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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

Three Weeks in Italy Ahead

Tao Geoghegan Hart, the 2020 edition winner, will not be present to defend his title. © Getty Images Sport

As the rest of the world slowly creeps back to some form of normality, so does the traditional cycling calendar, with the Giro back to its usual place in May. Last year’s edition was simply incredible with drama unfolding nearly every day. Many riders who were relatively unknown quantities before the race, went on to make a name for themselves and the battle for the Maglia Rosa went right down to the wire. Tao Geoghegan Hart, the overall winner, won’t be present for Ineos Grenadiers this year, as he looks to new targets in support of Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France. Ineos will be led by Egan Bernal who will be one of many of the world’s best climbers in attendance ready to tackle the mountainous course.

The 2020 edition of the Giro was unusual for a number of reasons, one mainly being that it took place so late in the year. As a result, the race overlapped slightly with the Vuelta a España, meaning that it was almost impossible for big name riders to win more than one Grand Tour in the year. Another reason was that all of the favourites were ruled out early on via illness, crashes and poor form. Instead riders like João Almeida broke through and held the Maglia Rosa for a large part of the race, making it memorable for all.

Historically the Giro is typically known for its steep and demanding mountain passes, and this year’s route is no different. There are several mountain top finishes on the itinerary, including the mighty Monte Zoncolan which could make or break many of the overall challengers. Although given his form approaching the race, Simon Yates will be licking his lips at the prospect of a stage victory on the Zoncolan on the way to potential victory.

The must-watch stages

With what is almost guaranteed to be another action packed Giro, here are the stages that are a definite must-watch. Not only are they stages that are likely to be contested by the overall favourites in the high mountains, but also stages on exciting terrain where we could see the likes of Peter Sagan come to the fore. We’ve also included a stage that contains Strade Bianche style gravel sections which are bound to make for thrilling viewing.

Stage 3: Biella – Canale

© La Flamme Rouge

Stage 3 will see the riders tackle some sharp, steep climbs towards the end. Peter Sagan won a stage at last year’s Giro on similar terrain, and stage 3 could see a breakaway succeed with Sagan attempting to win the day. After winning a stage at the Tour de Romandie, Sagan has the form going into the Giro and his team, Bora-Hansgrohe, will certainly have this one earmarked.

Stage 6: Grotte Di Frasassi – Ascoli Piceno

© La Flamme Rouge

Stage 6 could be the day we see the favourites begin to make their mark. Compared to the others it’s a relatively short day in the saddle, but featuring the longest climb of the race yet. The Colle San Giacomo is 15.5km long and has a steady gradient of 6% all the way to the finish, one that Ineos and Egan Bernal could use to their advantage.

Stage 8: Foggia – Guardia Sanframondi

© La Flamme Rouge

The second week will get underway with over 3000 metres of climbing on the menu. The climb of the Bocca della Selva will provide an early test for the peloton at 19 kilometres in length. The final climb to the summit finish at Guardia Sanframondi is certainly not the most challenging of the Giro, though those targeting overall victory will nevertheless need to remain focused to avoid any unnecessary time loss.

Stage 11: Perugia - Montalcino

© La Flamme Rouge

Stage 11 is the Strade Bianche style stage and is bound to be incredibly exciting. Just as when the Tour de France has visited Paris Roubaix style cobbled sections of Northern France, anything can happen, and if the favourites aren’t on their guard then damage could be done here. The stage begins in Perugia before heading out into Tuscany and onto the gravel sections. The stage is, without a doubt, bound to be full of action.

Stage 14: Citadella – Monte Zoncolan

© La Flamme Rouge

The name of the finish, the Monte Zoncolan, is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many a professional cyclist, although not if you’re from Lancashire and your surname is Yates. Simon Yates finished second here to Chris Froome in 2018 and knows the climb well. At 13.3km with an average gradient of 8.9%, the Zoncolan will no doubt provide carnage in the general classification, but it will also give clear signs of who’s in shape to wrap up victory in the Maglia Rosa.

