As the Giro d’Italia begins, Jack Churchill takes us through what to look out for over the next three weeks and why it is looking good for this year’s British riders.
The Giro d’Italia starts today, just in time for me to procrastinate tute work while watching it. This year’s edition is lining up to be one of the most unpredictable yet (which, for the Giro, is saying something). Instead of its usual Spring slot, the race for the magila rosa has been shunted to October this year. This is sure to add an extra level of intrigue as the chance of weather playing a substantial part over the next three weeks increases. No matter what happens between now and Milan, we are sure to get 21 days of great racing; the idea of a boring edition of il Giro is laughable. This is a race that always thrills, and has a unique character in relation to Le Tour; its more romantic, less predictable, and one much watch every stage if one can; there’s no knowing when a race-changing move may happen.
The first thing to note about this route is the amount of Time Trialing (TT). The amount of TT kilometres in Grand Tours has been dwindling for years now. This Giro route offers a slight renaissance for the ‘race of truth’ with three days devoted to it. The first of these is on the first day, a mostly downhill 15.1km into the Sicilian city of Palermo. Too long to be officially designated as a prologue, the first day could see gaps of a minute or more between the main contenders.
The second TT is the longest at 34km, on stage 14. While this may seem like a worry for the climbers, this course is quite hilly; it ends nearly 200m higher than it starts. The first time check is at the top of a 1.2km climb at 12% – that is a steep climb to do on a TT bike. This is just the first of two climbs too, the second is 2.2km at 5% which tops just 6km from the finish. This means that the gaps between the contenders should be smaller since the climbers will not lose as much time on the hills as they would if it were flat or downhill. However, if anyone is on a bad day they could lose upwards of 3 minutes on a course like this.
The third, and last, TT day in this Giro will be a pan-flat 15.7km into the centre of Milan on the last day. If the gaps are close coming into this then, we may just see the second most exciting Time Trial for a generation.
This route isn’t just about the TTs though, there are six mountaintop finishes (MTFs) in this Giro with some absolutely monstrous climbs. The first of these comes at only stage 3 of the race, with a finish on the slopes of Mount Etna. The majority of the MTFs this year are quite steady with very few stretches above 10%. In fact, by my calculations, there are only 4kms above 10% in all of the hilltop finishes this year. That’s compared to 15km in the Tour (and four alone in the finish on the Pas de Peyrol). Therefore, many of the climbs will not be as suited to the featherweight guys as I am sure they would hope. Yet as anyone who has ever watched the Giro will know, any day could be a GC day. Stages 10, 13, and 16, in particular, look designed for a signature Simon Yates attack with short, sharp climbs within the last 15km of racing.
Another defining feature of this Giro is what I am going to call ‘the big 2s’ – stages longer than 200km and climbs higher than 2000m. A single 200km stage may not have a large effect but multiple stages at this length will sap away at the riders’ legs. This increases the chance of riders having bad days (like Roglic at the Tour TT) or blowing up completely like Simon Yates in this race two years ago. The route goes above 2000 metres four times. This is important for two reasons: the first of which is that at such altitude the difference in air pressure is palpable, which some riders will deal with much better than others. The second reason is that at this height the weather will play a much larger part; snow will be a certainty on the sides of the road and if it is heavy then stages may need to be cancelled or changed. I will be pleasantly surprised if the race manages to finish without this happening.
The Main Contenders
Geraint Thomas has bounced back from his disappointing non-selection at the Tour with some very encouraging results in the past few weeks. At the Giro warm-up race, Tirreno-Adriatico, he claimed second behind Simon Yates overall and on the hilltop finish. Thomas also just missed the podium at the World Championship Time Trial despite losing his Garmin bike computer before the start – something I know I’d find a big disadvantage in a TT. The route suits Thomas a lot better than the Tour, this resort of his season may be a blessing in disguise. The climbs are mostly long and steady – perfect for his style of riding – and the TTs will suit him down to the ground. If Thomas wins this race it will be thanks to his Time Trialling. The Ineos team around him has to be, unsurprisingly, one of the strongest in the race. Although, apart from the Hackney-born Tao Geogheghan-Hart (Tayo Gaygan Heart), there is a striking lack of climbers in the team. Once the group goes below 15 riders I would be surprised to see more than 3 Ineos rides still in there. This leaves Thomas open to being isolated if he finds himself in the lead. His ride at the 2019 Tour should put any doubts that he cannot last the three weeks to bed as well.
