The 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia starts this Friday. There’s not much more I can say that I haven’t said multiple times before; it’s an excellent race, it’s my favourite race, and it absolutely monopolizes three weeks of the year.
This year we see the return of the 2014 champion Nairo Quintana to challenge reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali. Team Sky will take the fight to both riders with Mikel Landa (third in 2015) and the ever-impressive but entirely unproven Geraint Thomas. Sky will be hoping to at least end their run of major disappointments at the Giro after their last two leaders have failed to finish the race. We can also add Thibaut Pinot into the mix. A series of high-profile Grand Tour flops haven’t changed the fact that everybody gets excited about the Frenchman’s potential at the start of the year. There’s also last year’s would-be champion Steven Kruijswijk and a host of other podium candidates.
It will be a funny old race for Astana. A month ago they were lining up a charge headed by Italy’s talented – but enigmatic – Fabio Aru and supported by the late Michele Scarponi. After Aru injured his knee, a 38 year-old Scarponi was gifted one last chance to ride for GC. Days after winning a stage at the Tour of the Alps, tragedy hit our sport when Scarponi collided with a vehicle on a training ride and died shortly after. By all accounts a wonderful member of both Astana and every peloton he was part of, Scarponi’s absence will be felt in Italy. Astana will start the race with just eight riders in his honour.
I detailed the Giro route after its announcement last November but it’s worth recapping now that we know the startlist.
As an anniversary edition of the Giro, it’s no surprise race director Mauro Vegni has crafted an Italian-heavy route that only ventures outside of home borders to attack the Stelvio from a face belonging to Switzerland. Sardinia was chosen as a starting point with the island hosting three days of racing before riders cross over to Sicily.
The fourth stage will pose the first test to GC riders and slow starters could see their podium ambitions seriously dented. The stage ends on Mt.Etna and should be one of the best spectacles of the race. It’s different to previous summit finishes featured in Grand Tour opening weeks and the profile resembles a proper day in the mountains. Etna was last featured in 2011 as part of a shorter stage which started in Messina and followed the coast. This time, the route starts centrally in the province of Palermo and first tackles the Femmina Morta after 60km of racing. The gradients aren’t the sharpest but the two climbs guarantee a serious climber will be in the Maglia Rosa at the end of the first week.
I need to give a quick mention to Stage 8 as I’ll be in Molfetta for the start. It’s not a key stage but an interesting route weaves its way to a deceptively hard and unique finale. The last 200m are on a narrow road with a 10% uphill gradient and it’s difficult to predict which riders will contest the stage.
The race moves towards the region of Abruzzo for the famous Blockhaus climb. It’s one of the shortest stages of the race and recent history suggests we’ll see plenty of aggression in the final 20km. I’ll be very surprised if all the favourites reach the summit together.
The first time trial of the race starts in the centre of Foligno. The stage has changed since its conception last year with the removal of a tough opening climb. It’s still not pancake flat which will come as a relief for Quintana; a solid, but unspectacular, time-triallist. Nibali will be hoping he can produce one of his good rides against the clock (it’s been a while) but perhaps Pinot will be the one to make his mark and seize his first Grand Tour leader’s jersey.
After revisiting Oropa on Stage 14 the race heads to Milan and towards a rest day in Bergamo. The final week should be excellent and the profiles of Stages 16, 18 and 19 are a sprinters nightmare. The race will be torn apart on the climbs of the Mortirolo (albeit from the rare eastern face), Stelvio, Passo di Pordoi, Passo Gardena and Piancavallo. Stage 18 gets the nod as my favourite of the race. It’s 137km long and contains five categorised summits. The final climb to Pontvives isn’t the hardest but if you’ve blown up earlier in the stage it will feel like a vertical wall. Last year we watched in astonishment as Nibali cracked on the Della Paganella and Stage 18 could create similar scenes. I’ve already booked it off work.
Put the Franciacorta away! There will be no sparkling wine on Stage 21 and no parade through the streets of Milan. After months of deliberation I’ve decided I’m quite excited by the Giro’s decision to make the final day a time-trial. The stage will guarantee time gaps and means the race leader won’t be able to relax. It gives us the potential for a turnaround against the clock reminiscent of the 1989 Tour. At nearly 30km long we could see deficits edging up towards a minute. Will we see some broken hearts in Milan?
Who’s going to win?
Not everybody was pleased with Quintana’s decision to return to the Giro. These people tended to have a strong focus on the Tour de France and, in particular, stopping Chris Froome from taking a fourth victory. Quintana’s been accused of postponing his attempt to win the Tour by locking in a second attempt at the Giro. However, the noises from Movistar are far different. They say last year’s comfortable Vuelta winner has enough in his legs to contest both races. Whatever your views are on Quintana’s lofty ambitions, the Colombian is starting the Giro as a worthy favourite. Duels with Nibali have been few and far between but most fans would give Quintana the edge. He won well at Tirreno-Adriatico in March and has been very quiet since. It’s hard to oppose him.
