Is Vincenzo Nibali in form? Can Mikel Landa limit his losses in the time trials? Will Alejandro Valverde prove consistent enough. Can Ilnur Zakarin carry the form from Romandie into the Giro and stay consistent for three weeks? Will Rafał Majka deliver the grand tour win he’s been aiming for? Is Rigoberto Uran back to his golden form of recent years? Six contenders in search of answers, it could be a Pirandello play but it’s the Giro d’Italia. This uncertainty is to be celebrated as it promises surprises between now and the end of the month.
Vincenzo Nibali holds all the keys. He’s won this race before, he’s won the Tour de France and Vuelta too and if winning the Giro was a job application he’d have the best CV. He’ll have a nation in support, not only is he a household name in Italy but he’s wearing the national champion’s jersey too making him a tricolore hero, a bicycling Maciste and especially a hero for the south of the country. If the crowd is worth an extra team mate then the other eight at Astana are very solid, so much that of late Tanel Kangert and Jacob Fuglsang were riding better than him in Trentino and are easily capable of the top-10 while helping Nibali and possibly the podium should the Sicilian falter, indeed Fuglsang is part of Astana’s plan to get two riders on the podium as they did last year. Nibali can also count on his Italian cell within Astana with Valerio Agnoli, Eros Capecchi and Michele Scarponi. So far so good but there’s internal pressure, an uneasy relationship with his Astana team and contract negotiations with talk of a Bahrain-backed team: the Giro will determine Nibali’s market value. More significantly there are doubts about his form, he was off the pace in the Giro del Trentino and getting upset with the TV motorbike that dwelt on his discomfort. Coach Paolo Slongo said his form is fine, that this happens when he comes back from an altitude training camp; but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Certainly Nibali went under the radar before his 2014 Tour de France win being dropped during the Dauphiné but when he won the 2013 Giro he stormed the Giro del Trentino weeks before with ease. Finally Nibali has won big but he’s often lost big too, attacking too much and paying the price for his panache. As such a pick for Nibali is a pick based on reputation rather than form, the promise of past performance rather than recent results.
Mikel Landa is tipped by many and it’s easy to see why, he was among the best last year and logic dictates that if he can improve his time trialling and has a team in his service then his overall performance will follow. The pride of the Basque Country, he appears to be an artisan among Team Sky’s auditors, a splash of orange among the black. You might remember him ignoring team orders to attack and win a stage of the Vuelta last year. Of course he was leaving the squad and this isn’t to say he’ll ignore Sky’s plans, just a sign that he likes to race his own way, to attack rather than sight tight. He might have to make his own moves too, he won the Giro del Trentino with the ease of a cat playing with mice but was isolated on the final mountain stage. Ian Boswell, Mikel Nieve, Nicolas Roche and Sebastian Henao bring help for the mountains but they’ve not Sky’s A-team so we’ll see how much Landa has to work for himself in the final moments of a mountain stage. Part of the team will be tasked with helping sprinter Elia Viviani too even if he’s likely to have to fend for himself a lot.
Alejandro Valverde rides his first ever Giro but is no novice having just turned 36. He won the Vuelta in 2009 and was on the podium of the Tour de France last summer and seems to win target races time after time. His weakness? It’s been consistency, especially in the high mountains of a grand tour and his ability in a time trial where cracking the top-10 has been rare. Instead he’s a skilled climber and a crafty racer who can take time by surprise and profit from the time bonuses thanks to his uphill sprinting ability. Movistar bring a strong team with Carlos Betancur a late inclusion, still seven kilos overweight so don’t rush to the bookmakers. Andrey Amador is back in form with some strong riding in Romandie but is likely to be working for Valverde rather than improve on his surprise fourth place last year. Giovanni Visconti meanwhile will probably have permission to get in the attacks and take a stage win.
Rafał Majka is a strong climber who has improved in the time trials. Third in the Vuelta last year, sixth in the Giro in 2014 in what wasn’t a great year for him, the Bison of Zegartowice is genuine podium potential even if few seem to be talking about him. He’s Tinkoff’s sole leader and has been riding the roads of the Troodos mountains of Cyprus to prepare for the Giro, his big goal before riding for Contador in July. Close your eyes and you can see Majka on the podium but you’d probably be dreaming to envisage him winning and standing above Nibali, Valverde and Landa. It’s still possible and and Tinkoff are a powerful team with some good riders, Paweł Poljanski is a mini-Majka, Contador’s mountain helper Jesus Hernandez rides while Jay McCarthy is a prospect for some uphill finishes too.
When Nairo Quintana attacked in the Tour de Romandie only Ilnur Zakarin could follow and if his response wasn’t immediate, the way he floated across the gap was impressive. The Russian is now aiming for his first grand tour podium, a venture as uncertain for him as he is unknown to the wider public. He rode the Giro last year but did not aim for an overall result, instead he took a stage at Imola à la pédale as he soloed away at the end of a hard stage. Churchill once said Russia was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and it seems appropriate for Zakarin. Few know who he is, even when interviewed in Russian he gives answers that are shorter than the questions and his media profile is as low as his flat-backed aero climbing position. Katusha are strong but don’t come full of support for the high mountains, Egor Silin is probably the best “Zaka” gets although Rein Taaramäe should be there on his good days too. It’ll be interesting to see how Gazprom ride given the two teams’ deep connections. Zakarin is the extrapolation pick, excellent performances in Paris-Nice and Romandie this year and the expectation he can carry this across into three weeks of consistency. Given his climbing and his time trialling it’s entirely possible he makes the podium.
