Nairo Quintana is the obvious pick. The depth of field is better than ever so whatever Quintana may do the next three weeks look promising given so many other candidates want to win or stand on the podium in Milan. Here’s a look at the contenders for the maglia rosa.
Who can stop Nairo Quintana? He’s won this race before and if he benefited from confusion in the midst of a snowstorm on that stage in 2014 he showed in the following days he was the best, notably winning the Monte Grappa time trial. Since then he’s finished on the podium of the Tour de France twice and won the Vuelta last September. This year he’s taken several wins including Tirreno-Adriatico. He’s a Colombian climber but not the usual darting gadfly, instead he turns a big gear and wears down his rivals and he’ll find a route that suits his style with several long, grinding climbs. Two things count against him. First if he’s aiming for the Tour de France this implies he’ll have to lap Italy with efficiency. Second if he could design the course he’d not have so many time trial kilometres so this forces him to attack which undermines his need for economy. But as we saw in Tirreno-Adriatico, he attacks in the mountains and it works then there’s nobody else in the picture. Movistar look strong with Andrey Amador capable of a top-10 and Winner Anacona as the essential mountain lieutenant. Among all the contenders Quintana’s status is such that among the contenders he’s arguably the only one for whom any else than a win would be a disappointment, even a failure.
Vincenzo Nibali is the home pick and last year’s winner. Just like 2015 he seems off the pace, he won the recent Tour of Croatia but this was against thin opposition and he needed to contest the intermediate sprints to see off Jaime Rosón. As promising as Rosón may be, Nibali now faces proven opposition. More worrying for him, he’s got an appointment on Mount Etna next Tuesday, a genuine summit finish when last year the race saved the big summits for late in the race. French General Foch once said “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking” and Nibali has been here before and has turned things around and if last year’s win had a lucky tough thanks his rivals crashing and falling ill he had the legs to exploit it. Can he win? Maybe but many seem to have him as a top pick but his form isn’t reassuring, his team isn’t as strong and the field is deeper. He comes with a Bahrein-Merida team dedicated in his service, although Enrico Gasparotto may fancy an uphill sprint or two and Giovanni Visconti a breakaway, and even if we include 23 year old Luka Pibernik the average age is 32.
Steven Kruijswijk was so commanding going into the final two mountain stages that you could hear a portly soprano warming up her larynx. Then one crash into a snow bank and he slipped to fourth place. It’s a good example of how when things go wrong it’s really a chain of events than make a disaster rather than a single mishap. Kruijswijk’s crash was costly but a bungled bike change and a weak Lotto-Jumbo team with nobody around to help him was ruinous. He was the strongest on the climbs last year and in 2015 he was good in the Valdobbiadene “Prosecco” time trial, finishing an impressive fifth. If “The Coathanger” shows up with last May’s form then he’s good for a podium but he’ll find the density and level of opposition is higher this year, in the conditional because there’s nothing to go on. He’s following the usual below the radar approach with no results this season, just like 2016 and 2015 but did have a scare in Yorkshire when he crashed, he rode one more stage before abandoning. The likes of Stef Clement and Jürgen Vandenbroucke have been hired for support and this will help his chances further.
Team Sky bring two contrasting contenders in Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa. Thomas as track rider who has had to learn to climb and Landa as the Basque climber who needs to improve his time trialling. Both have learned, Landa has improved his time trialling and he was 20th in the Giro’s Chianti stage last year, in the same time bracket as the likes of Nibali and Kruijswijk albeit on a confusing stage under tricky weather but this and other results show he can limit the losses. Can he make gains in the mountains is the question. He looked at ease in the recent Tour of the Alps but office politics could come into play, Landa will need to attack in the mountains but what if Geraint Thomas sits higher on GC following the Montefalco time trial as they ride into the Alps, will Landa have any freedom or must he pace the Welshman? Plus this remains a British team and they’d love a British rider everything else being equal. Thomas has been climbing well for years, some see him as a classics contender making a late move to stage racing but he was second in the Tour de Suisse in 2015. Now he’s just won the Tour of the Alps and looked to be floating on the climbs. His problem has long been holding it together for three weeks, he could shine in the first two weeks but self-destruct come the Dolomites; and if he’s physiologically drained then the final time trial won’t be so advantageous. As such this is a test of him and his leadership. Sky have had a torrid time at the Giro with a series of failed bids including Mikel Landa’s abandon last year but come with a team that’s stronger than ever including new recruit Diego Rosa and they’re so committed to the GC contest that they left out house sprinter Elia Viviani.
