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Preview: 100th Giro d’Italia more than Nibali vs. Quintana

ALGHERO, Italy (VN) — The 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia opens Friday with all the color and glitz that’s expected from the season’s first grand tour.

Alghero, this former Catalan city that anchors the wide-open bay on Sardinia’s beautiful western coast, is bathed in pink. Team buses arrived via overnight ferries, and riders are buzzing around on the network of roads to open up the legs. A stage is set up along Alghero’s port to host the official team presentation Thursday night. It’s “Bella Italia” in full splendor.

The 2017 Giro is serving up a stiff challenge, with a hard first 10 days that include two summit finales and a long time trial, which should quickly put the GC favorites into a pecking order. The race starts Friday with a dozen riders who could end up on the podium; by mid-race, well before the Giro turns into the Dolomites, that list will be whittled down to five who still have realistic chances.

All eyes are on the showdown between Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Local favorite Fabio Aru (Astana) is missing, out with a knee injury and likely a broken heart (he hails from southern Sardinia and dreamed of racing on his home island). Both Quintana and Nibali know what it’s like to win the Giro (they’re the only former winners lining up), and both have the teams to control the race.

Yet it’s a mistake to view the race as only a duel between two favorites. Nearly a dozen teams bring riders capable of reaching the podium. The Giro is more wide open, and without a towering favorite (a la Chris Froome at the Tour de France), just about anything could happen over the next three weeks. The ambitions and hopes of the starters are still intact in Alghero, but most of those dreams will be shattered by the time the Giro hits Milano in three weeks’ time. Buckle up, it should be fun.

Nairito vs Vinny

Both are climbers. Both are the five-star favorites. Both have won the Giro before. And both bring the strongest teams in the race. So how do they stack up?

Based on results, Quintana has had a much stronger spring than Nibali. The Colombian ripped through his early season campaign, racking up wins at Valenciana and Tirreno-Adriatico before returning to Colombia to train at altitude. He announced his intentions with a stage victory last weekend in his European comeback at the Vuelta a Asturias in northern Spain. Who can stop Quintana? With an eye on the Giro-Tour double, Quintana’s confidence is sky-high.

“I couldn’t miss the 100th edition of the Giro,” said Quintana, a winner in 2014. “I love racing in Italy, and the challenge of the Giro-Tour double gives me more motivation than ever.”

Defending champion Nibali has been much more modest in his approach to the Giro. After a non-descript spring, he finally found some form at the Tour of Croatia, winning a stage and the overall against a relatively weak field. At 32, two-time Giro winner Nibali will have the pressure to win for his new team.

“We are not just looking at Quintana,” said Bahrain-Merida general manager Brent Copeland. “This is a deep Giro field. The final week is brutal. It will all be decided then.”

How do they stack up? They’re closely matched; Quintana is a better pure climber, but Nibali has an edge in the time trials. Movistar brings a top-level team, yet Nibali will see similar support at Bahrain-Merida. Quintana has emerged as one of the sport’s elite riders, with only the Tour de France eluding him so far. Nibali, along with Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), is the only active rider who’s won all three grand tours. Daring to take on the Giro-Tour double so young in his career confirms Quintana’s self-confidence. Nibali’s renowned stubbornness and “grinta” means he won’t buckle to the challenge.

The pair represents two of cycling’s “cuatro galacticos,” with only Froome and Contador missing the date. Their rivalry will drive this Giro, both on and off the bike.

Plenty of challengers

The Quintana-Nibali matchup alone should make this a cracking Giro, but there are nearly a dozen other riders knocking on the podium door. Each will be keen to make the most of their chance to lead.

“It’s not just me and Nibali,” Quintana said. “There are many riders from my generation hoping to win their first grand tour. In some ways, this will make the Giro even more exciting and more difficult.”

Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa lead a motivated Sky outfit looking to dominate the Giro in the same manner as they do in the Tour de France. Even with Froome skipping the Giro, Team Sky has the depth to bring a Tour-level squad to the Giro. Thomas wants to prove he can be a legitimate grand tour contender, while Landa needs to confirm his breakout 2015 season following an illness-strapped 2016. Thomas’s strength against the clock could tip things his way if he rides deep into the third week.

Adam Yates will have sole leadership at Orica-Scott as his twin brother Simon and last year’s runner-up Esteban Chaves target the Tour. Yates has emerged as one of the most exciting young grand tour prospects, and this tour could a big opportunity.

Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) is another dark horse. He crashed out of last year’s Giro, and the precocious Russian needs to post a consistent three-week performance. However, the Russians believe they’ve finally found the rider with grand tour potential they’ve been looking for.

Right behind them is Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), a former Tour de France podium man who insiders say is looking very strong. Pinot has the climbing chops to stay tough until the final week and could catch Nibali and Quintana by surprise. Tejay van Garderen leads BMC Racing, with Rohan Dennis as a first lieutenant, ready to prove he can be a legitimate challenger in his first Giro appearance. Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac), and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) are consistent top-10 finishers. Bob Jungels (Quick-Step) will be looking to follow up his breakout Giro performance of last year, when he wore the pink jersey for three stages.

And last but not least are the three Dutch favorites. No Dutch rider has won a grand tour since 1980 (Joop Zoetemelk), yet this generation is packed with potential. Only Robert Gesink is missing as Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) all come into the Giro with realistic podium chances.

Last year, Kruijswijk looked to have the Giro in the bag until he crashed into a snow bank in the Alps on stage 19, opening the door for Nibali’s late-race raid. He wants to prove that 2016 was no fluke.

Mollema, too, has something to prove following his own collapse late in the 2016 Tour. A crash on the penultimate climbing stage in the Alps saw him tumble out of podium contention, and he’s diplomatically stepped aside for Contador to take leadership at the Tour as he returns to the Giro with intentions of winning. He could the rider to rattle Nibali and Quintana.

And finally there’s Dumoulin, who is focused on a grand tour GC for the first time of his career. As he admitted, his revelatory ride in the 2015 Vuelta was wholly unexpected, and last year, he was focused on time trialing (giving him a stage win at the Tour and silver at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games). This year he’s out to prove to himself if he can truly challenge for a three-week grand tour. With a final-day time trial in Milano, Dumoulin will have a target on his back in the mountains.

A course that keeps getting harder

The 100th Giro (not its centenary, that was in 2011) starts easy and gets harder by the day. Giro boss Mauro Vegni called this Giro route “near-perfect,” with something for everyone without forgetting its Giro roots.

Just like an aperitivo, the opening stages are held across the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Sardinia will give chances to the sprinters, such as André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step), and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo). Following a transfer to Sicily and the first of three rest days, the Giro sees its first taste of the steeps with Mount Etna on stage 4, one of those classic “you won’t win the Giro here, but you can lose it” moments. Another transfer to Italy’s “toe” leads to Blockhaus on stage 9, the Giro’s first major summit finale. Another rest day leads into the 39.8km time trial in what will be the end of the first important block of racing. By there, we should know who could win the Giro, and who won’t.

“The first part of the Giro is difficult, and it will tell us who will be riders who can win,” Quintana said. “The first part of the race is important in this Giro.”

A string of transitions stages, with some punchy finales at Oropa and Bergamo in stage 14-15 lead to the final rest day and the decisive final week.

Stage 16 has epic written all over it, with the Mortirolo and a double-climb up the Stelvio. This is the Giro’s “tappone,” where the leaders will be whittled down even more. Three more brutal climbing stages await across the Dolomites in what will be pure Giro harshness. The final 29.3km time trial in Milano could leave the podium unsettled until the final pedal strokes.

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