Israel is the controversial setting for the start of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, and will host three stages before the Giro returns home on Tuesday.
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First up is a 9.7km individual time trial in Jerusalem (starting a day earlier than usual on Friday, in order to accommodate a rest day on Monday to fly from Israel to Italy).
This could be a microcosm of the battle to come between Chris Froome (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), two riders used to being the fastest time trial riders among overall contenders at a Grand Tour, both of whom will be eager to land an early psychological blow over the other.
They’ll both be prime candidates to win the stage and take the race’s first pink jersey, but the outright favourite might just be Rohan Dennis (BMC), who is a specialist at shorter distances.
The parcours of the next two stages will whet the appetites of the few sprinters who have opted to ride. Elia Viviani is the one to watch, backed by a Quick-Step Floors team that amassed a huge total of 13 Grand Tour sprint wins last year.
Although he’ll probably have to wait until stage seven for the next opportunity for a bunch sprint, if Viviani can claim a win or two here, this could be the onset of a very big haul for a sprinter who looks poised to reach a new level this year.
Rolling stages in Sicily
True to form, the Giro organisers have been stingy towards sprinters this year, conceiving an opening week full of climbing.
After flying in from Israel, the riders spend three days in Sicily, consisting of two successive rolling stages followed by a mountain top finish at Mount Etna.
The first two stages are both very similar in character, with subtle differences. Both cover persistently undulating roads, and end in short, steep uphill finishes; but the rises in the latter tend to be longer and less frequent, and there is a 1km plateau between its climactic climb and the finish line.
That should mean a similar band of puncheurs should contest both stages, but with some favouring stage four and others stage five.
The likes of Diego Ulissi (UAE Emirates) and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) will be happy to back their uphill sprints for the former, while riders who prefer embarking on longer-range attacks like Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) will have ample opportunity in the latter.
Early GC action
Those two stages are enough to force the overall contenders to ride attentively, but it is the finish at Mount Etna on stage six that will provide the first guaranteed showdown among the favourites.
You might remember the climb being rather an anti-climax last year, when a head-wind impairing attacks and all the favourites arrived in the bunch together. But if the wind doesn’t disrupt things, this should be a very selective climb – especially as it will be tackled this year from a new, more difficult route.
That’s the most difficult climb of the opening week, but there are other stages that we can reasonably expect some GC action. The category two Montevergine Di Mercogliano that hosts the finish of stage eight is modest by Giro standards, but still hard enough to reduce the bunch to a small size by the summit.
And the following day’s stage looks like a real leg-breaker. The final 45km are virtually all uphill, with the category one Gran Sasso tackled almost immediately after the Calascio is crested, finishing at a huge altitude of over 2000 metres.
By the end of the first week, we’ll already have a good idea of which riders will be capable of competing for the pink jersey.
Froome rides with salbutamol case unresolved
As seemed inevitable given how long these cases tend to rumble on, Chris Froome enters the Giro d’Italia with the decision as to whether he will be sanctioned for returning a positive test for salbutamol at the Vuelta a España remaining unmade.
The unresolved circumstances threaten to put cycling in a similarly regrettable situation as 2011, when Alberto Contador won the Giro while the subject of an ongoing doping investigation, and being retrospectively stripped of his title when finally deemed guilty.
Froome maintains his innocence, and will no doubt be trying to prepare for the race under the assumption that he will receive no sanction.
The big question in terms of whether Froome can win the race is how well he can psychologically cope with the circumstances. He has proven resolute in the past when under pressure, and still enters the race as the outright favourite – but this current state of uncertainty will be new for him, posing a whole other challenge.
The generation of 1990
Coincidentally, four of the overall favourites for the pink jersey were born in 1990, and each have now reached an age where the pressure is on to convert their potential into results.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) can categorically say that he has come of age having won the Giro d’Italia, and returns this year with the ambitious aim of defending his title and targeting the Tour in July.
The other three, however, are in need of a big performance to match the talent they showed earlier in their career. Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), for instance, has been unable to rediscover the form that saw him win the Vuelta in 2015, yet remains Italy’s best hope for home success.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) rejuvenated his career with a fourth place on his debut at last year’s Giro, but will be expected to better this year to achieve his first Grand Tour podium finish since the 2014 Tour de France – especially after he showed such form and authority to win the Tour of the Alps last month.
And many eyes will be on how well Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) rides. He seemed on the brink of becoming one of the world’s best after taking podiums at both the Giro and Vuelta in 2016, but hasn’t looked himself since sustaining a knee injury last year.
Young riders ready to make next step
If the 1990 generation of riders fail to seize their chance for success, there’s a number of young riders poised to take over the mantle.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) has attracted much hype leading up to this Giro, having stormed his way to mountain stage wins at the Tour of the Alps and Tour of Oman. He’s wasn’t the finished article at the Vuelta last year – inconsistency meant that he only finished eighth – but might be ready for a GC challenge this year.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has also come on leaps and bounds this year, evolving from a rider who challenges for top fives in stage races to one who contests for overall victory, narrowly missing out to Marc Soler to finish second at Paris-Nice.
The question now is if he’s ready to make a similar progression at Grand Tour level.
The perils of a Grand Tour first week for young riders was demonstrated by the way Lopez haemorrhaged over four minutes in the first week of last year’s Vuelta, and the way Simon’s brother Adam crashed in the Giro. If both can survive this first week intact, though, breakthrough rides could be in the making.