The 99th edition of the Giro d’Italia rolls off in Holland on Friday as some of the world’s best stage riders attempt to win the first Grand Tour of the 2016 cycling calendar.
Race organisers RCS have concocted a challenging route mixed with three individual time trials, which has attracted a stronger GC line-up than in previous years.
Many media outlets are billing the 2016 Giro as a shake-up between 2013 maglia rosa winner and home favourite Vincenzo Nibali and 2015 podium finisher Mikel Landa, but there are numerous others in with a realistic shout of winning.
Alongside favourite Nibali and rival Landa, there lurks a dark horse – Alejandro Valverde.
Valverde has enjoyed an excellent early season, racing to victories in La Fleche Wallonne and the Ruta del Sol stage race.
However, this will be Valverde’s first Giro campaign and many experts are predicting a tough time for the Spaniard in the often snowy weather a Giro endures.
Outside shots for the GC win include Team Katusha’a Ilnur Zakarin, who has enjoyed top 10 finishes in each stage race he has ridden this season, Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka who is released from super-domestique duties for Alberto Contador and Tom Dumoulin, who is looking to capitalise on a breakthrough Vuelta last term.
Much will be made of the battle between German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in the sprint stages but, in reality, the odds of a Kittel domination are extremely favourable.
There are five official flat stages to contest, along with a couple of ‘hilly’ stages that may end up in a bunch sprint if the peloton fancies a rest.
Kittel and Greipel will be pushed in the sprint finishes by young Australian sensation Caleb Ewan, while home rider Elia Viviani will have a free licence as Team Sky concentrate on Landa’s GC ambitions.
Sacha Modolo and Giacomo Nizzolo are other noteworthy Italian sprinters, both of whom will closely contest the red points classification jersey.
Unfortunately for British fans there are no British riders in the Giro for the second year running. Team Sky are fielding two Irishmen – Nico Roche and Phllip Deignan – but that is as good as it gets for British and Irish supporters.
The Tour de France has always been the focus for Team Sky and there will be opportunities for the likes of Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Irishman Dan Martin to grab stage victories later in the summer.
The fun zones
Giro d’Italias are never forgiving races and the 2016 edition is no exception. The queen stage features two highest category climbs of more than 20km in length and an average gradient of 7%. Both climbs also ramp up to at least 11% for sustained periods.
The 3,383km race contains 21 stages and includes a total of 13 mountainous stages, five of which boast multiple high-category ascents.
RCS have ditched the team trial in favour of three individual TTs, bringing the total TT mileage to 61km – a factor that could pay dividends for the likes of Tom Dumoulin.
The route will begin in the south of Italy after the ‘Grande Partenza’ in Holland, working its way up to the north where it flows around the Italian Alps before finishing in Torino on May 29th.
With so much time-trialling and some long, brutal stages it could prove to be the perfect playground for Nibali. How well Landa fares in his first Grand Tour as GC leader also remains to be seen.
But the biggest threat to them both is Valverde. Given the Spaniard has again conditioned himself perfectly for the springtime classics he is in excellent shape to contest the Giro for the first time and win his second career Grand Tour.
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