Italy’s finest Grand Tour rider of the last ten years put a difficult 2015 behind him to win last year’s Giro. It wasn’t an easy win with ‘The Shark’ hitting a desperate low before finding his very best form to pull away from Esteban Chaves. I’d like to think that his second Giro victory marked the end of the sometimes controversial figure who managed much of Astana’s expectations for the last four years. Now at Bahrain-Merida, Nibali seems a calmer figure but is yet to show his best hand this season. I fully expect him to continue his fine Grand Tour record but another victory may be out of his grasp. I’m excited to see him animate Mt.Etna; a climb where he is sure to receive masses of support.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
Brilliant in 2015, Mikel Landa is a rider I’m still not sold on. He looked tireless at the Giro two years ago despite being asked to answer questionable team orders in the final two weeks. We can safely assume he was signed for Team Sky under the promise of leadership and he was made captain at last year’s Giro. Abandoning sick after the first rest day, you wonder if Sky will honour their promise for a second year. Geraint Thomas has grown too good for Tour deputy duties and Sky could have another problem to juggle. But exactly how good is Landa? On his day he can stay with Quintana but, contrary to popular opinion, I believe he is the less likely of Sky’s leaders to stay at his best level for a whole three weeks.
Prediction: Outside the Top 10
Let’s not forget Geraint Thomas could very easily have come fourth at the 2015 Tour de France having started it with no GC ambitions. Since then he has won the Algarve, a very lively Paris-Nice and most recently the Tour of The Alps. Sometime after winning E3 Harelbeke, Thomas has worked himself into the top tier of climbing; not one of Ilnur Zakarin, Alberto Contador or Riche Porte could trouble him on the La Madone last year. I’m confident Thomas will deliver a big performance even if the Maglia Rosa eludes him.
I don’t even know what to say about Thibaut Pinot any more. I’ve never fully been on board the bandwagon but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited by his switch from the Tour to the Giro. It’s a good move by FDJ and I believe it allows the Frenchman a real chance to contest a Grand Tour. He hasn’t always been at his best during mid-summer with an extremely poor Tour de France reducing him to obscurity last year. However, his potential remains! And he can time-trial better than most of his rivals. Bringing him to the Giro could be a master stroke but I’m giving up on him if he crumbles once more.
The man with the wiriest shoulders in the peloton was 4:43 clear of Nibali after Stage 16 of last year’s race but finished nearly two minutes behind him. We were robbed of a true showdown between the fiery Italian and the ice cool Dutchman but common sense suggests if Kruijswijk hadn’t gone over his handlebars and into a wall of snow he’d now be a Giro champion. We know he climbs superbly in Italy and won’t fear the Stelvio but there’s been nothing this season to make me think he’ll danger Quintana. A bad crash in Yorkshire last weekend has only deepened my doubts.
Prediction: Top 10
Last year I mentioned Dumoulin as a joker but this year I’m upgrading him to one of my contenders. I’ll make no attempt to hide the fact he is one of my favourite riders. With two lengthy time trials of flat/rolling terrain, Dumoulin offers a serious threat to the podium. His biggest challenge will be staying in contention on the Giro’s spikiest profiles. A lot of what Dumoulin achieves will be down to his preparation. He’s not built for floating over sharp gradients but we know how good he is at digging deep and producing some magic. I’m not sure where he’ll end up but his participation is a welcome addition to any Grand Tour. In recent photos he is looking lean and if everything goes to plan I can see him landing in the race’s top five.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
It all began at the Giro for Bauke Mollema (a breakthrough 12th place in 2010) and after six years away from Italy he finally returns. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. He’s a well-rounded GC rider and displayed more than a sprinkle of flourish at last year’s Tour. Nevertheless, I just can’t see him making a major impact on this year’s race. Despite his vast three-week experience, the attacks will come too thick and fast in the final week. Contador’s arrival at Trek hasn’t helped his cause and the team have done him no favours by picking a mishmash of support riders. The bookies have him at an extremely short 1/6 to finish inside the top ten, which only serves as inspiration for me to bet against him.
Prediction: Outside the Top 10
Zakarin was another rider who suffered an unfortunate disappointment last May. The Russian was fifth going into the Risoul stage before suffering a race-ending crash. In one-week stage races he can climb with the best and has actually become one of the more reliable riders when it comes to serious summit finishes. He once again took the risky decision to endure the Tour of Romandie last week but it did the tough Russian no harm last season. With a bit of luck, I think he’ll get close to claiming his top five finish.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
I just can’t see Adam Yates improving on his fourth place from last year’s Tour. The Brit is one of the stealthiest Grand Tour contenders and has picked off some good results already this season. Nevertheless, I don’t believe he has enough to compete for the win in what will be an aggressive Giro d’Italia. The many time-trial kilometres add to the difficulty of his task and he will be disappointed that Orica have brought a mixed team with a split focus on Caleb Ewan’s sprint leadout. Mollema is the only other contender competing for support with a recognised sprinter.
