Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com/Cor Vos
There’s so much racing going on at the moment (thankfully!) that sometimes it’s difficult to know which event to watch. I started the day with my focus very much on the opening time trial of the Giro d’Italia, but then it drifted. I can justifiably blame Mathieu van der Poel for this.
I flicked over to the final stage of the BinckBank Tour just as the multi-talented Dutchman was scattering his breakaway companions on the Muur at Geraardsbergen. The next 50km produced some of the best action of the season, van der Poel just managing to hold off Søren Kragh Andersen to take victory and with it the overall title.
I flicked back over to the Giro to find that newly crowned world time trial champion Filippo Ganna had pushed a gear the size of a dinner plate to win the mostly downhill TT into Palermo. It was the 24-year-old Italian’s first day of racing in a Grand Tour, as it was for the two riders who finished in the podium places behind him, 22-year-old Portuguese João Almeida and 21-year-old Mikkel Bjerg. If it hadn’t been for his horrific crash at the Tour of Lombardy in August, 20-year-old Remco Evenepoel would surely have been right up there too.
However, in the young Belgian’s absence, the battle for the maglia rosa doesn’t seem likely to result in the young guard prevailing as was the case at the Tour de France last month, when Tadej Pogačar rode off with the yellow jersey. With the exception of Simon Yates, a mere 28, the favourites for the Giro’s unmistakable Trofeo Senze Fine are all well into the veteran category. Two-time champion Vincenzo Nibali (35) is the Italian hope, while Jakob Fuglsang (35), Geraint Thomas (34) and Steven Kruiswijk (33) are the other contenders favoured by the bookies.
A close fourth in the time trial, Thomas (pictured) was the pick of them on the opening day, with his British compatriot Yates the only one of these big hitters to finish within a minute of the 2018 Tour winner. Whether he was passed over by Ineos for the Tour or saved for the Giro, the Welshman has what he himself has described as “unfinished business” with the corsa rosa.
In 2017, he was lying second on GC heading for the crucial summit finish at the Blockhaus when a badly-parked race motorbike caused a rider to crash, the domino effect in the group of favourites leaving both Thomas and Sky co-leader Mikel Landa on the ground and out of the contest for the title. Thomas struggled on for four more days until the injuries he had picked up forced him to abandon, his first shot as Sky’s leader at a Grand Tour wrecked through no fault of his own.
A close second to Yates at Tirreno-Adriatico last month and fourth in the World Time Trial Championship, Thomas is backed by a predictably strong Ineos team and has now positioned himself, according to Nibali, as the clear favourite for the title. Yet, as Nibali knows better than anyone having snaffled the 2016 Giro on the penultimate day, this race still has a very long way to run.
The next significant rendezvous for the favourites should be Monday’s summit finish on Mount Etna. It takes place at a new location on the north-east flank of the volcano, the tiny ski station of Piano Provenzana, the road to it running through thick woodland that should keep out the wind that often affects racing on this distinctive peak. Wednesday’s stage that tackles the first-category Valico di Montescuro right before the finish should also offer clues as to the identity of the true candidates for the Giro’s crown.
The sprinters should dominate proceedings immediately after that, until the race’s second Sunday, which features a savage-looking stage through the Apennines, a “queen” stage as they tend to be dubbed now, although there are at least two and perhaps three beyond it that are at least as tough. There are four big ascents, the first of them the Passo Lanciano, the first step towards the Blockhaus where Thomas’s challenge went off the rails in 2017. The finale at the ski station of Aremogna above Roccaraso is the kind of finale that were meat and drink to Yates in the 2018 race, although it’s probably not hard enough to produce significant gaps between the big guns.
The first rest day follows. In the days just beyond it, the trickiest test is a stage around Marco Pantani’s home town of Cesenatico on the route of the Gran Fondo Nove Colli, which is celebrating its 50th birthday. Between a flat start and finish, the peloton will have a 120-kilometre rollercoaster ride. It’s the type of day that the GC leaders should negotiate without too much trouble, but could serve up something unexpected.
The third weekend brings the second time trial, a rolling 34-kilometre test through the Prosecco vineyards to Valdobbiadene that should favour Thomas. Then, weather permitting, the Giro moves into the terrain you’d expect in its final week, with stage after stage in the high mountains. First up is a very difficult summit finish at Piancavallo, where Marco Pantani won in 1998 and Mikel Landa did the same on the race’s return in 2017. A day for the pure climbers it seems.
Two days later is another summit finish indelibly associated with Pantani, Madonna di Campiglio, where the Italian was kicked off the 1999 Giro due to an elevated red blood cell count after his stage victory. The race has only been back on one occasion since, Landa again the winner in 2015.
With Monte Bondone also on the menu, that could be a “queen stage” but there are still two more that are a lot challenging. The first is stage 18 to a new finish at Laghi di Cancano, which follows, the elements permitting, the crossing of the Stelvio pass by its classic ascent from Prato via 48 hairpins. The climb to the finish has been described as Italy’s answer to the Lacets de Montvernier in the French Alps, its 21 hairpins coiled tightly one on the next.
That stage features more than 5,000 metres of vertical gain, as does the penultimate day, over the Agnello, Izoard and Montgenèvre passes to reach the climb up to Sestriere. The title may still be in the balance after that epic test, but it seems unlikely. Beyond it is the final TT into Milan, a mere 15.7km in length and dead flat.
In short, there is, as Nibali also pointed out when picking Thomas out as the current favourite, an awful lot of ground to cover. There are also concerns about the spread of the Coronavirus and potential issues with the weather. But, if the Giro does negotiate these hurdles, it will, as is usually the case, be absolutely spectacular.