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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: Simon Yates vs. Egan Bernal for a trip through purgatory to bike racing paradise

La Course En Tête previews the 2021 Giro d'Italia, which features a punishing course, an all-star battle, and a trip to cycling paradise.

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Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.  

We’ve had a short winter, in bike racing terms. It was October 25, 2020 when the last Giro d’Italia closed with victory for Tao Geoghegan Hart, and all of a sudden, before that one feels as if it has been completely digested, it’s Giro time again, but bizarrely enough, with a similar flavor to the corsa rosa.

On paper, the 2020 race should have been a straight-up contest between a Team Ineos Grenadiers leader who was not good enough to make the Tour de France team — Geraint Thomas — and a Brit who has unfinished business with the Giro, Simon Yates.

That duel never happened: Thomas fell off for the umpteenth time in his career, and Yates came down with COVID-19. Through the middle, to their credit, came Geoghegan-Hart, Jai Hindley, and João Almeida, none of whom would have figured high up the pre-race forecasts. It was the most cliff-hanging finish in cycling history, with Hindley and Geoghegan Hart level on time going into the final time trial.

Just six and a half months later, the cycling world’s eyes are again on Italy, for what should be a duel between Egan Bernal, a Team Ineos Grenadiers leader whose sore back — coupled with a lack of space in their exorbitant line-up of galacticos — has ruled him out of their shortlist for the Tour, and Yates, seemingly recovered from his encounter with the virus which has thrown all our lives upside down.

Putting the COVID-affected 2020 race to one side, Yates has seemingly learned from his last two meaningful encounters with the Giro. In 2018 he set off through the first two weeks like a rampaging bull, fighting for every stage finish and bonus second within reach; his strength ran out three days from the finish, and he finished over an hour behind the winner Chris Froome. In 2019, he fell apart in the second week before recovering to finish eighth overall.

This time around, Yates has promised to race more cautiously, but that may prove a vain hope in a race where the only predictable element is that anything may happen at virtually any time. There is a good reason for him to hold back, however; Bernal, who should prove his biggest rival, has by far and away the strongest team behind him.

Assuming Bernal’s back holds together, the Colombian has the support of climbers of the calibre of Dani Martinez and Pavel Sivakov, not to mention the consummate high-speed grunt of Filippo Ganna. Lest we forget, Geoghegan Hart’s win owed much to the support he received over the Stelvio from that unlikely mountain domestique Rohan Dennis.

Yates will thus face a delicate balancing act: to overcome Bernal, he will need to gain time on the Colombian before the final time trial, but he needs to do so without forcing his team to control the race from too early on. He has two factors in his favor: he has one of the most instinctive racing brains in cycling, and he has a clever DS behind him in Matt White.

What is likely to make this Giro particularly piccante is the queue of up and coming young men on the make, and last-chance-saloon contenders who might get two or three stars where Yates and Bernal would be given four. The Giro can be particularly anarchic, but run down that list and the potential for something out of the ordinary to happen is clear.

Eternal nearly man Mikel Landa, has climbers Pello Bilbao and Gianpaolo Caruso to work with. Ageless wonder Vincenzo Nibali is part of a Trek-Segafredo “trident” with Bauke Mollema and Giulio Ciccone. Vuelta a España surprise Hugh Carthy is there, too. Then, there are 2020 Giro discoveries Almeida and Hindley, teamed up with old lag Romain Bardet. Daniel Martin is now 34 years young and “fresh” from a best-ever Grand Tour finish of fourth in the Vuelta. George Bennett has been given free rein in a grand tour for the first time.

Some of these, you might put a cheeky long-shot bet on for overall victory. Most, you might not. However, all of them have the potential to find an opening and blindside either BikeExchange or Ineos Grenadiers, if not all the way to Milan. And that’s without contemplating the potential of Remco Evenepoel. Usually, you wouldn’t wax lyrical about the chances of a rider who hasn’t raced for eight months. But Evenepoel is so talented that you would expect him to be a factor somewhere.

Of all the three grand tours, the Giro’s route always offers the most potential for stuff to happen. Italian geography helps, so too the organizers’ lack of inhibition compared to the more conservative minds at ASO. Sometimes, Giro organizers RCS bite off more than they can chew — last year’s marathon stage two days from the finish wasn’t their finest hour — but since the days of Vincenzo Torriani, they have had the nerve to take their race to some wild and woolly places.

The decision to cross the Stelvio in late October 2020 was risky, but ultimately justified; let’s hope we end up saying the same about traveling to Cortina over the Pordoi, Giau and Fedaia in a single day this year, and about the inclusion of a serious amount of strade bianche on the into Montalcino on day eleven. In 2010 it was bad weather that made the strade bianche stage truly memorable, and something similar could happen this year.

There’s more gravel, on the final 1,800m of the 1655m high finish at Rocca di Cambio on the second Sunday; six days later comes the hardest finish of all, up Monte Zoncolan. There is also a truly daunting amount of climbing in the final week, beginning with the Cortina stage, ending with a brace of summits over 2000m and a summit finish at Valle Spluga on the Saturday, before the final time trial into Milan.

There aren’t many sprint stages — seven at a stretch depending on how they are raced — but Caleb Ewan, Tim Merlier, Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo, and Fernando Gaviria is a strong enough spread of fast men, with the return of “controversial” Dylan Groenewegen to add some pepper to the mix. Suffice it to say that the lines the Dutchman adopts in the final 200m will be closely observed by one and all.

And this being the Giro, there are the nods to history. The race visits Gino Bartali’s birthplace of Ponte a Ema in Tuscany, and goes through Sesto Fiorentino, home of the legendary national coach Alfredo Martini. The race visits Foligno, Ravenna and Verona to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the legendary Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri. This linking into the wider cultural world isn’t unusual on the Giro: it’s not long since we had a stage into Vinci to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Leonardo.

Dante is celebrated for his Divine Comedy, a voyage of discovery that takes the hero on a contorted journey through Hell and Purgatory, witnessing all kinds of human suffering and retribution, to end in Paradise.

The parallels to any grand tour should be obvious, so get working on your metaphors now.