Stage 16: Sacile – Cortina D’Ampezzo

© La Flamme Rouge

The Queen Stage of the race arrives the day before the final rest day. The stage is 210 kilometres long, featuring upwards of 5,000 metres of climbing including multiple iconic mountains. The stage finishes on a downhill run to Cortina d’Ampezzo but nevertheless, even without a summit finish, it will be brutal and energy-sapping.

Stage 20: Verbania- Valle Spluga-Aple Motta

© La Flamme Rouge

The most difficult day in the final week will arguably be Stage 20. At 23km in length with an average gradient of 6.3%, the Passo San Bernadino is a giant and will be torture for the entire field as they creep towards the final few days. Before the time trial into Milan this could be the last chance for the likes of Mikel Landa to claw back and gain as much time on his rivals before the final time trial.

Stage 21: ITT Senago-Milan

© La Flamme Rouge

After the mountains of the Alps and Dolomites are behind them, the GC should be well and truly decided. However, the race for the Maglia Rosa went down to the final day last year and was decided in the time trial into Milan. Therefore, if you’re still in contention, it will be vital to not ease up for one final day. The final time-trial of the 2021 Giro will see Filippo Ganna start as the solid favourite, provided he’s made it through the suffer fest of the last three weeks.

The main contenders for the Maglia Rosa

Simon Yates

Simon Yates has worn the Maglia Rosa before, in 2018, and has more than enough skill and ability to wear it into Milan on the final day in 2021. © Justin Setterfield Getty Images

Simon Yates is undoubtedly the strongest favourite going into the race. The Lancastrian looked to be in outstanding form at the Tour of the Alps and won the stage to Kauternal in impressive fashion, dropping the rest of the field on the final climb. Of course, you could argue that it’s just the Tour of the Alps, but then again Yates has a past track record of many outstanding solo victories on summit finishes to his name. When in form, his climbing ability is second to none, and Yates is capable of blistering attacks that often see him leaving his rivals behind in the dust.

With the route being top-heavy with summit finishes and other huge days in the mountains, it couldn’t suit Yates any better. Yates led the 2018 Giro for a long time before eventually capitulating to Chris Froome. Later that same year he won the Vuelta a España after learning to ride more economically to maintain form across the three weeks. He’s struggled to recapture that same Grand Tour winning form since and has only picked up stage wins. He showed signs of his old-self at Tirreno-Adriatico last year, but then his assault on the Giro was cut short due to a positive COVID-19 test. This time round he’s started to replicate some of his 2018 form, and the course suits him to perfection. There’s plenty of opportunities to take time on his rivals, and Yates has every right to feel confident going into the race.

Egan Bernal

Since winning the Tour de France, Egan Bernal has suffered from serious back injury. He’s yet to replicate the same form since but nevertheless cannot be ruled out of contention. © Getty Images Sport

After winning the Tour de France in 2019, Egan Bernal knows what it takes to go all the way in a Grand Tour. However, since he achieved that success he’s developed chronic back issues which are likely to be exacerbated by a three week Grand Tour, particularly with severe climbing on the menu. 2020 saw him go well at one day races, but then fade dramatically in his attempt to defend his Tour de France title, therefore he’s very much secondary to Yates here as the overall favourite for the Giro.

Then again, an advantage Bernal has over Simon Yates is his ability on differing roads and terrain. Egan Bernal is equally as comfortable on the gravel roads of Strade Bianche as he could be on high mountain summits like the Zoncolan, and could look to exploit the course on a number of occasions. He’s a clever bike racer, and has a powerful team backing him. Provided his back holds up and the time trials go to plan, then he will certainly be in contention for a place on the podium in Milan.

Pavel Sivakov is a solid Plan B for Ineos, and they could be deployed together in tandem to attempt to topple their rivals and to put them under pressure.

Remco Evenepoel

Remco Evenepoel is still to some an unknown quantity, but that could make him dangerous in the fight for the Maglia Rosa. © Getty Images Sport

Remco Evenepoel is very much the man of the moment, and the fact he is appearing at the Giro this year has got people talking. This could go one of two ways as there is a lot of hype around the young Belgian. Evenepoel has never raced a Grand Tour and suffered a horrific crash last year which required long and extensive sessions of rehab. Prior to that he really showed his potential and as a result is considered a contender for the Maglia Rosa.

