With the cobbled classics done, time for the Ardennes? Yes and plenty more. With just over three weeks to the Giro it’s a good time to take a quick look at the contenders and pretenders for the race and see where they are, especially given the news that Fabio Aru is out with a knee injury.
Fabio Aru is the first to fall off the stellar start list. He crashed in training sustaining a knee injury which has disrupted his training and after meeting a doctor yesterday he was told to rest for ten full days and as you can imagine not being able to ride for such a long period so close to the Giro has ruined his plans for May so he and the team have decided to scratch the Giro. He’ll probably focus on the Tour de France but this isn’t an easy switch, a “nevermind, we’ll focus on July” instead story. For Aru it means missing the grande partenza on his island of Sardinia and there’s also the chance to reset his goals after an invisible Tour last summer and a discreet start to the season so far, the Giro might have been within reach but the Tour de France surely remains a level above for him? It’s also a blow for the Giro and Italian fans because for all the foreign stars in attendance it needs local champions to get the crowds out and Aru helped suppy that, he’s not a huge name in Italy but he, the Giro and RAI TV need each other. It also leaves the Astana team orphaned for May, the likes of Moreno Moser – remember him? – and Michele Scarponi will have to be stage-hunting.
Vincenzo Nibali is the “defending champion”. Only you can never defend a race, Nibali won’t start in Sardinia with anything to protect, if anything it means expectation and pressure. A repeat isn’t obvious despite winning the Giro in 2013 and the Tour de France in 2014 too. His win last year was like a three week hurdle race where he went into the finishing straight in fourth place only for the three competitors ahead of him to trip and fall (Kruijswijk crashed, Chaves fell ill and Valverde’s only weakness seems to be long climbs/high altitude) leaving the path open for his surprise victory. Now he has had a quiet start to the season too with no results to talk about or show his new boss. After he quit Tirreno-Adriatico his coach Paolo Slongo told the press that Nibali was two kilos overweight, an amount that can be shifted in time but not easy when you’re trying to build form at the same time. All together it leaves Nibali on the back foot but perhaps that’s how he likes it, some of his best rides have come when he’s been able to surprise, to turn the tables, to gamble.
Nairo Quintana is the bookmaker’s pick and you can see why. He’s won this race before and if there was controversy on the day he rode into the maglia rosa because of confusion about the snow and the neutralisation, he stomped over the rest of the race to prove he was the best. More recently he won the last grand tour he rode, the Vuelta. 2017 has been a story of “so far, so good” for The Condor of Tunja as he won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Tirreno-Adriatico and his loss in the Abu Dhabi Tour was partly down to him and Alberto Contador watching each other too much on the summit finish rather than getting stuck into the gradient. Let’s remember he’s aiming for the Tour de France too, the idea being that Movistar believe it is possible after seeing Alejandro Valverde’s data. Whether this works or not remains to be seen but the Giro-Tour double has long been a matter of fashion, in vogue when it works and then as soon as someone flops it’s shunned. Either way the doppio implies a certain strategy to the Giro, that Quintana will need to manage his efforts rather than “fight for pink” daily but easier said than done given the rivals and the course where two substantial time trials (39.8km and 27.6km) won’t help him, he’ll need to raid the mountains for minutes. Also on the subject of doubles it’s been said that few have achieved the Tirreno-Giro double – Nibali 2013 – but that’s really because March’s race was traditionally a flatter race for riders prepping for the classics, it’s only in this decade that it’s tried to attract the grand tour contenders.
One minute you’re on top of the world, the next everything crumbles. Steven Kruijswijk got a cruel lesson in life on the Colle d’Agnello when one mistake saw him collide with a bank of snow and left him floundering. While we remember the accident the real story was that he was leading the race with three minutes on his nearest rival so if he can return with the same legs then he’s got every chance of keeping the maglia rosa on those coathanger shoulders. The season has been quiet so far but that’s always been his way with quiet rides in Paris-Nice and Catalonia and the Tour of Yorkshire before showing up ready for the Giro.
Fellow Dutchman Tom Dumoulin is making his first public bid for grand tour GC glory. He’s long been an exciting rider but was the surprise of the 2015 Vuelta a España and became hot property. He orientated his 2016 season around the time trials, especially the Olympics only for him to crack his wrist in the Tour de France although only after winning a mountain stage and a time trial stage. Now it’s all in for the Giro. He’s had a good start to the year with a string of top-10s in the few times he’s raced but the real test is the high mountains to come in the Giro and it’s conceivable his plan is predicated on taking the maglia rosa after the Stage 20 time trial and not before, an usual symmetry to him taking the race lead on the first day last year. Interestingly he’s got Wilco Kelderman by his side, still a prodigious talent but just months younger than Dumoulin and with a thinner palmarès and also fewer results and races this year, after doing the early season in Australia there’s only a DNF in the Strade Bianche to his name.