Prediction: Top 10
What else to look out for
Bob Jungels was unbelievable in last year’s race. He returns as the clear leader of Quick-Step but it would be foolish to expect a repeat result of sixth place. I almost hope he doesn’t go for GC and instead looks for stage honours; he’ll be a dangerous rider in any breakaway. The presence of Yates and an improving Davide Formolo makes his job of retaining the young rider’s jersey noticeably harder.
Speaking of Formolo, Cannondale will be hoping he can improve on his last Giro d’Italia despite not announcing him as a GC leader. Ninth place at the Vuelta suggests he can go deep in a three-week race but he’s still got a knack of following up a brilliant stage with a shaky one. The last week will push him to his limit but I’ve got big faith in the boy from Veneto! The young Italian may be alone for much of the race with Michael Woods and Joe Dombrowski possible contenders for the King of the Mountains classification.
Another rider I like for the KoM competition is Alexander Geniez. It’s unclear whether Ag2r will go all in on Domenico Pozzovivo after his strong start to the season but I suspect Geniez will be allowed to go on the attack.
Rui Costa has done a lot in his career… except ride the Giro d’Italia. This is particularly strange considering he was the leading climber on an Italian team for the last three years. A Grand Tour swap with Diego Ulissi (whose presence at the Tour will be equally as fascinating) has allowed the former World Champ to start in Sardinia and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him take a stage win.
The sprint stages in the opening week look to be a showdown between Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan and Andre Greipel. Whilst the two young superstars will start as stage favourites, I fancy Greipel to collect yet another Grand Tour victory. His experience will be vital and his leadout train remains as threatening as ever despite the absence of Greg Henderson.
The aforementioned sprinters are unlikely to finish the Giro meaning we are gearing up for ‘Sasha Modolo vs. Giacomo Nizzolo III: This Time It’s Personal’. I can’t really see anybody interrupting the third instalment of their points jersey rivalry but I’m not sure either will have a great race. Nizzolo’s still never won a Giro stage and will have to be at his best to end that streak. Nathan Haas is my big outsider for the points competition. Last year we saw Matteo Trentin finish second after breakaway success and a series of high finishes. Perhaps Haas could try something similar this time around.
How have I made it this far into a preview without mentioning a BMC rider. Whilst Porte continues in his quest for Tour glory, Tejay Van Garderen has been shipped off to Italy. The change is something I’ve been calling for over the last couple of seasons but I’m not sure how successful it will be. Rohan Dennis could be the more interesting BMC inclusion. He, like Dumoulin, is in transition and will benefit from the increase in time trial kilometres.
I’m interested to see what Astana produce without an obvious team leader. Their eight riders make up a relatively weak selection but they can all climb well and should stay competitive. Dario Cataldo and Tanel Kangert are potential options for the GC but I’m interested to see how leading domestique Andrey Zeits goes without anybody to protect.
Everything looks ripe for Dimension Data’s Omar Fraile to take a stage win in the mountains. Things look less inspiring for Bardiani and I expect their streak of stage victories will come to an end. Instead, UAE’s Valerio Conti is my pick for Italian breakaway success. If he doesn’t go for stages he could even sneak into the top 20.
Predictions & Bets
Movistar have the strongest team with Andrey Amador and Winner Anacona expected to go deep into the hardest mountain stages. Quintana is built for climbing and I believe he’ll gain too much time to be phased by the time trials; he really does go well in Italy. The likes of Kruijswijk, Mollema, Zakarin and Yates lack the support to bully Movistar and I’ll be hugely surprised if they can isolate Quintana. Even Nibali’s task looks too great this time around. Team Sky know what it takes to beat the Colombian but I’m not convinced they’ll deliver a performance as tactically polished as they do in France.
- Quintana to win the Giro 10/11
- Geraint Thomas to make the podium 3/1
- Dumoulin to make the podium 3/1
- Rui Costa to win a stage 5/4
- Omar Fraile to win a stage 11/4
- Caleb Ewan not to win a stage 2/1
And just for fun…
- Davide Formolo to win the young riders classification 7/1
- Dario Cataldo to be King of the Mountains 33/1
- Ilnur Zakarin to be King of the Mountains 80/1
- Michael Woods be King of the Mountains 80/1
- Alexander Geniez be King of the Mountains 80/1
- Giacomo Nizzolo to win the Points competition 11/4
- Nathan Haas to win the Points competition 300/1
- Tom Dumoulin to be in the Maglia Rosa at the start of Stage 11
- Quintana to win two mountain stages
- Valerio Conti to win a stage
- Andrey Zeits to win a stage
- Rohan Dennis to make the Top 20