It’s May and one of the best races of the season is upon us. Each year Italy treats fans to three weeks of fantastic racing and a lottery of weather conditions. Snow and rain are as likely as blue skies and help contribute to some of the finest images in pro cycling. Last year’s race was superb and there’s nothing to suggest this year should be any different; bentornato Giro d’Italia, ci sei mancato!
The stage compilation doesn’t depart too much from tradition, packing back-to-back days of serious climbing into the end of the third week plus an important 40km time trial on Stage 9. There are, however, little twists which should give the 2016 race its own flavour. Sandwiched between tough days in the Dolomites, organizers have included a 10.8km mountain time trial up the Alpe di Siusi. Ascents against the clock can be the most exciting time trials and will certainly be a ‘race of truth’ for the slope-loving GC favourites.
The penultimate summit finish (Stage 19) takes the riders for a rare trip to the French Alps – an area the Giro has visited on just a handful of occasions. They’ll reach the ‘Cima Coppi’ that day and the presence of the Coll dell’Agnello and Stage 20’s Colle Della Lombardia guarantees the holder of the Maglia Rosa won’t relax until the race reaches Torino on May 29th.
The race’s first rest day arrives after just three stages. This is due to the flight the riders will be making from Netherlands – the Giro’s guest host of the opening stage – to the south of Italy mirroring the structure of the 2010 edition. Predictably the two Dutch road stages (following the May 5th prologue) are flat and should be contested by the sprinters.
Other interesting stages include 6 and 10 – the most obvious chances for a GC shake-up in the first half of the race. Stage 6 reminds me of the stage to Campitello Matese in last year’s race won by Movistar’s Benat Intxausti. The final climb is long but relatively gentle and whilst it’s likely to be a cagey affair I expect the riders to be finishing in small groups. Stage 10 is spikier and the competition for the day’s honours should be brilliant. The pack will crest the penultimate climb with 15km to go and after a short decent will haul themselves up a 5km summit finish – anything could happen.
After a year of clashing with the Tour de France champion, team management and the Vuelta Espana organizers, Nibali will make his way back to Italy and a race he last won in 2013. There’s no doubting his talent – or at least there shouldn’t be – with a glistening palmares supported by solid season openers in Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico. Nibali started stronger than usual, soloing to an easy victory on Oman’s Green Mountain and putting together an impressively measured race. He was left frustrated by a stage cancellation in Tirreno when looking every bit as well-placed to take the win. By mid-March he looked a justified Giro favourite with all the tools needed for this year’s route. He’s still found time for a few moments of familiar disinterest, returning from altitude training to finish outside the top 20 in the Giro del Trentino and going backwards on the cobbled climb in Liege. These results, no doubt, will be taken as Giro preparation and cycling’s master poker player is sure to play a part in this year’s race.
It’s astonishing to think on May 5th Alejandro Valverde will be a Giro d’Italia rider for the first time in his illustrious career. The fact a race so steeped in history has never appealed to Valverde is surprising given his ability to hold form and race pretty much everything on the World Tour calendar. We’ve not once seen the Spaniard adorned by the Maglia Rosa but at 36 years old he’s giving it a go and you wouldn’t want to rule him out. ‘El Bala’ took his Tour de France podium last year and has a string of first places to his name already in 2016. With age his climbing has grown more consistent and the former Spanish ITT champion won’t be afraid of the time trials. Despite shortfalls in Liege, his sprint is still dangerously explosive and he will look to pinch time from rival Nibali throughout the first week. All evidence suggests Valverde should have no problems adjusting to life at the Giro and I won’t be surprised if he gets his spell in pink.
A breakout third in last year’s Giro, Mikel Landa often looked the strongest climber in the race. He finished third, one place behind team leader Fabio Aru, but by the time the Vuelta arrived in September Landa’s time at Astana looked to be coming to an end. The Basque native never looked at home at Astana and despite claiming three Grand Tour stages was prized away with relative ease. Team Sky have faith and expectation in equal measure but cannot possibly ignore the deficits Landa will suffer in time-trials. Finishing 26th in the recent Pais Vasco ITT seemed a respectable return but he was over a minute off the pace on a short 16.5km route that seemed favourable with a sizeable climb. Team Sky have helped nurture the time-trialling prowess of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas but have a far greater task on their hands with Landa. The long time-trial could fatally dent Landa’s Giro hopes and he may not have the form to climb his way back into contention.
Often hidden by the star-power of Alberto Contador, Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka has rounded into a capable stage racer. His climbing continues to impress with last year’s Vuelta podium following a hard-fought Tour de France acting as El Pistolero’s super domestique. His team are unlikely to provide much help in the Giro’s highest climbs but Majka will be used to fending for himself. The Pole also has a solid grounding in Giro racing, finishing 7th and 6th in 2013 and 2014 respectively. He’ll be one of the only contenders heading over from Romandie but seemed to ride much of that race with an eye on what’s to come. Unfortunately for Majka he has it within himself to lose large chunks of times when you’d least expect it but if he avoids these bad days I expect him to make the top five.
