Five things to look out for in week two of the Giro d'Italia 2021

A crucial week in the fight for pink sees the riders tackle gravel and the high mountains for the first time

Egan Bernal at the 2021 Strade Bianche
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Can the young stars of the first week continue to challenge for GC?

Remco Evenepoel on stage eight of the 2021 Giro d'Italia

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The first week of the Giro d'Italia has ended with a distinctly youthful look to the top of the general classification. Behind 24-year-old race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), the much-hyped Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Alexander Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) have so far lived up to expectations, while 26-year-old Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) has been the surprise package in fourth overall.

With that youth comes a lack of Grand Tour experience; aside from Bernal, no rider currently in the top five has ever finished a Grand Tour in the top 10. In fact, a similar lack of pedigree extends as far down to the top 12, in which all but four riders have never finished in the top seven before. 

The big question heading into the second week is whether that lack of experience will start to show. The progress of Evenepoel in particular will be fascinating — the first week alone has already made this Giro the longest professional race he has ever competed at, and although he has so far shown the kind of form in shorter races that has excited us so much since he burst onto the scene, will he really be able to keep that up as he enters such uncharted territory?

Vlasov has more credentials having completed last year’s Vuelta a España, but whereas at that race he enjoyed some freedom and was never part of the race for overall victory, this time he’ll have the extra pressure of defending a high place on GC. 

And Ciccone’s lack of pedigree applies not just to Grand Tours (where his highest finish to date is 16th at the 2019 Giro), but any kind of elite stage race — he has never finished in the top 10 of any WorldTour stage race. This was what made the Italian’s performances last week so surprising; now, as seemingly the home nation’s best hope for competing for the pink jersey, he’ll be coming under pressure to maintain that form in the second week. 

Bernal and others hoping that past Grand Tour experience pays

Egan Bernal on stage 10 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia

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The one exception in the top five in terms of Grand Tour experience is, of course, Egan Bernal. Having already won the Tour de France a couple of years ago, there are no doubts about his ability to go the distance at a three-week race, and with such strong, in-form domestiques like Dani Martínez and Gianni Moscon on board, Ineos Grenadiers should have no problem controlling the race for him.

The main concern remains the oft-mentioned back problems that have blighted the Colombian of late, and which could yet bother him as the strain of riding day after day takes hold. After all, it wasn’t until the second week that it began to affect his form at last year’s Tour de France. 

Simon Yates (BikeExchange) is the only other rider high up on GC to have previously won a Grand Tour, and should therefore still be considered a major contender. As anonymous as he was during the opening week, he hardly lost any time, and lies in ninth place at just under a minute behind Bernal. Is he drawing upon his Grand Tour experience to hold back and save himself for these final two weeks of the race? We’ll have a better idea by the end of this week.

The lack of riders currently at the top of the GC with bonafide Grand Tour records suggests we should look further down the rankings to see who could yet emerge as a potential winner. Hugh Carthy (in sixth overall) and Dan Martin (in eighth) are the only other riders in the top 12 to have come anywhere making the podium of a Grand Tour before, and are well in contention to do so at this race.

And we surely shouldn’t write-off Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) just yet. They might have lost 1-21 and 2-13 respectively in the first, but are generally very dependable performers at Grand Tours who tend to get better the deeper into a race they get. Look out for them both to potentially rise up the rankings this week. 

The Montalcino strade bianche stage

Simon Yates at the 2021 Strade Bianche

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Tomorrow’s stage is the one we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the one based on the popular Strade Bianche classic, featuring 35km of the notorious white dirt roads of Tuscany that always make for a magnificent spectacle and thrilling racing.

The weather forecasts suggest there won’t be a repeat of the rain that made the Giro’s last appearance here in 2010 such a memorable occasion, but even when dry these roads will cause havoc, and confront the GC riders with a unique test incomparable to anything else in this year’s route.

>>> Giro d’Italia 2021 route: Tough gravel stage, Monte Zoncolan summit finish and final time trial in Milan for 104th edition 

As appearances of dirt roads are so rare, it’s difficult to know which riders will relish and which will flounder on this stage, but past records at the Strade Bianche are a useful indication. 

It could be another great chance for Bernal to make more time, given how well he rode to register a third-place finish at Strade Bianche earlier this season, while Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) and Romain Bardet could also make up some time having both also previously finished on the podium. 

Neither Vlasov nor Carthy have ever ridden Strade Bianche, so will both surely be nervous about what the stage has in store; neither has Evenepoel, and these roads will push to the limit his reputation for being able to do anything on a bike.

Yates made his Strade Bianche debut this year in preparation for this stage, and found out what the dirt roads are all about by going down in a crash. Ciccone rode it for the first time last year, and also struggled, finishing in a group almost 20 minutes behind the winner. They will both be fearful of losing large amounts of time. 

And then there’s Nibali, who’s a veteran of the 2010 Montalcino stage, where he actually lost the pink jersey after suffering a crash. As a notoriously great all-rounder who has excelled across pretty much all terrain over his long career, his fate that day shows how this treacherous stage could upend anyone’s hopes. 

A first taste of the high mountains, including Monte Zoncolan

Simon Yates ascends the Monte Zoncolan in the 2018 Giro d'Italia

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Although there has been plenty of climbing already at this year’s Giro, so far it’s all taken place in the Apennines, the mountain range that spans across the length of the Italian peninsula that is, at least compared to the Alps, relatively modest. 

There’s been plenty of intrigue, but no decisive moments yet in the race for pink, and the time gaps between the favourites have been small, with eight riders still within a minute of Egan Bernal’s time. 

That’s going to change this week, as the riders head back up north to arrive at the Alps and the Dolomites. For all the climbing features in the final week, it’s this upcoming second week that features the single hardest mountain top finish, and the single most mountainous stage of the Giro.

The former is Monte Zoncolan, a climb that is infamous in the cycling world for its gradients, and which will be tackled at the end of stage 14 on Saturday. Although it will be ridden from a different direction than usual, a final three kilometres averaging 13 per cent ensures it will be about as devastating as ever, and could be the definitive moment of the race — after all, on the three of its previous six appearances at the Giro, the winner at the top has gone on to win the pink jersey.

Then on Monday two days later, the riders are sent through the Dolomites to what has been touted as the race’s queen stage. The Zoncolan may be tough, but at least it’s only ridden up once; on this stage, the riders are faced with three climbs of similar severity, including this year’s Cima Coppi, the Passo Pordoi. The cumulative effect of these successive climbs could blow the race to pieces, and potentially upend whatever hierarchy has formed by this time in the race. 

Chances for puncheurs and breakaway specialists

Bauke Mollema on stage nine of the 2021 Giro d'Italia

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In between these crucial GC battles are several stages that should be contested for by puncheurs and breakaway specialists.

Stage 12 may feature plenty of climbing, with over 60km of uphill inside the final 140km, but the lack of a mountain top finish will likely dissuade the GC riders from going all in. A breakaway therefore looks nailed on, so this could be the day that Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) has been saving himself for, or perhaps Alessandro De Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) will be targeting it, now he no longer has a pink jersey to defend?

While stage 13 provides one opportunity for the bunch sprinters, stage 15’s diversion into Slovenia and its hilly finishing circuit is one for the puncheurs. Look out for the likes of Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), for whom it’s also an ideal chance to solidify his lead in the points classification.

Those same puncheurs might also tussle with the GC contenders for stage win honours on the dirt roads in Montalcino; Sagan has twice been on the podium at Strade Bianche, and Bettiol was fourth last year.