Blazin' Saddles: Giro d'Italia 2016 preview
The 99th edition of La Corsa Rosa gets under way in the Netherlands on Friday. Our resident cycling guru Felix Lowe previews the race, the route and the main favourites.
A pan-flat 9.8km time trial that starts in the velodrome of the Dutch city of Apeldoorn will put the time trial specialists – home hero Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) or Swiss veteran Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), perhaps – among the favourites to wear the first maglia rosa of the Giro d'Italia.
But there will be twists and turns aplenty – not to mention climbs agogo – over the next three weeks en route to the Giro's first ever finish in Turin.
The 2016 Giro route
There are four summit finishes, seven hilly stages, three time trials and seven stages best suited to the sprinters in a balanced course that has something of an international flavour.
Three days in the Netherlands (and an uncharacteristic Friday start) are followed by an early rest day (there are three in total this year) on the first Monday as the riders fly out to southern Italy before edging up the Apennine backbone from toe to the top of the boot, where the eagerly anticipated showdowns in the Dolomites and Alps will take place.
The third rest day comes after the 10.8km uphill time trial and is followed by a mountainous final week that includes forays into both Switzerland and France. For many, the queen stage of the race comes on the penultimate day with back-to-back ascents of the Col de Vars, Col de la Bonette and Col de la Lombarde ahead of a finish back on Italian soil at Sant'Anna di Vinadio.
All in all it's a course that offers something for everyone – and it should be given another exciting dynamic by the unpredictable weather that Italy often experiences in May. There are reports that the snow's yet to melt in the high mountains...
10 riders to look out for
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): Write the Sicilian off at your peril. Besides his abject disqualification in last September's Vuelta, Nibali's lowest finish in his previous 11 Grand Tours has been seventh in a mesmerising run that has seen him win each of cycling's major races once. This is his first stab at the race he won in 2013 and although the form (and belly) have been a bit wobbly, Nibali has a hugely strong Astana team behind him as well as the whole of Italy. But will he pay for his penchant to pedal with panache?
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)AFP
Mikel Landa (Team Sky): The Spaniard could – and probably should – have won last year had he not been forced to ride for then Astana team-mate Fabio Aru. Now at Sky, Landa will be uncontested number one on a strong team that he joined precisely to get top-dog status in these kinds of races. Superb in winning the Giro del Trentino last month, Landa's clearly got the form – but he's still only finished on the podium in one of six Grand Tours and so has everything to prove.
Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale): Runner-up twice in the past three years, Uran clearly has unfinished business in the Giro and has made it his prime focus in his first year at Cannondale. He's looked strong, if unspectacular, this season and, at 29, he'll be aware that he's entering his peak years. A lot will depend on how and if young Davide Formolo can support him in the mountains. There's a concern that, as at Etixx, Uran will find himself a little isolated when the going gets tough.
Rigoberto Uran, Giro 2014AFP
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): Amazingly, this is the first time the Spanish veteran has thrown his hat into the Giro ring, his previous misdemeanours having made Valverde something of a persona non grata in Italy. It remains to be seen how he copes with a new challenge at the advanced age of 36 but the form's there and Valverde is nothing if not consistent. A strong team boasting a return-to-svelteness Carlos Betancur should help his cause. Win and he'll become the oldest maglia rosa in the race's history.
Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep): Check this for a mind-boggling stat: the German currently has a 100% win record in road stages of the Giro d'Italia although he's never won a professional race in Italy. You see, neither of his two stage wins in the 2014 edition of the Giro came on Italian soil, Kittel having quit the race after the opening Irish gambit. After an enforced sabbatical, Kittel appears to be getting back in his groove for his new team. This will be the ultimate test of whether or not he's gotten over that blip.
Marcel Kittel en 2016AFP
Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge): The pint-sized Australian was rewarded with a maiden Grand Tour scalp in the Vuelta and after a fine early phase of the season Ewan will be looking to open up his Giro account in one of the Dutch stages. Yet to come up against some of the best sprinters in the business on a major race, Ewan will relish the chance of going head-to-head with the likes of Kittel and Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal).