Thibaut Pinot starts and this is a big deal for a French rider on a French team sponsored by La Française des Jeux when commercial imperatives would have him focus on the Tour de France. An excellent climber, he’s turned his weakness in the time trials into a strength over the last two years. He enjoys racing in Italy and May’s cooler conditions are to his liking too. He still has a reputation as a bad descender among some but that’s the July effect where memories of the Tour de France crowd out others. The form looks good, he was impressive in the Tour of the Alps both on the climbs and even sprinting for a stage win but if anything this was too impressive, using up energy that he might need to save for the coming weeks. He’s stood on the podium of the Tour de France which shows resilience over three weeks but there’s an anarchic side where you sense he could be brilliant or the wheels could fall off. He could win but so far his biggest triumph in the general classification has been the modest Critérium International, instead he’s often finished on the podium and this has been seen as a satisfying result rather than a near-miss. FDJ’s team is solid with “Tobe” Ludvigsson a precious recruit and the “Swiss Guard” of Steve Morabito and Seb Reichenbach.
Adam Yates was fourth in the 2016 Tour de France. As lines on a CV go that alone gets him a long way into the Giro picks. Last July he never placed higher than seventh, his was a triumph of consistency rather than flair, he was often hanging at the back of the lead group rather than pulling the audacious moves his brother Simon does. If he can find last July’s form he’ll enjoy this course and recent results suggest he’s in good shape. He’ll have to share the Orica-Scott team with Caleb Ewan and his sprint train.
Ilnur Zakarin was close the podium last year before crashing out. The Stork of Tatarstan is good in a time trial and has shown he can climb against the best, whether getting the better of Nairo Quintana in the Tour de Romandie last year or recovering from his Giro crash and broken collarbone to ride the Tour de France and take the summit finish at the Emosson dam. His form looks good but no more, 15th overall in the Tour de Romandie which makes him less of a pick in the immediate but he’s shown over the last two years he can hang with the front group. Katusha offer support with Matvey Mamykin one to watch, a promising U23 rider confirming this as a pro when so many Russians fade once they turn pro.
Tom Dumoulin cracked in the 2015 Vuelta but only after a long spell leading the race thanks to punchy riding on the shorter climbs, a loss but a sign that he could still climb with the best. Since then he’s expanded his repertoire taking the Andorran stage of the Tour de France, the kind of long steady summit finish where he can turn a mountain pass into private time trial. 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 21 time trial and not before, it’d mark a curious symmetry to him taking the race lead on the first day last year. He’s got Wilco Kelderman as a lieutenant, a top talent who has in the past shown he can climb with the best and is an excellent time triallist but now struggling to repeat the promise he showed so early while Team Sunweb will aim for the sprints with Phil Bauhaus the obvious aim is GC with Laurens Ten Dam and George Preidler, nearly a mountain stage winner last year.
Bauke Mollema might be the third Dutchman and indeed he seems to be mentioned a lot less than Dumoulin and Kruijswijk but remember the Tour de France? He matched Ritchie Porte and Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux until that bizarre crash and for all his awkward suffering style on the bike was comfortably sitting second overall until he crashed on the Domancy descent on Stage 18 and lost minutes but he’d also been dropped late on the final climb of Stage 16 suggesting he was fading in the final week. He’s also good in a time trial, or at least superior to many climbers. A win though? It’s hard to see, he’s often consistent rather than successful and has to share a Trek-Segafredo team with sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo but the third Dutchman could be the first.
BMC Racing bring two leaders in Rohan Dennis and Tejay van Garderen. For van Garderen the story in recent times has been one of cracking under pressure and hype but some of that’s not his fault and now he starts a grand tour with fewer expectations. He’ll find the steady climbs and time trials to his liking. He’s won huge mountain top finishes such as the Tour de Suisse’s Sölden stage last year and has just shown good form in the Romandie time trial. A win still seems elusive though, a podium would be a satisfying result to demonstrate consistency. Dennis is trying to go from a short distance TT specialist into a grand tour contender and aged 26 he’s still got time on his side. A top-10 overall and a TT stage win along the way seems reasonable rather than the outright win.
Rui Costa has been 200-1 with some bookmakers. A win seems wild but he’s a diesel who’s found winning ways this year in Dubai and the grinding course suits him, he’s fully capable of a top ten as his multiple wins in the Tour de Suisse show although he may prefer stage wins.
Among the others, Cannondale are the startlist’s five stars movement with Pierre Rolland, Davide Formolo, Michael Woods, Hugh Carthy and Joe Dombrowski all capable of something but just not the overall win, Rolland has looked very strong of late while 24 year old Formolo is the most intriguing, still very promising and now looking much leaner than he did in last year’s Giro. Bob Jungels was excellent last year but it’s hard to see how he wins overall but he could shine during the race with a stage win and a spell in pink. Domenico Pozzovivo has done well in the Giro before but a win, especially with the time trial course, looks impossible and he’d surely sign for a stage win while team mate Alex Geniez has finished in the top-10 overall before but the deeper field this year makes this harder. Bora-Argon look bereft without Peter Sagan and Rafał Majka but Patrick Konrad is a strong stage racer who climbs well. CCC Sprandi’s Felix Grosschartner and Jan Hirt should be visible in the mountains. Finally Gazprom Rusvelo return with stage winner Alexander Foliforov plus stage race stalwart Sergey Firsanov.
|Bauke Mollema, Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, Tom Dumoulin
|Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa, Tejay van Garderen