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Sprinters seek proof and pink at Giro

Greipel, Kittel, and Ewan each head to the Giro d'Italia with something to prove, and the early flat stages are pregnant with opportunity.

APELDOORN, Netherlands (VN) — The proof is on the podium. Or perhaps: If you ain’t first, you’re last. Whatever the guiding principle, three of the world’s best sprinters enter the Giro d’Italia with something to prove, and the only way to do it is to win.

Marcel Kittel, sprint king of 2014, needs to back up his return to form at the classics with wins in a grand tour, his old stomping ground. Caleb Ewan can cement his rise with a win against the sport’s very best. André Greipel wants to prove that last season’s sublime summer was no fluke, after a spring to forget.

The first opportunity to settle any doubts arrives with a pair of flat, undoubtedly windy sprint stages in the Netherlands on Saturday and Sunday. If any sprinter puts in a particularly good opening time trial, the pink jersey may be attainable.

“The first three days will be very difficult. If you look at the roadbook, you see just flat roads, but what it doesn’t show you are the strong winds in the Netherlands, which can make the race explode when you expect it the least, and that means you have to keep your focus at all times,” said Etixx – Quick-Step director Davide Bramati.

Ewan, just 21, already has a grand tour stage win to his name from last fall’s Vuelta a España. But he has infrequently confronted the likes of Kittel and Greipel, as his Orica – GreenEdge team has worked to slowly develop his talent. This Giro will be a test, but not a final grade, for the young Australian sprinter. If he can out-kick Kittel even once it will be a massive accomplishment.

Ewan ended off a long, race-free stint at the Tour de Yorkshire last weekend. He was second in the first stage there, more as a result of a positioning error than sprint speed.

“I’m here just to get my legs used to racing again,” he said in Yorkshire. “I like the look of the first week of the Giro. I will try for a result there.”

Greipel is coming off an early season he described as “the worst since I started racing” in a pre-race press conference. Four broken ribs suffered at Volta Algarve (three of which he was unaware of until he started Paris-Nice) set him on the back foot, and his usual run at the flatter spring classics was scrapped.

The German they call “Gorilla” is seeking to recreate his incredible 2015 season, which saw him take 16 wins across 90 race days, including four at the Tour de France. Last year, he rode two weeks of the Giro, taking a single win, and then dominated the Tour. He wants to do so again.

“The goal here is to win a stage, then see day by day how I feel. Particularly in the last week, which is really hard,” he said. “We have to take every chance that we can.”

Kittel has had the best spring of the three. Following the well-known troubles of 2015, he proved he’s back on world-beating form with eight wins thus far, including one at the Scheldeprijs semi-classic.

He can finalize his return at this Giro. The classics have been dispatched; now on to the grand tours.

“We’re not making any secret of the fact that we’re coming here motivated to help Marcel get a stage victory and I think we have the potential to do that,” said Etixx director Davide Bramati.

The three will see a healthy challenge from Italian fast men Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek – Segafredo), Elia Viviani (Sky), and Sacha Modolo (Lampre – Merida). They’ll face off for the first time on Saturday, the first of two flat, undoubtedly windy sprint stages in the Netherlands.

Grabbing the pink jersey while the Giro is still in the Netherlands is far from impossible. The opening time trial is short, just 9.8 kilometers, and features hard corners that will force riders to accelerate back to speed (an advantage for the fast-twitch types). A fit sprinter could stay within 20 seconds of the day’s winner on such a course.

Each of the next two stages provides 10, 8, and 6 seconds to first through third place. Two wins, then, equals a 20-second bump. Taking pink before the race heads to Italy will be difficult, but not unreasonably so.