Commentary
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

Giro d’Italia roundtable: Is the route too hard? Can an underdog compete?

The Giro d'Italia starts Friday. Our editors sound off on the route, underdogs who could stun the favorites, and which stages to watch.

The 100th Giro d’Italia starts Friday, and it promises to be packed with brutal days of climbing and a surprising amount of time trial kilometers. We asked a few of our editors to weigh in on favorites, underdog favorites, and the route for this historic centenary edition of the Corsa Rosa.

Is the Giro’s final, mountainous week too much of a good thing?

Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Yes, but only because this final Giro week will be the sole reason that Nairo Quintana will arrive at the Tour de France with barely enough physical energy to throw his leg over his bicycle, let alone pedal it. Other than that reason, I’m cool with this final week. It will be impossible for any team to control the pack over these mountains. Half of the contenders will fade away. Only the strongest stage racer will win this Giro.

Caley Fretz, @caleyfretz: I’m more concerned that the tough first week, including Mt. Etna, will end the GC race early. A hard last week is just par for the course at the Giro.

Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegsThe weird thing is, the stage 21 time trial on the final day might actually be the route feature that spoils the party. Scads of tough climbs in the final week can result in some interesting racing — the final week of last year’s Giro was certainly exciting — but I fear that all the true GC contenders will keep their powder dry, fearing they’ll pull a Laurent Fignon in that Milano time trial.

Can any of the other GC riders mount a legitimate challenge for pink, or is this going to be the Nibali/Quintana show?

Fred: Yes. This race contains 69.1km of time trials, and neither Quintana nor Nibali are aces at the race against the clock. For starters, Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas make Sky a credible challenger. And if Tom Dumoulin can keep himself within two minutes of these guys, he can make a serious run as well.

Caley: Was Steven Kruijswijk on anybody’s pink jersey radar before the Giro last year? Not really. He was on the long list of favorites, at best. Then he goes and almost wins the thing. That’s the lovely thing about this race. It has a tendency to pull riders up into the rarified air of the legitimate contenders.

So, can any of the second-tier favorites take it to Quintana and Nibali? I bet at least one of them surprises us.

Spencer: I don’t feel as bullish on this start list as I did about a month ago when Fabio Aru was still in the mix. Since he is out with a knee injury, this looks like a two-man GC race to me. I would tip Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) as two notable threats, but I just can’t see a scenario when they leave the first week on same time as Nibali and Quintana. To Caley’s point in the previous question, that opening salvo on Etna should be devastating for some.

Will Quintana put enough time into Nibali in the mountains to fend him off in the time trials?

Fred: Sure. Nibbles ain’t exactly Cancellara on the TT bike. If Quintana can drop Nibali on Etna and then Blockhaus, he should be in the driver’s seat. I’d worry more about Tom Dumoulin.

Caley: Yep. Nibali isn’t that good a time trialist, either.

Spencer: Quintana gets a bum rap as being a pure climber, but the results show that he can hold his own on a time trial bike, especially during a grand tour, so long as he doesn’t fall off. For instance, in last year’s Tour, he was 21 seconds faster in the stage 13 time trial. But Nibali can turn it on in a Giro TT — he has won two in his career, in 2011 and 2013.

Name an underdog that you expect will ride into the top-five overall, and why?

Fred: OK, crazy take time. This Giro is the moment when Rohan Dennis becomes a credible grand tour rider. He climbs in the second group on the big hills, and then time trials his way into contention in Milan.

Caley: Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors). Kid is 24, sixth last year at the Giro, just finished eighth at Romandie. He’s great against the clock and climbing better than ever.

Spencer: I think this is the year that Katusha-Alpecin’s Russian Ilnur Zakarin will put together a solid grand tour after crashing out last year. He has stage wins in both the Giro and the Tour and is at home on tough, long mountain stages.

For fans watching at home, what day is the Giro’s must-see stage?

Fred: I mean, should we do this numerically? 4, 9, 11, 1420

Caley: Something like stage 16, which passes over the Stelvio and then the Umbrail pass, is an obvious answer. But I’m looking much earlier: Stage 4, finishing atop Mount Etna. This climb is no joke and will set the tone for the remaining two and a half weeks. Don’t miss it.

Spencer: I’m really excited for stage 4 on Mount Etna. There’s little chance that any of the favorites will be out by this point and the peloton will have fresh, frisky legs.