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha): The rangy Russian has matched all the big guns in mountain stages so far this year and looks a splendid prospect ahead of his second Giro. A stage winner last year, Zakarin's target will be far loftier as he looks to secure a top-five place with his aggressive riding and supreme staying power. Summit wins in Paris-Nice and, effectively, Romandie show that he's in the form of his life – but can he last the three weeks? While Katusha are a stronger unit this year, Rein Taaramae may prove the only man capable of supporting Zakarin in the high mountains.
Russian Ilnur Zakarin (R) sprints ahead of Colombian Nairo Quintana at the end of the second stage of the Tour de Romandie cycling race on April 28, 2016, in Morgins, Western Switzerland. Zakarin won the stage but was downgraded for obstruction.AFP
Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge): The smiling Colombian's slow start to the season suggests his principal target this year will come in the Vuelta, where he shined brightly last September with two stage wins and a run in red. That could well open him up to hunting stages in Italy, and Chaves could form an exciting climbing trident with team-mates Ruben Plaza and Amets Txurruka – even if all three seem better suited to heat and hills of Spain.
Rafal Majka (Tinkoff): With Alberto Contador focusing on the Tour and Vuelta this year, Majka will lead Tinkoff as he looks to improve on his sixth place in 2014, his last appearance in Italy. The Pole has since notched three stage wins on the Tour (plus the polka dot jersey) and made the podium in last year's Vuelta. A brutally strong climber who should excel in the second uphill time trial, Majka will be happy with the course. If the main favourites falter, he should be there to pounce. But win it? Unlikely.
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin): Given his chrono pedigree and the home support, many believe Dutchman Dumoulin is a wooden shoo-in for the opening time trial in Apeldoorn as well as the Chianti ITT. And yet the same was said at last year's Tour and the prize evaded him – much like this season where, in three time trials or prologues, he's finished runner-up in all. Having startled with his climbing ability in the Vuelta, Dumoulin will be out to prove his near-flawless ride in Spain was no fluke and he'll be favourite to at least secure Giant Alpecin's first win of the year.
And don't forget...
Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) would have hoped to pick up maiden pink jersey by winning the opening ITT of his third and final Giro d'Italia appearance, but illness has struck and the Swiss may be a trifle off-colour in the Netherlands.
Italian youngster Davide Formolo (Cannondale) will look to build on his break-out Giro last year, while Dutch climber Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) will aim to secure a stage win after two second-placed finishes last year. And how will last year's Vuelta revelation Omar Fraile (Dimension Data) perform in his maiden Giro? The Spaniard won the polka dot jersey in Spain but will meet his match with seasoned blue jersey-chasing climber, Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF).
It will be interesting to see if the Extreme Weather Protocol comes in to play – especially after Nibali threatened not to appear in the race following the controversial cancellation of the key mountain stage in March's Tirreno-Adriatico. Also, will the all-Russian Pro-Continental outfit Gazprom-RusVelo justify their curious wildcard selection?
Trek Factory rider Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland wears the race leader's yellow jersey on the podium after the 166-km (103.15 miles) second stage of the 102nd Tour de France cycling race from Utrecht to Zeeland, July 5, 2015Reuters
What about the sprinters?
In theory, there is enough to keep the sprinters very happy indeed. Sure, there's no Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni or Alexander Kristoff, but the field's still hugely stellar with the likes of Kittel, Ewan, Greipel, Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Elia Viviani (Team Sky), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Jakub Mareczko (Willier-Southeast), Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) and Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale) all taking part.
The opening two Dutch road stages should finish with a bunch gallop and are followed by another two stages in Italy which could easily follow suit ahead of the first uphill finish in stage six. Subsequent stages to Foligno, Asolo and Bibioni will offer opportunities before the high mountains, and then there are two chances in the final week, at Cassano d'Adda and on the final day in Torino. So while this is a mountain-heavy route, expect a fierce battle for the sprinters' red jersey.
GC rider ratings
***** Nibali, Landa
*** Uran, Majka, Zakarin
* Ulissi, Kruijswijk, Hesjedal, Geniez, Atapuma