Simon Yates will come into this Giro with more to prove than perhaps any other rider. He spent 16 days looking impervious in pink with three stage wins at the 2018 edition, only to crack completely on the penultimate mountain stage. Then, last year he came back to the race saying: ‘If I was in my rivals’ position, I would be scared. I would be shitting myself’, only for him to end up in 8th place at the end of racing. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous places for Yates to gain time, even in stages that do not finish atop a climb. While he will certainly lose time to some favourites in the Time Trials, Yates is by no means a bad time trialist. In the 2018 Giro, on a much flatter, but similar-length course to stage 14, he only lost 1:15 to Dumoulin. In Paris-Nice last year, Yates actually won the TT. So while not a strength of his, it would be wrong to call Yates’ time-trialling a weakness. This puts him in a great place to finally get that magila rosa he’s been searching for since 2018, if his legs can last till Milan.
The big Italian hope for this race, and two-time former winner of this race Vincenzo Nibali comes into this race with a low-key build up. The ‘Shark of Messina’ was nowhere close in Tirreno Adriatico but looked much improved at the World’s Road Race, attacking on the last climb before Alaphalippe just, well, did his thing. Age is not on his side: at 35, the Monument winner will not be the best climber nor will he be the best time triallist, but that will not stop him from trying. If he is within five minutes going into the final weekend, I have no doubt he will try a long range attack. At one point the Italian was almost five minutes down on GC in his 2016 Giro win. The one thing you have to remember with Vincenzo is that he is never out of the game.
The Astana pairing of Jakob Fuglsang and Aleksandr Vlasov will be an interesting pair to watch but the podium will be as far as they can go. Fuglsang, despite his renaissance in recent years, has only ever achieved a top-10 result in a GT once and even then did not look at his best in either the Worlds or Tirreno Adriatico. Vlasov, who is a winner of the U23 version of this race – the baby Giro – has been on good form since before the Covid-19 break. That, combined with the fact that this will be his first ever grand tour, means he will not be sure to sustain his form throughout the race. They will have a great domestique in the form of Miguel Angel Lopez, who has just finished the Tour in 6th place. The Colombian, however, is rumoured to be off to Bora Hansgroghe next year so his loyalty to the team may not always be 100%. Expect to see him stage hunting in the breakaways.
The Dutch have two riders in this race who are capable of a podium. Sunweb’s Wilko Kelderman and Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk could both finish this race in the top three. Kelderman looked strong at Tirreno-Adriatico, has a good TT, and is in the best years of his life. If he rides at his best he could get a career-defining podium. Kruijswijk, like Thomas, was forced to miss his initial target of the year the Tour de France, although this was because of a crash and injury. This rider with the shoulders of a man twice his size has not raced since his crash in the Criterium du Dauphine, so not much is known about his form. If he has the form that he had last year at the Tour de France – where he achieved third – then he should be in the fight for the podium. The living embodiment of ‘slow and steady wins the race’; if the Dutchman wants to repeat his ride from 2016 when he was only two stages away from winning then he must hope that others falter.
The rider who came third behind Yates and Thomas at Tirreno-Adriatico may just be the same one who joins them on the podium in Milan. Rafal Majka’srecord in Grand Tours is not the one of a big favourite. But he has been quietly strong and was not dropped by Thomas on the summit finish in Tirreno. His previous best result in a Grand Tour is third at the Vuelta in 2015, and he seems to be in similar form now. Anything less than a top-5 will be a disappointment.
There will be a whopping eight Brits on the startline in Sicily. I have already mentioned three of them: Thomas, Yates, and Geoghegan-Hart. Alex Dowsett and Jonathan Dibben will be targeting the two time-trials that bookend the race – the middle one will be too hilly for either to do well. James Knox could make it into the top 10, he was only a matter of seconds away from it at the Vuelta last year. Matthew Holmes will be riding his first ever Grand Tour less than a year since he was riding for a small British team – an amazing story. He showed in the Tour Down Under this year that he is capable of winning at this level; he will be looking for wins from the breakaway on the hilly but not mountainous stages. The national champion Ben Swift will be on team duties for the most part, looking after Geraint Thomas, but if the opportunity arises he will be able to go for a sprint.
A very British tour of Italy? This Giro is shaping up to be a battle of the Brits. It could be the first ever British 1-2 in the history of the Giro. Every single Brit in this race has the potential to win a stage and four of them have the potential to get a top 10 on GC. The route is perfectly poised between Time Trialists and Climbers, with plenty of stages that could lead to fireworks.
All that’s left to do is to sit back, enjoy – and not do your tute work.