The mystery of Evenepoel’s form to be revealed
Grand Tours are usually slow-burners that take a long time to take shape, with the big questions and talking points we debate for weeks prior to their beginning don’t usually have definitive answers until deep into the race.
At the Giro d'Italia this week, however, the very first day will give us a reasonable idea about the one topic that’s been on everyone’s minds in the build-up to the Giro — what kind of form does Remco Evenepoel have? Saturday’s opening 9km time trial will be the first time he has raced since falling into a ravine at Il Lombardia last August, and will, although too short to cause any really significant time gaps, offer an immediate indication of his shape, and whether he really might be capable of challenging for overall victory.
Usually you’d dismiss out of hand the prospects of a rider who hasn’t raced all season, let alone one making his Grand Tour debut, but we all know by now just what a special talent the young Belgian is.
At his best, Evenepoel would join Deceuninck-Quick-Step team-mate Remi Cavagna and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) as a hot favourite for stage victory on a time trial like the one which opens the Giro on Saturday, so anything less than a top five finish would suggest he’s not at his best form — although he may still be happy with a lower finish, given there is time for him to grow into the race.
He can’t afford to start the race too slowly, however, as this first week includes no fewer than four uphill finishes. With team-mate João Almeida also harbouring hopes of another GC bid having held the pink jersey for over a fortnight last year, he’ll need to perform well here if he’s to cement the status of Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s GC leader.
On-form Yates set to fly out of the traps
The bookies’ favourite to win the pink jersey is Simon Yates, and it’s easy to see why. The Team BikeExchange rider comes into the race with better form than any of the other GC contenders, having comprehensively got the better of many of them to claim overall victory at the Tour of the Alps, and is one of just three riders present (along with Vincenzo Nibali and Egan Bernal) to have already won a Grand Tour in his career.
Expect Yates to capitalise on his flying form during this opening week. The short but steep uphills that feature at the end of stages four and eight are exactly the kind of punchy efforts that he excels at, and could see him make gains over some rivals and potentially contest for stage wins, while the long summit finish at San Giacomo on stage six and the gravel roads at the top of Campo Felice on stage nine also provide opportunities to gain time early on.
Yates tends to fly out of the traps as Grand Tours, and loves to attack on stages like these. Along with the likes of João Almeida, plus Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) (who both excelled in such stages at least year’s Vuelta), he’ll see the first week as an opportunity to gain time, rather than a series of hazards where time might be lost.
In 2018 Yates paid for his early exuberance, and ran out of gas in the final week and lost the pink jersey despite having gained a large advantage at the top of GC, but that shouldn’t deter him from attacking in what is his most favoured terrain. If he can strike the perfect balance this year, he’ll make gains this week without using up too much energy ahead of the bigger mountains test looming in the second and third weeks.
The GC contenders emerge
There is enough climbing in this opening week for significant time gaps to open up between the GC favourites, meaning all those hoping for a high overall finish will have to be on their game right from the get-go.
No-one knows more about the potential destructive impact of the opening stages of a Grand Tour than Alexander Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), who abandoned last year’s Giro after just the second stage when illness struck, and was dumped out of contention on the very first day of the following Vuelta a España when he lost over four minutes. We saw the young Russian climb well enough during the third week of the latter race to suggest he could contest for overall victory at a Grand Tour, but he’ll first have to get through this week in one piece.
The likes of Mikel Landa (who leads a very strong looking Bahrain-Victorious team) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) are seasoned master at keeping themselves within contention in the early stages before coming into their best in the final week, but the way the latter faded away during the back-end of last year’s Giro suggests he no longer has the legs he used to. Instead it was Jai Hindley (DSM) who exploded into life in the final week mountains, moving up to finish 10th overall having begun the penultimate weekend down in tenth.
Hindley will hope to do something similar this year, but is one of the contenders whose form leading up to the race has been questionable, along with his team-mate Romain Bardet, George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). Their chances currently look remote, but if they’re towards the front of the pack on this week’s summit finishes, it’ll appear they’re arriving into form at just the right time.
The usual hectic opening week bunch sprints
As per usual at a Grand Tour, the opening week will feature plenty of chances for the sprinters to compete for stage wins.
Stages two, five, and 10 all look likely to end in bunch finishes, while the sturdier sprinters might be able to navigate the tricky climbing included towards the end of stages three and seven.
Of the pure sprinters, Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) looks like the man to beat. Although he’s only won one race so far this year, the Australian is a dependable performer at Grand Tours, and has much better form than the only two sprinters present with comparable records, Elia Viviani (Cofidis) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates). And as his revelatory ride at Milan-San Remo earlier this season suggested, Ewan might also be a contender for the hillier sprinter stages too.
Like Viviani and Gaviria, who have both had a tough time over the last couple of years, Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) will also be hoping to get his career back on track at the Giro, although his circumstances are very different — the Dutchman is returning following a 9-month ban for causing the crash that caused serious injury to Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) at the Tour of Poland last summer.
His young team-mate David Dekker could step up should he lack sharpness after such a long absence, while much is expected of Grand Tour debutant Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), who has won more races so far this season than anyone else riding.
And then there’s Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), returning to the Giro having made his debut last year. By his very high standards that race might have felt slightly underwhelming, and he’ll return this year hoping to win the points classification after Arnaud Demare’s brilliant four-stage haul denied him last year. In this classification, 2015 and 2016 winner Qhubeka Assos’ consistent sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo could be his main rival.
Expect Sagan to be there or thereabouts in the sprints, and possibly strike out for victories on the hillier stages, where he could do battle with the likes of Diego Ulissi, Davide Formolo (both UAE Team Emirates) and Patrick Bevin (Israel-StartUp Nation).
Bernal and his troublesome back
No body part in the peloton will be analysed with more scrutiny this week than Egan Bernal’s back.
Back complaints have tormented the Colombian in recent years, and have prevented him from building upon his superb overall victory at the 2019 Tour de France; during his title defence last year, the pain it caused forced him to abandon.
Although Bernal believes he can win the Giro, and Ineos Grenadiers have backed him with a strong squad, he has admitted that his back remains a problem. His form has also been a little patchy, and certainly not as good as that leading into his Tour triumph two years ago. Sometimes he’s looked his old self (as at Strade Bianche, where he finished third), but occasionally he’s been vulnerable (he was dropped on the major summit finish at Tirreno-Adriatico).
Ineos Grenadiers will therefore want to keep either Pavel Sivakov and/or Dani Martínez high on GC during this week, in case their leader should have problems at any point.
But for all the questions surrounding him, it remains true that Bernal is among the most naturally gifted riders at this Giro, and will be difficult to beat if he can overcome his injury concerns. If he can come out of the first week up towards the top of GC, every other GC candidate will be nervous.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.