Ag2r’s Domenico Pozzovivo will be returning to the Giro for the first time since he parted from his bike in one of the worst crashes of the 2015 season. The terrible TV scenes were followed by better news and a quicker-than-expected recovery. Pozzovivo made his impressive return at the Tour de Suisse, finishing second on the Queen Stage and taking fifth overall. Despite a set of consistent performances at 33 years-old Pozzovivo must wonder if the 2015 race was his last shot at a Giro podium. The diminutive Italian had started fast in Australia, before good results at Tirreno-Adriatico and a stage-winning Volta Catalunya. Sadly his Giro ended on Stage 3 and his task looks far greater this time around. His climbing doesn’t look a match for the likes of Nibali and perhaps another top ten is as realistic goal.
When Rigoberto Uran edged out Cadel Evans to finish second in the 2013 Giro d’Italia he looked likely of going on to big things. An initially fruitful move to Etixx followed and a year later he took a second Giro stage win and with it the Maglia Rosa for five days. Compatriot Quintana would eventually topple him and Uran settled for second once more. At this point Uran looked an exciting rider capable of dealing damage on a variety of stages. Later that season he sat second in a busy Vuelta a España before losing a huge chunk of time and abandoning. It’s from this moment his Grand Tour struggles began and now, at 29, his GC potential is lost in the wheels. To be fair to Uran, he has begun to piece his form back together winning the GP Quebec last September – his last victory in Etixx colours. Now at Cannondale, he is part of an exciting team of climbers expected to start the Giro. His form is mediocre at best but at Romandie last week there were a couple of flashes of the old Uran.
Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin won’t win the Giro lacking both the head and legs for three week stage-racing. Or maybe he could – because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Zakarin it’s that his level of performance cannot be predicted. A shock GC win in Romandie last year was immediately followed by animating the Giro and grabbing a stage for his troubles. The whole period was a bit of a whirlwind – who was this Russian and why had he been hidden from the World Tour until the age of 25? More good results have followed before he took another step forward when defeating Thomas and Contador on a summit finish in Paris-Nice. He was amongst the strongest climbers in Romandie last Thursday and the sole rider able to go with Quintana’s attack. I expect Katusha’s team leader to falter at some point during the Giro – but I couldn’t tell you when.
Shortly after he joined Etixx it was made known Marcel Kittel would be tackling the Giro for the second time. He’s the standout sprinter on the startlist and after the misery of his final season at Giant-Alpecin has started 2016 well. Last month he won Scheldeprijs for a fourth time and he’s also collected stage wins stretching from Dubai to Switzerland. At times this season he’s appeared tougher than usual but at others, such as Paris-Nice, familiarly fragile. Kittel no longer looks head and shoulders above his opponents and rival Andre Greipel will know he can trouble his junior. I’ll be interested to see if either make it through the Dolomites and the points jersey could still end up on the shoulders of Lampre’s Sacha Modolo. The Italian had a fine Giro last year and just lost out to the consistent Giacomo Nizzolo in the sprinters competition. He’s been going well in the recent weeks, claiming his first two wins of the season in Turkey. Both he and Nizzolo will be resuming their old rivalry but may find themselves upstaged by the powerful German duo. Orica are expected to bring Caleb Ewan and the sprinting prodigy will offer a serious threat. The Australian has not yet hit his top gear and has been edged out by a variety of opponents so far this season. Milan-San Remo winner Arnaud Demare should travel to Italy and will be aiming to build on his strong start to 2016. Lastly Wilier-Southeast (when did their name change?) bring exciting talent Jakub Mareczko and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that he could land a milestone win.
What else to look out for
A rider I cannot avoid mentioning is Tom Dumoulin. The Dutchman garnered serious acclaim after his magnificent Vuelta and he’s quickly become one of my favourite riders. He’s done more than enough this year to back up his Spain ride climbing well in Oman, Paris-Nice and Romandie. His ascent of Green Mountain typified everything you need to know about Tom Dumoulin. Whilst Nibali and Romain Bardet tore apart the field the Dutchman rode on at his own pace moving through the pack and taking fourth less than 20 seconds back. Giant-Alpecin have suggested they are at the Giro for stage wins but Dumoulin has the potential to go well. Stage 9’s mammoth time trial plays into his hands and should he find himself at the head of the GC the following morning he’ll be tough to budge.
It feel’s wrong to talk about the Giro without mentioning the Bardiani team. The popular Stefano Pirazzi will head the team whilst fast-finishing Sonny Colbrelli is an outsider for a stage win. Three of the stars of the 2015 race return in Davide Formolo, Steven Kruijswijk and Ryder Hesjedal. The latter two in that trio climbed outstandingly well last time around forming part of the group that headed nearly every summit finish. They are unlikely to go as well this time around but neither should be ruled out. Formolo forms part of the exciting Cannondale team and will be a popular rider on home roads – this could be his breakout race as a GC rider. Whilst we’re on the topic of Italian talents, BMC have given leadership duties to Manuel Senni – at least in terms of squad numbers. The 24 year-old is in tepid form at best but I’ll be interested to see how he fares on debut. From the young to the old, this will be the last Giro d’Italia for Trek’s Fabian Cancellara and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in pink during the opening week.
- Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde to take the top two podium spots
- Rafal Majka to finish in the top five.
- Fabian Cancellara to win a stage
- Davide Formolo to win a stage
- Damiano Cunego to win a stage
- Tim Wellens to win a stage
- Marcel Kittel to win stages 2 & 3
- Marcel Kittel to abandon the race
- Mikel Landa to finish outside the top three
- Tom Dumoulin to wear the Maglia Rosa
- Sacha Modolo to win the points jersey
- Bob Jungels to finish in the top 20