Geraint Thomas begins pink jersey bid as race favourite
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to the cycling calendar, and few riders have had to improvise their season as much as Geraint Thomas. After only managing to compete in one race (Volta ao Algarve) before the lockdown, Thomas struggled to find any kind of form once racing resumed, and was deemed not in good enough condition to start the Tour de France.
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Instead, the Giro d’Italia became his top priority, and he’ll lead Ineos Grenadiers’ bid for the pink jersey this month.
The change of plan might turn out a blessing in disguise for the Welshman. Whereas Ineos Grenadiers as a whole were below their best in France, comprehensively out-performed by Jumbo-Visma, for the Giro their squad looks stronger than their Dutch rivals, with Tao Geoghegan Hart in particular set to offer vital support in the mountains.
Thomas is now also on flying form, having followed up second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico with one of the best time trials of his career at the World Championships in Imola, where he finished fourth despite not having a functioning Garmin.
Entering a Grand Tour for the first time in his career as his team’s undisputed team leader, with no question of sharing leadership with any of his team-mates, Thomas looks like he’ll be the man to beat.
A British two-horse race?
In stark contrast with the Tour de France, which was notable for its lack of British riders, the Giro d’Italia could shape-up to be a two-horse race between two British riders — Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates.
They were the riders who took the top two spots at Tirreno-Adriatico last month, where Yates, having climbed his way into the overall lead, managed to defend his lead from Thomas’ advances in the final time trial.
As two stylistically contrasting riders, a dual between them could make for fascinating viewing. Yates loves to ride on the front foot, and attack whenever the road goes uphill, which it does on plenty of occasions during the first week.
Thomas, meanwhile, will aim to make his time gains in the time trial stages beginning with the 16km route to Palermo on the opening day. His Ineos Grenadiers team will likely be tasked with controlling the race and preventing Yates (and any other attackers) from gaining any time.
Other pink jersey contenders
The British duo won’t have it all their own way, with several other big-name riders all eyeing up the pink jersey.
Jumbo-Visma’s line-up might not be as loaded with talent as at the Tour de France, but their leader Steven Kruijswijk has unfinished business at the Giro having crashed out of the 2016 edition when seemingly on the brink of winning it.
Astana boast what could be the strongest team, with three potential overall winners. Jakob Fuglsang is ostensibly their leader, and will be a force to be reckoned with if he can translate his form from the Classics and week-long stage races to Grand Tour level. But look out also for 24-year-old Russian Alexander Vlasov, who has emerged as one of the hottest young prospects in the peloton post-lockdown, and Miguel Ángel López, depending on how well he can recover from his efforts at the Tour de France.
Then there’s the elder statesman Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), who boasts an exceptional record at the Giro and can never be written off. He looked as good as ever at last year’s race, where he finished second overall, and, despite being set to turn 36 next month, remains Italy’s best hope of a home win.
With a time trial on the opening stage, and a summit finish at Mount Etna two days later, hostilities between the contenders will resume right from the off.
Something for everyone in Sicily
With the pandemic forcing the organisers to scrap the planned opening in Hungary, Sicily will instead host the opening four stages of the Giro, which offer something for everything.
First up is a 15km time trial, notable for being mostly downhill. Expect to see some very fast times — especially from Italy’s recently crowned world time trial champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) — and small but potentially significant gaps between the favourites.
Finishing with a 4km climb to Agrigento with shallow gradients, stage two will likely be one for either punchy climbers or sprinters who can handle themselves going uphill, with the added incentive of the pink jersey for anyone who didn’t lose too much time in the time trial.
The highlight of the Sicily visit will, as it often is, be the climb of the Mount Etna volcano on stage three. This is a climb both long enough (18km) and steep enough (seven per cent) to draw the GC contenders into a fight, with time gains possible — in 2018, Simon Yates attacked to gain 26 seconds over his GC rivals.
Finally, stage four gives the purer sprinters a chance to go for a win, with a long flat run-in to the finish — although they’ll have to work for it early on, with the 20km Portella Mandrazzi to negotiate halfway into the stage.
Sprints in southern Italy
Although there are stages that could likely end in bunch finishes, it will take sturdy kind of sprinter to be capable of competing for victory
Following a transfer from Sicily to mainland southern Italy, stages six, seven and eight constitute a run of three successive stages that look favourable for the sprinters.
Of the three, however, only stage seven is without complications. A couple of hills at the beginning of stage six could see a breakaway escape that’s too strong for the peloton to bring back, and a draggy uphill to the finish further complicates matters. Stage eight features similarly rolling terrain along the Adriatic coast, albeit with a less challenging finale.
These are stages that looked tailor-made for two riders in particular — Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb). Sagan is making his much-hyped debut at the Giro, and the fact he’s skipping the Classics to do so indicates he’s taking the race very seriously. But he’ll need to improve upon his Tour de France form if he’s to get the better of Matthews, who has very similar skill sets to the Slovakian, and could go toe-to-toe with him on these stages.
As another sprinter more capable over tougher terrain than most, Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) could find these stages favourable to him. But the chances for purer sprinters like Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Elia Viviani (Cofidis) may be limited to just stage six during this opening week.
Early skirmishes between the favourites
With such a hard final week on the horizon, the GC candidates may be cautious about committing too much at this early phase of the race, but there are several climbs that will demand their attention.
After tackling Mount Etna on stage three, two more mountainous stages await them upon reaching the mainland.
A 12km descent to the finish might take the edge off a little, but the achingly long category one Valco di Montescuro is difficult enough to prompt a major sort-out between the favourites on stage five in Calabria.
The first week ends with another likely drastic reshuffle at the top of the GC, with four major climbs on the menu in the Central Apennines, including a category one climb at the finish with steep enough gradients near the summit to force gaps between the favourites.
Striking the right balance between pouncing upon the opportunities posed by these climbs and not burning too much energy will be key to winning this Giro d’Italia. The favourites will be cautious not to suffer the same fate as Simon Yates in 2018 and Primož Roglič last year by doing too much to soon, but those who aren’t elite time trialists — in other words, anyone who isn’t Geraint Thomas — will be acutely aware of the need to regain all time that they will inevitably lose in the race’s total of 65km against the clock.