Rigoberto Uran could well the steady performer, neither the best in the mountains nor the time trials but consistent everywhere. While others trade blows on the early mountain stages he’ll bide his time and start climbing up the GC as the others fall away. Not for him searing attacks or risky raids, he’s a regular rider who excels in the time trials too and, like so many Colombian riders today, a far cry from the stereotype Colombian climber that was introduced to the cycling world in the 1980s embodied by the likes of Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra. Uran has a good team with Joe Dombrowski on hand for the high mountains. Uran came close to winning in 2013 and 2014 and was a tipped as a top contender in 2015 only things didn’t work but if he’s back to past form he’ll like this course. Can Davide Formolo ride shotgun? The 23 year old Italian talent can make the top-10 but would this be thanks to the steady riding and even restraint at times or will it down to the more spontaneous riding we’ve seen before where he infiltrates a breakaway to take time, either way he’s an exciting prospect for Italian cycling.
A darting Colombian climber who flounders in a time trial? It’s not just an eighties caricature cited above, there’s Esteban Chaves among others. Orica-Greenedge’s climber has had a discreet start to the season, his only top-10 performance was… in a team time trial and he’s struggled to make the front group at all other times. Yet last August we could have said the same only for him to storm the start of the Vuelta and breeze past Nairo Quintana and others on the first uphill climb. However he’s going to have to endure the opening time trial and a few unsuitable days before he gets to express himself in the mountains. As such a stage win and a top-10 overall are possible.
Would you spot Sergei Firsanov if he walked by you? Perhaps connoisseurs of the Baltic racing scene and Russian readers would but he’s a discreet rider who should not be ignored. The 33 year old won the Coppi e Bartali race this year and has just finished fourth in the Giro del Trentino and has been a successful rider with Rusvelo, now Gazprom-Rusvelo over the years in many Russian races. He’s a climber who will not enjoy the Dutch opening stages nor the Chianti stage but expect to see his name in the mountains.
Tom Dumoulin‘s become hot property following his rides in the Vuelta and Tour de Suisse. But his big goal is winning the opening stage and the Chianti time trial rather than winning the race outright. Of course everyone plays the deflection game when asked if they’re going to win. Dumoulin’s got a string of second places in time trials lately and he and his team will crave a solid opening start and he’s the kind of rider who can keep the maglia rosa for a long spell if he takes at on Friday.
Domenico Pozzovivo has the number one on his back. The piano-playing economics graduate crashed out last year but was fifth in the 2014 Giro, coping respectably with the time trials – ninth in the Barolo chrono – and using his punchy kick in the uphill finishes. A win? He’s joint leader of Ag2r La Mondiale not joint smoker but if he had a perfect race the podium is possible for “The Flea of Policoro”. Jean-Christophe Péraud (pictured) rides his first Giro, a career wish he wanted last year but his success in the 2014 Tour de France meant he had to return to the Tour only he was swept away but the consequences of his win and never got on top of his form, you might remember his Tutankhamen look as he lapped France wrapped in bandages. Now retirement looms for the Frenchman but he’s finally getting back into form and if anyone knows how to stick to Nibali’s wheel in the mountains it’s Jean-Chris.
At pixel time Diego Ulissi was 300-1 with the bookmakers for the win and if you played the Giro 300 times it’s true he probably wouldn’t win but these odds still seem very long for a punchy climber who has won stages in the Giro and won mountainous stage races too. So he could well feature high on GC as he aims for mountain stages, he excels in the mid-mountain uphill finishes and his Ardennes campaign says the form is there too. Polish veteran Przemysław Niemiec was sixth overall in 2013, a probable career high but he was in form in the recent Tour of Turkey.
Now for some third week heros, those who seem to stay fresh while others fall stale around them. Steven Kruijswijk, the human coathanger, was a prime example last year and looks set to repeat after a strong but discreet performance in Yorkshire last weekend and it’ll be interesting to see how Slovenian recuit Primož Roglič climbs, the former ski-jumper sprung into third place atop the Alto da Fóia in the Volta ao Algarve, comfortably ahead of the likes of Pinot, Aru and Zakarin.
Ryder Hesjedal is another strong rider who will aim to rise up the GC during the final week, the 2012 winner seems unlikely to repeat that ride ever again but Trek-Segafredo team mate Riccardo Zoidl just won the mountain stage of the Tour of Croatia and has been a good stage racer in the past, taking time to find his feet in the World Tour. Of course the team will be delighted if Fabian Cancellara wins the opening stage and Giacomo Nizzolo wins a sprint.
Finally some more names to watch. Alexandre Geniez has carte blanche to repeat his top-10 ride from last year and is coming into form and like other FDJ riders he won’t fear the time trials. Lotto-Soudal’s Maxime Montfort won’t ever win but he almost deserves something, a domestique who prefers working for others he’s still placed in the top-10 in grand tours and other stage races before and could quietly pace himself into a decent overall position and will team mate Tim Wellens sit tight for the high mountains or is he after a stage. BMC Racing don’t have a team to match their budget and status but Darwin Atapuma is good value in the mountains and 24 year old climber Manuel Senni was among the best on the U23 scene a while back. Etixx-Quickstep’s Bob Jungels climbed well in the Tour de France; IAM’s Austrian eagle Stefan Denifl could target the mountains jersey; Wilier-Southeast’s Colombian Daniel Martinez is an ace climber in the making but aged 20 just finishing the race is a tall order.
|Mikel Landa, Rigoberto Uran
|Rafał Majka, Alejandro Valverde, Ilnur Zakarin