Another team with a pairing is Sky who bring Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa. Thomas looked convincing in Tirreno-Adriatico but his challenge is consistency over the three weeks of a grand tour, he’s ridden high in the Tour de France only to fall back in service of his leader for the final week but this time he’s in charge. Landa’s looked more erratic this year but that’s his style, we’ll know more in the upcoming Tour of the Alps, the new name for the Giro del Trentino, which he won last year. Collectively we’ll see how Sky fare because they’ve consistently come undone in the Giro despite several attempts at the win.
Bauke Mollema is another rider who needs a solid three week showing. He was a genuine podium contender in the Tour de France last summer only to crash and fall out of contention late in the race and during this time his team was busy signing Alberto Contador which explains Mollema’s new Italian focus. He won the early-season Vuelta de San Juan and has been consistent but not stellar since. His problem is that he might have opted to ride the Giro to get a long-due result only to find so many others have opted for the same plan meaning the podium is going to be crowded.
Like many promising Americans Tejay van Garderen has suffered from hype. This isn’t his fault but it’s brought pressure and expectation. He’s still got a big engine who can climb with the best on his day and perform very well in the time trials and he might find the Giro’s more relaxed ways make for a calmer three weeks; yes the descents can be trickier and the roads rougher but he won’t have microphones thrust in his face all the time. 2017 has been quiet results-wise, the most visible action has been tweeting complaints at Movistar over the Catalonia time trial result. If TvG found cohabiting with Richie Porte awkward he’s now going into the Giro with an Australian co-leader called Rohan Dennis. Dennis is slowly trying to become a grand tour rider and we’ll have to see what he does in the high mountains, his 15th place on Monte Terminillo in Tirreno-Adriatico was solid but not super, especially on such a steady climb ridden at a high tempo, the ideal kind of scenario for him.
Pressure? For everyone asking for TvG’s time in July, multiply that by ten for Thibaut Pinot every July. Perhaps that’s one reason to ride the Giro instead of the Tour despite riding for a team where the F in FDJ means Française. Still it’s a decision the French should applaud given he’s got good results in Italy already and prefers the cooler, damper conditions of May to the furnace heat of July plus as luck would have it the L’Equipe TV channel has bought the French broadcast rights meaning for the first time in ages it’ll be free to air in France. 2017 has been going well for Pinot, third overall in Tirreno-Adriatico despite an off-day on the Terminillo climb and he beat Contador in a summit finish on the Alto Peña del Águila in the Ruta del Sol. Now he’s back from a training camp in the Canary Islands but Gran Canaria not Tenerife, a deliberate decision to avoid meeting his rivals every day so he can do his own thing with a core of team mates.
The Yates brothers are gradually getting better and are now regularly in contention to win stages from the front group but both still need improvement in the time trials so if a top result isn’t certain, they should still entertain. Adam and Simon are subtly different riders but as a combination they’re even more interesting especially as Orica-Scott are open to playing some more risky tactical cards.
Finally Ilnur Zakarin cuts a lanky figure but a discreet media profile. While everyone remembers Kruijwijk’s collision, the Stork of Tatarstan also crashed out and was arguably within reach of the podium too in what was his first crack at the GC in a grand tour. The lesson was that he can do it and he’ll be back for more and this time on a course that suits him more thanks to the time trials. He’s been there and thereabouts in the results, notably second in the Abu Dhabi tour and has been quietly training on the roads of Cyrprus, his adopted home.
Any other contenders? Domenico Pozzovivo is a perennial outsider. Bob Jungels is going to be good to watch. Cannondale-Drapac have Pierre Rolland, Davide Formolo, Michael Woods and Joe Dombrowski for mountain stage wins but the overall looks elusive. UAE-Team Emirates
have Darwin Atapuma for the mountains too with Rui Costa along for the ride and it’s not clear yet if he wants the GC or some stage wins, he’ll be one to watch in the Ardennes. For all the names cited above the work is done, the next three weeks are all about adding the finishing touches to form and testing themselves, be it on the side of a volcano or in the Ardennes and Alps.