Evenepoel can time trial, climb well and has proven that he can ride some hugely talented riders off of his wheel. He also won all of the stage races he entered last year, but the Giro will be a whole different gamble. He hasn’t raced since injury, so the big question around his recovery will be revealed on Saturday in the Stage 1 time trial. Climbing some of the huge passes that come deep into the second and third week of racing will also reveal where he’s at. Evenepoel will have João Almeida in support, who knows all about the Giro after his heroics last year. Should Evenepoel’s ambitions fade for overall victory, Almeida is a more than capable rider to take up the reins at Quick Step.

Mikel Landa

The climbing at this year’s Giro should suit Mikel Landa, and he has a great ally in Pello Bilbao to count on for support. © Getty Images Sport

Mikel Landa has rarely shown glimpses of his former-self in recent years, and has far less victories to his name than in his Movistar days. Nevertheless, the climbing on offer at this year’s edition of the Giro suits him to perfection and he has a solid and consistent team around him. Landa finished third at Tirreno Adriatico this year and has consistently ridden well at the Tour de France in recent years. However, we’ve rarely seen the panache that we know he possesses.

Landa is a contender purely for the climbing on offer, and if everything clicks for him at this year’s Giro he will be a formidable threat to the likes of Simon Yates and Egan Bernal. Landa’s teammate, Pello Bilbao, had a solid Giro campaign in 2020 and will be an excellent asset to support Landa as well as targeting stage wins along the way.

Hugh Carthy

After winning on the Angliru at last year’s Vuelta, Hugh Carthy has developed into being one of the most formidable climbers in the sport. © Getty Images

It’s no surprise that the majority of the favourites at this year’s Giro are prestigious climbers. Hugh Carthy is in excellent form recently and so deservedly has added his name to the list of contenders. On the iconic Angliru climb at last year’s Vuelta, Carthy won his first ever Grand Tour stage and made climbers such as Richard Carapaz, a former Giro winner, look amateur in the process.

Carthy finished the 2020 Vuelta in third place, riding well in the final time trial. The long climbs of the Italian Alps and Dolomites suit him to perfection, and a rider as resilient as the Lancastrian won’t be worried by a day of bad weather. He has a great team of support riders behind him at EF Education-Nippo, and as such is a great prospect for a high finish on the general classification.

Vincenzo Nibali

Nibali in action on the Stelvio at last year’s Giro d’Italia. © Getty Images Sport

It feels almost derogatory to not include Vincenzo Nibali in a list of overall contenders, but the Shark of Messina is now 36 years old and in the process of recovering from a recently fractured wrist. That being said, Nibali’s past form and exploits at the Giro and other Grand Tours means he deserves to be included.

He hasn’t shown the same form on a summit finish in recent years against his rivals, and even in his best form is likely to lose time against the clock. Yet if he can come good, he knows how to sustain his efforts over a three-week period and is a solid bet for a stage win or two along the way.

Romain Bardet

Bardet will ride the Giro as an outsider, but if one of the strong favourites has a bad day, he could well spring a surprise. © Team DSM

Romain Bardet is on a new team for 2021, but in Jai Hindley he will have a teammate to draw envy from others. Bardet has shown phenomenal form at the Tour de France across the years and won some memorable stages along the way. In the last 5 years he was arguably one of the best climbers in the business, yet his time trialling let him down when it came to attempting overall victory at the Tour.

The course at the Giro will suit him, as will the varied terrain. He is a strong one day racer and the Strade Bianche style stage could be one he’s ear marked for victory. Bardet is a long shot, but a new team could be just what he needs to gun for the Maglia Rosa. If he won overall, or even finished on the podium, he would go down in history as being one of the best French riders of the last twenty years.

My pick for overall victory: Simon Yates

Other notable contenders: Dan Martin, Jai Hindley, Aleksandr Vlasov, Emanuel Buchmann, Pavel Sivakov, George Bennett and Marc Soler

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