The Giro d’Italia is won in the mountains, but the day-to-day skirmishes deliver some delightful viewing.
Sunday’s fast dash into Novara opened up the 2021 Giro’s sprinter account, with Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) kicking to his career-first grand tour victory. The Belgian made it look easy against the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos).
This year’s Giro sees a top-notch sprint field, with between five to possibly seven stages ending in a mass gallop.
Who will emerge as the king of the kick in the Giro? Our editors take a look:
Sadhbh O’Shea: Caleb Ewan — a matter of time
Caleb Ewan and Lotto-Soudal really got it wrong in the opening Giro d’Italia sprint stage but the punchy Australian still has a lot to give on this journey around Italy.
Ewan’s chances for victory on stage 2 were already gone by the final bend as he was well out of position on the twisting route to the line, he even admitted so in a video on the team’s social media. Despite never really contesting the finish due to that early error, Ewan still managed to slot home in 10th place.
Getting into to the swing of things at a grand tour doesn’t always happen immediately and there are still at least six more chances for Ewan to get a score on the board.
Also read: Caleb Ewan ready for grand tour challenge
He may only have one win in his back pocket so far this year but prior to the Giro d’Italia, Ewan looked to be in some of the form of his life with second place at Milano-Sanremo. His sole win was also against some tough competition in Sam Bennett, who has won more than anyone else so far in 2021.
Of the fast men, Ewan is one of the better climbers and will be able to outlast many of them in the tougher finishes. His better climbing could also stand him in good stead later in the race as overall fatigue really becomes a factor in the sprints.
On his day, there are few that can beat this Australian pocket rocket and once he gets his first win under his belt then it will be difficult to stop him.
Jim Cotton: Tim Merlier the magician
Tim Merlier is the least-known name in a stacked pack of sprinters, but as stage 2 showed on Sunday, he’s got the fastest legs in the bunch.
Merlier has proven one of the star sprinters through the early season and had hit the top step of the podium three times before the Giro rolled out Saturday. Although the 28-year-old’s previous successes had come against lower-league sprinters, his long muscling sprint in Novara showed he’s got the horsepower to tame the WorldTour’s best.
Also read: How Merlier won stage 2 in sprint finale
Merlier and Alpecin-Fenix went into their debut grand tour as the minnows of the sprint teams, but they’ve already made their mark and there’s a lot more to come.
The ProTeam’s Italian eight is fully focussed around Merlier and will be looking for more, while many teams are splitting resources and manpower between GC and stages – like Bora-Hansgrohe and Jumbo-Visma. With the wind at their backs and nothing else to race for, Merlier and his merry men stand to score a lot more stages yet.
And if nothing else, Merlier is in my fantasy league Giro team, so I need to send him some good vibes.
First ever Grand Tour ✅
First ever Grand Tour win ✅
— Alpecin-Fenix Cycling Team (@AlpecinFenix) May 9, 2021
Andrew Hood: Peter Sagan will rule the roost
Peter Sagan‘s endured a bit of a rough patch, with COVID-19 and a bunch of arm-chair sport directors saying he’s washed up.
Sagan isn’t as fast as he once was in the bunch sprints — remember, Sagan was never truly a bunch sprinter — but he’s going well enough right now to reel off a few wins.
Also read: Peter Sagan to doubters: ‘I never left’
I don’t see one sprinter emerging to control every sprint, so expect to see all the top sprinters here to snag at least one victory. And maybe that even includes Giacomo Nizzolo, who holds the record number of second places without a win at the Giro.
Most of the sprinters will pack it in early, and if Sagan is intent on winning the points jersey, that means he’ll be sticking it out into the third week, where there’s at least one more chance for the sprinters.
The days of Alessandro Petacchi and his sprint train are long gone. With eight-rider teams, no one can bring a true sprint train. That means the sprints are more wide open, providing Sagan the perfect chance to win two or three stages this month.