirely ruled out.
Sprinters and Stage Winners
The sprints this year could be spread out amongst a fair few riders. Some won’t make every bunch finish as they’ll have been dropped on testing mid-stage climbs. For the flattest stages (2, 6, 10, 13, 21) I’ll be looking towards Andre Griepel and Sasha Modolo. The harder finishes bring Michael Matthews in to play and I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t go home with a Giro stage as some look perfect for him. The lumpy stages could also suit Juan José Lobato who has already tasted success multiple times this year. The man I haven’t mentioned yet is Luka Mezgec and he should survive the climbs well. He is the only weapon in Team Giant -Alpecin’s armoury and the whole team will work for him – they certainly know how to win a sprint.
Stages 7 and 12 could draw the puncheurs out and BMC’s Philippe Gilbert should be a favourite if fully fit. His team mate Stefan Küng is also in good form and this could be the Grand Tour he announces himself as a stage winner. A home win could go to the super talented Fabio Felline who won’t need to be asked twice to attack. He is also a capable sprint option for Trek. Diego Rosa is another who will be interested and may be the only Astana rider given free rein to hunt stages in the first week.
Stages 9 and 18 look made for a break and the King of the Mountains riders should take part. Always a hard competition to predict (and a fun one to watch unfold), the KoM competition will likely still be settled in the harder and points-heavy mountain stages (15, 16, 19, 20). I’m going to go for Francesco Bongiorno to take part in the hunt, although any member of his Bardiani team may fancy the job. Team Cannondale-Garmin will be looking for wins in the mountains and Ryder Hesjedal is a safe bet to be involved. I’d also like to see Tom-Jelte Slagter rediscover his best form off the front of the pack. BMC should be aggressive and I wonder if Damiano Caruso will choose between a good GC finish and some fun in the mountains. Another worth a mention is Orica’s Esteban Chaves who could become the latest Colombian success story
- Orica GreenEDGE to win the team time-trial.
- Matthews to wear the Maglia Rosa.
- Contador to edge out Porte in a close battle, both to win stages.
- Pozzovivo to climb his way to third.
- Two Sky riders to finish in the Top 10.
- Aru to be challenged by Davide Formolo for the young rider’s jersey.
- Mezgec to win a stage.
- Cunego to win a stage.
- Team Cannondale-Garmin to win a stage, and possibly the polka dot jersey.
- Bardiani and Astana to win stages
- Ion Izagirre to go top 5 in the Time Trial.