Quintana, Rodriguez, Evans, Uran et al are the talk of town in Belfast and rightly so since the Giro has 38,000 vertical metres of climbing. All the mountains are backloaded into the race and the overall contenders and pretenders will merely hope to finish first week feel fresh and without losing any time. In short they’re sleeper agents until Stage 8.
The first week is all about the sprinters with a series of flat finishes and the time bonuses to allow them to take the race lead.
When and where?
The sprint stages are Stage 2, Stage 3, Stage 4, Stage 7, Stage 10, Stage 13, Stage 17 and Stage 21. All offer sufficiently flat routes and a flat finish. Stage 5 and Stage 6 have uphill finishes where the winner could come from a group but one reduced by the gradient.
With the 10-6-4 second time bonuses on each stage we should see the sprinters jostle for the pink jersey during the first week.
Last year saw Mark Cavendish win every bunch sprint going except Stage 5 to Matera where, as predicted, a steep hill on the way saw many sprinters dropped leaving John Degenkolb to win. This year Cavendish isn’t riding so the field is open… for Marcel Kittel to win everything.
Marcel Kittel is the big name with the big legs. The are three fuoriclasse sprinters in the sport and he’s the only one of the trio of Mark Cavendish and André Greipel to start the Giro. He got the better of these two last July and rightly sits as the top sprinter in the Giro. He comes with a full team in his service and Giant-Shimano haven’t just refined the science of the sprint train, they’ve explored new areas of it. The German is in good condition and favours the long sprint where he can open up the raw power. There will be queue, even a fight, for his wheel but will he make it across the final week? Kittel will get all the glory but spare a thought for the team as half the bunch will look to them to lead the chase every day. His bulk is a problem and besides, he’s planning to ride the Tour de France so if he slips out Luka Mezgec could take over.
Michael Matthews is second but he’s not the second fastest. Instead it’s worth mentioning Orica-Greenedge as they have the chance to win the opening the weekend. They’re odds-on to win the team time trial. I don’t know who they’ll try to get across the line first to put in pink but if Matthews secures a top-3 position in sprints on Saturday and Sunday he’s likely to be in the pink jersey. Consequently they’ll share the duty of policing the race with Giant-Shimano. The Aussies have a familiar train of team pursuit specialists and Matthews is their only sprinter. He seems suited to the hillier days rather than the pure speed finishes. Matthew Goss is a distant memory.
Elia Viviani is the form pick. The Cannondale rider is no chicken, he was challenging Mark Cavendish in the Tour of Turkey. He’s kept his track background and probably has one of the highest torque to weight ratios, even sitting in the saddle he can accelerate faster than others but he’s versatile and as we’ve seen in Turkey, confident to try long sprints too. He’s Cannondale’s most bankable rider given Ivan Basso’s looming retirement and Moreno Moser’s discrete form.
Nacer Bouhanni is back after last year when he ran second, third and fourth. He’s also ridden the Vuelta and Tour de France but the Frenchman’s hunting for his first win in a grand tour. His team have improved at lot with the lead-out but the best wagons of their train are attached to Arnaud Démare in the Four Days of Dunkerque. You sense a wider story here with Bouhanni needing a win to impose himself as an equal to Démare but success here will also increase his market value. Much is made of his boxing background but he joined a cycling club at the age of six. A stage win is firmly in reach and it’ll be interesting to see the tactics adopted towards Kittel, Bouhanni seems to benefit from more disruptive sprints while Kittel likes a long range charge to the line.
Another with a long sprint is Alessandro Petacchi. He’s riding his home tour, a race where he’s won an astonishing 27 stages but might still feel out of place. The oldest rider in the Giro he was supposed to retire this time last year but OPQS recruited him as a lead out for Mark Cavendish… who is riding the Tour of California. Alé-Jet is therefore left to sprint for himself although he has Iljo Keiise and Julien Vermote in support.
Garmin-Sharp have Tyler Farrar. It’s been easy to dismiss him in recent years given the lack of results but he reappeared in the spring classics with two podium finishes. I’ll also be watching Nathan Haas who is more than useful in an uphill sprint.
Trek Factory Racing come with Giacomo Nizzolo who fulfils the role of in-house sprinter, a rider capable of taking timely victories… but rarely against the big names. He’s been second in sprints in the Giro before and if the right doors open he could win this time and has veteran Danilo Hondo as a valuable lead-out. Lotto-Belisol’s fastest man is Kenny de Haes but it’s hard to see him cracking the top-5.
Team Sky have Chris Sutton and maybe Bernhard Eisel for the bunch sprints, Sutton has won a stage of the Vuelta before but is recovering from injury and late entrant to the race. More on Sky’s chances further below.
Finally some more names to conjure with. Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Francesco Chicchi (Neri Sottoli), Nicola Ruffoni (Bardiani-CSF) and Manuele Belletti (Androni) are all hungry and will take extreme risks for the prize of a win in their home race. You might not know many of these names but Ferrari’s won a Giro stage before and Ruffoni was surprisingly quick in the Tour of Oman.
Now for a second category of finishers. We might see them in the bunch sprints but these are the finishers who could and should shine on some of the uphill sprints. There’s an overlap with some names above, like Matthews and Haas.
Team Sky have an interesting mix with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ben Swift. Office politics will stretch to the road as their talents overlap. They’re fast finishers who prefer a hilly course to eliminate their rivals. Normally the Norwegian would be top dog but he’s leaving Team Sky and the squad might prefer Swift. So how they ride together will be worth viewing.
Astana have Borut Božič for the uphill finishes, their only concession to sprinting with Andrea Guardini sat at home again. Enrico Battaglin won a stage last year and returns with Bardiani-CSF along with the versatile Sonny Colbrelli. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Davide Appollonio will probably contest the bunch sprints but I think he’s more effective when the road rises a bit but a win would be a surprise anywhere. Colombia’s Leonardo Duque is getting on and an infrequent winner at best. Cannondale’s Oscar Gatto could pounce anywhere and talking of feline names, Trek’s Fabio Felline has long been touted as a big talent but he’s yet to break through, he’s only just turned 24.
There’s a long tail to this list where we go from sprinters to puncheurs and beyond. You can go through Diego Ulissi, Moreno Moser and beyond to Cadel Evans and more.
Having previewed the GC contenders I thought it was worth focussing on the more immediate action in the sprints because the mountains are a long way away. If anything this run through of the names will help list the cast of actors for the show during first week.
Mark Cavendish won five stages enduring the snow and the Alps to finish the race and win the red jersey he missed out on by one point in 2012. In his absence is Marcel Kittel who looks set to storm the sprints but will he stay the course for the points jersey too? It’s similar to the overall contest, we have one top rider in Kittel but the others are racing elsewhere and we’ll have to wait for the Tour de France for a sprint royale between Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish with Arnaud Démare, John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan too.
Kittel seems the fastest of the lot by some way which means his team will have a lot of work to do but I sense the competition will be lively. Matthews could be in pink, Bouhanni keeps progressing and Viviani is right on form. As ever a crowd of Italians will run wild in this race.