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Giro Rosa preview: Can anyone beat Boels-Dolmans?

The battle for the pink jersey may come down to the final stage climb and descent on Mount Vesuvius.

The pinnacle of Women’s WorldTour stage racing kicks off Friday with the Giro Rosa. It’s the most important multi-day race of the year and the only remaining women’s grand tour on the calendar. The 10-day race offers a taste of everything, from flat sprint stages, an individual and team time trial, and of course some big mountain stages.

Last year’s winner Megan Guarnier returns with her Boels-Dolmans hit-squad but may not be the Boels rider to watch this year. Anna van der Breggen is coming off a strong spring season with a full Ardennes sweep and a win at the Amgen Tour of California. She won the pink jersey in 2015 and is eager to add a second Giro title to her long list of career wins.

With targets on their backs, Boels-Dolmans has a strong list of teams and riders aiming to take them down. Wiggle-High5, Canyon-SRAM, Team Sunweb, and Orica-Scott can spice things up with squads full of stage hunters and GC contenders. It’s the most anticipated stage race in women’s cycling and promises to pack the same excitement and drama of a three-week grand tour into 10 fiery days.

Stage 9 recap from 2016

The route

The Giro Rosa starts with an 11.5-kilometer team time trial on Friday before heading into some flat and rolling stages throughout the first half of the race. A short individual time trial will help identify worthy GC contenders in stage 5 before heading to the defining three mountain stages toward the end. Stage 8 — the queen stage — includes a 20km climb, while riders will face the treacherous Mount Vesuvius volcano on the final stage of the tour.

Stage 1: 11.5km — TTT
Watch for the reigning world champion TTT squad from Boels-Dolmans to set the standard and take control of the pink jersey. Canyon-SRAM should be up there as well, with its strong TTT history.

Stage 2: 122km — hilly
Rolling terrain could break things up early, but the strong teams should have no problem keeping their contenders out of trouble. Watch for stage hunters like Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) or Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans) to sneak away on the undulating terrain.

Stage 3: 100km — flat
The first sprint stage will set the scene for the next few stages, with the fastest women in the peloton going head to head at the finish. Alé Cipollini’s Chloe Hosking and Cylance’s Kirsten Wild will be two to watch.

Stage 4: 118km — flat
Will it be a replay of stage 3 or will the tough-woman sprinters — those who thrive on hard courses and tired legs — like Jolien D’hoore (Wiggle-High5) and Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) charge through the finish?

Stage 5: 12.7km — TT
Van der Breggen won the TT in 2015 to secure the maglia rosa and took the TT bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics last summer. She’ll be hard to beat, especially if she’s already in pink.

Stage 6: 116km — flat
The sprinters’ legs will be rested after a shorter TT the day before. Watch for fireworks in the final meters of the 116km course coming from the pure sprinters.

Stage 7: 142km — mountain
It’s the first real mountain stage of the Giro, and GC contenders will be eager to distance themselves from each other. The route is up and down all day but has only one categorized climb, 6.5km at 4.4. percent. It may not be enough to split the top riders, but it will make the stage 8 route sting even more.

Stage 8: 141km — mountain
The queen stage of the race takes riders up two big climbs. The first is 8.7km with an average 4.4 percent gradient. The second is a long, three-part climb that starts with 4.3km of road (4.4 percent), continues with a stretch of 9km (4.4 percent), and concludes with a 6km section at 3.5 percent. Each of the three distinct parts of the climb are separated by 2km descents that offer riders a chance to catch their breath before heading up again.

Stage 9: 122km — flat
The final sprint stage could go back to the strong-woman sprinters who can overcome tired legs from the previous two stages. We’ll be watching Rivera and D’hoore.

Stage 10: 124km — Mountain, Mount Vesuvius
The final stage starts with nine laps of an 11.1km loop in Torre del Greco at the base of Mount Vesuvius. The race concludes with a trip up the volcano before shooting back down the steep slopes to crown this year’s Giro Rosa winner.

The contenders

Anna Van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans)
Van der Breggen looks to capture her second Giro Rosa title to build on her exceptional debut season with the Boels-Dolmans squad. She ruled the Ardennes, winning all three late spring races, and eked out a win at a hotly contested Tour of California. Her team is the strongest and van der Breggen is on great form. She is the rider to beat.

Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie)
She’s currently leading the Women’s WorldTour points competition and recently claimed victory at the OVO Energy Women’s Tour. Niewiadoma is riding strong after a fantastic spring campaign, earning podiums throughout the early season — including all three hilly Ardennes races. She’s a quick climber who will lead the charge on stages 7 and 8. But she may not have the team to help her secure the win.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott)
Orica-Scott enters the Giro Rosa with high hopes for the overall victory. The mostly Aussie team will back Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten as she goes for pink. Van Vleuten is an exceptional climber (remember in Rio when she out-climbed Mara Abbott?) and will thrive on stages 7 and 8. But how will she perform against van der Breggen in the stage 5 time trial?

Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5)
Borghini won the mountains classification at last year’s Giro Rosa and the young rider competition in 2012. However, the pink jersey has eluded the decorated Italian racer despite her home-country advantage. Borghini is a strong climber and an aggressive descender but she could lose some serious time in the time trial stages.

Arlenis Sierra (Astana)
This rising star showcased her climbing prowess at the Tour of California when she crossed the line with van der Breggen and Guarnier after a steep climb in South Lake Tahoe. She has an impressive sprint to round things out could be the dark horse of this year’s Giro Rosa.

Stage hunters

Coryn Rivera and Lucinda Brand (Sunweb)
Without a true GC contender, Sunweb enters the Giro Rosa with stage wins on its mind. “Our biggest aim is to go for a stage success,” said team coach Adriaan Helmantel. “We have Coryn who has already showed that she can be successful in the flat sprints and in the more difficult stages. With Lucinda, we have another rider who can take chances in the more difficult stages.”

Amalie Dideriksen (Boels-Dolmans)
Dideriksen will be put to work protecting van der Breggen through most of the early flat stages but will have stage wins on her mind. She’s a strong sprinter and will be out front in the four stages with flat finishes.

Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans)
A slow recovery from a head injury suffered this spring means Guarnier is an unknown. She could be flying up the mountain stages and challenging teammate van der Breggen for leadership roles, or she could be focused on stage wins. Either way, Guarnier isn’t going to sit quietly through the 10 days of racing.

Chloe Hosking (Alé Cipollini)
Watch for Hosking on the flat finishes. She’s one of the quickest sprinters in women’s cycling and could add a second Giro Rosa stage to her palmarès after last year’s stage 3 win.

Lotta Lepisto (Cervélo-Bigla)
Lepisto had a strong spring season, winning Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars Door Vlaanderen. She’s a quick finisher who can survive tough rolling terrain and shorter climbs better than other sprinters.

Jolien d’Hoore and Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-High5)
While Borghini chases the pink jersey on the mountain stages, her two teammates can throw a one-two sprint punch on the flatter stages. D’Hoore is better at the harder sprint stages while Bronzini will take on the flat, big group finishes.