Words by Dane Cash
Photos by Tim de Waele
With classics season in the books, it’s time for the grand tour specialists to shine. The Giro d’Italia combines a prestige rivaled only by the Tour de France with the spectacle of a home crowd mad for cycling and a landscape made for riding bicycles. Nearly as old as the Tour and quite often more challenging, it’s fair to call the Giro a bike racer’s bike race, one that many pros name as their favorite event on the calendar.
This year’s Giro d’Italia opens with three days in the Netherlands, marking the second grand tour visit to the area in as many years after the 2015 Tour also stopped by the low countries. Don’t expect much in terms of the GC conversation though; the racing kicks off with a very short individual time trial in stage 1, followed by two flat stages.
After three days in the Netherlands and a day off for transit, the race will take a thorough tour of Italy, starting in the south of the country, a region neglected in the 2015 event. From there, the Giro wanders north into more challenging topography. The battle for the pink jersey will heat up as the race wears on, with a few stages in particular that will be GC battlegrounds.
Stage 6 will probably see the first gaps opening up on the overall leaderboard, with a long, irregular, low-gradient climb on tap for the end of the day.
A 40.5km individual time trial awaits in stage 9. The chrono has an unusual profile that involves considerably more descending than ascending, though there is a late climb. In any case, the stage is guaranteed to be decisive, especially with a rest day to follow.
Stage 14 has one of the wackier profiles you’ll see in a major bike race. From around kilometer 20 on, the road angles mostly upward for more than 70 kilometers toward the Passo Pordoi. Once the riders hit the category 1 summit, it’s up and down the rest of the way home, with five more categorized climbs on the menu. Expect a hard day in the saddle.
Unfortunately for anyone hoping to recover from that challenge, a 10.8km hill climb time trial awaits in stage 15. With an average gradient over seven percent, it’s going to hurt — but at least the riders can enjoy the spectacular scenery at the finish in Seiser Alm, a high-altitude Alpine meadow.
Speaking of scenery, don’t miss stage 19, which features the Giro’s Cima Coppi (the highest point in the race). Officially, the Colle Dell’Agnello is 21.3km at a 6.8 percent average gradient, but the peloton will first have to climb for about 50km to even get there, making for yet another absurd 70km stretch of ascending. The stage doesn’t finish at the top of the climb, however. From there, the riders take a tricky descent into France to the foot of a category 1 climb to the finish line.
Four categorized climbs on a tough stage 20 will offer one last opportunity for the climbers to make a difference before the final sprinter-friendly stage in Torino.
It’s a balanced route that will favor well-rounded riders. Pure climbers could struggle with the abundance of chrono mileage, and pure TT specialists won’t find the third week particularly friendly. Don’t underestimate the importance of descending either. With so many huge climbs coming in the middle of stages, downhill skills will be at a premium. Plus, it’s May in Italy and the weather can turn on a dime, making bike handling skills all the more important.
The overall contenders
Vincenzo Nibali headlines the list of general classification contenders. “It’s never easy trying to win a race twice,” says Nibali, and he’s right. But the Italian has all the credentials to stand as the top pre-race favorite, in no small part thanks to his experience, which he acknowledges will be a “big advantage.” He also has a well-rounded skillset and a very strong Astana supporting cast that includes another contender in Jakob Fuglsang. The biggest question mark for Nibali is form. Outside of the Tour of Oman, he hasn’t really racked up many strong results so far this season. Then again, he appeared to have questionable form in the run-up to the 2014 Tour de France, and we know how that turned out.
Nibali’s former teammate Mikel Landa will now be one of his biggest challengers, heading up a strong Sky squad. The stage 9 TT will pose a challenge, but if any team can help a climber improve against the clock, it’s the marginal gains-obsessed Sky.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been impressive so far this season, which bodes well for what is surprisingly his first Giro d’Italia appearance. Somehow, the 36-year-old has never made the start in Italy — but that’s no reason to expect anything other than a great race from the veteran. A course with “something for everyone” is a course that favors the versatile Valverde.
Two-time runner-up Rigoberto Urán is looking for a rebound, riding for a new team (Cannondale) after a disappointing 2015 Giro. Rafal Majka is hoping to build on a strong finish to last season, when he took his first ever grand tour podium at the Vuelta. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin), Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge), Ryder Hesjedal (Trek – Segafredo), and the Ag2r La Mondiale duo of Domenico Pozzovivo and Jean-Christophe Péraud are others to watch.
The battle for stages
The Tour de France may draw a slightly more impressive field of GC contenders, but the collection of sprinters attending the Giro this year will give the Tour start list a run for its money. The headliners are André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step), and behind the two German heavyweights are plenty more big names. Caleb Ewan (Orica – GreenEdge) and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) will vie for supremacy in the bunch kicks, as will Italians Elia Viviani (Sky), Sacha Modolo (Lampre – Merida), and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek – Segafredo).
Trek’s Fabian Cancellara hopes to get in on the fight for stage wins as well. With a number of lumpy days that will be difficult to control, this race should provide the Swiss rider with a few opportunities to shine in his final career Giro start. He’ll have to contend with the many energized Pro Continental teams, however. Bardiani – CSF in particular lives for breakaway stages at the Giro.
Predicting the pink jersey
With plenty of hectic downhills on tap and the ever-present threat of nasty weather, the Giro is certainly not an easy race to predict, but Nibali does have the look of a clear pre-race favorite this year.
He time trials and descends better than most of his rivals, and he’s the only former winner on the start list that appears to still have the stuff for another victory (with apologies to signores Hesjedal, Cunego, and Scarponi), making this Nibali’s race to lose.
Since no preview is complete without a dark horse pick, keep an eye on Esteban Chaves. The 26-year-old Colombian has not delivered any big results yet in 2016, but that was true last year as well, right up until the point where he won two Vuelta stages and landed in the top-five overall in Spain. The stage 9 time trial will be a challenge, but his perfectly respectable 20th place in the Vuelta’s long, flat TT suggests that maybe he’ll be able to get through the day without giving up too much ground.