On a route that has plenty for everyone, writes Jack Houghton, Geraint Thomas will find himself advantaged by the amount of time trialling
"The watchword of this Giro is variety. No matter what your talent as a rider - sprinting, punching-out short climbs, time trialling, or suffering in the high mountains - there are a hatful of stages to suit..."
What's the route like?
On Saturday, nearly five months later than scheduled, a slightly altered Giro d'Italia route (which was originally due to start in Hungary) sees riders roll out of Monreale on the island of Sicily for a 15km time trial.
Three weeks later - Covid-19 protocols permitting - the race should end much like it began, with another 15km time trial, albeit with a bruised and battered peloton.
The watchword of this Giro is variety. No matter what your talent as a rider - sprinting, punching-out short climbs, time trialling, or suffering in the high mountains - there are a hatful of stages to suit.
Those two time trials that bookend the race are joined by a longer one on Stage 14, meaning that those General Classification riders who favour days against the clock will view this Giro as a rare opportunity, with Grand Tours in recent years tending to favour the out-and-out climbers.
Not that there isn't balance. Whatever is gained on those time trials could easily be lost in a brutal last week that includes a series of long stages - one of which is a monstrous 251km - and three of which see riders climbing relentlessly. Stage 20 looks especially perverse: topping out at an altitude over 2,700m, it sees riders ascending more than 5,300m.
Another feature of note in this year's Giro are the series of stages which will see the peloton trace the Adriatic coast from south to north. Italian races aren't renowned for crosswinds, but then this is October, so that might change. What is certain is that the weather will play a part. The race reaches the ski resorts of the North only a month before they are due to open for the skiing season, so conditions are likely to be challenging.
Who are the favourites?
The amount of time trialling makes it hard to oppose Geraint Thomas (2.506/4). Originally targeting the Tour de France, he showed such mediocre form at the Dauphine in August that his team, Ineos Grenadiers, quickly changed his schedule. Things have been on the up since. He looked to be approaching something nearer his best at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing second, and rode well at the World Time Trial Championships, finishing fourth. It's likely he will be able to take two minutes and more out of his nearest rivals for the Maglia Rosa when riding against the clock: the narrative will be whether they can take it back from him in the mountains.
Fellow Brit Simon Yates (5.409/2) is favourite to do so. The winner of Tirreno-Adriatico, Yates was flying in the 2018 Giro before capitulating in the final week, going on later that year to win the Vuelta. The key form line here might be Stage 5 at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Yates distanced Thomas by 35 seconds on the summit finish. That was then, though, and Ineos are masters at getting their riders to peak in the crucial last week of Grand Tours, so whether Yates will be similarly dominant on the summit finishes at the Giro is questionable.
Runner-up in last year's Giro, and the 2013 and 2016 winner, Vincenzo Nibali (12.50), is taking his usual approach to preparing for a three-week stage race. He has shown little-to-no form of any worth since racing resumed in August, and yet it feels almost certain that he will play a leading role in the fight for pink. It would be no great surprise to see him win, but a podium spot might be a more realistic expectation.
Who are the most likely outsiders?
Cycling aficionados seem obsessed by the chances of Jakob Fuglsang (8.207/1); it's hard to read a preview of the race without him being touted as a likely winner. His form is certainly solid, with strong rides at Strade Bianche and at the Tour of Poland showing that he arrives in Italy reaching his peak. It's worth remembering, though, that at 35 years old, he has never finished in the top 6 in a Grand Tour, despite consistently showing the promise to challenge. His odds look short.
Fuglsang might not even be his team's top rider. If looking to continue the theme of the Tour de France, by finding the young buck who can surprise the old guard, then Fuglsang's Astana teammate, Aleksandr Vlasov (20.0019/1), might be the best choice. He's already posted wins post-lockdown, but will have to show more on his time trial bike than he has so far in his career to be considered a valid contender here.
Other youngsters to note are Sam Oomen (200.00199/1), a previous Tour de l'Ain winner who represents the currently all-conquering Sunweb team, and James Knox (200.00199/1), who finished 11th at last year's Vuelta. Whether either rider has the capability to yet challenge over a three-week tour, however, is questionable. They might be better off targeting stage wins.
More likely outsiders are Steven Kruijswijk (12.0011/1) and Rafal Majka (30.0029/1). Majka will almost certainly feature in the high mountains, but the amount of time trialling will likely see him eventually tumble down the standings.
Kruijswijk, on the other hand, will fare well against the clock. He looked nailed-on to win this in 2016 before crashing, and was third at the Tour de France last year. If the market leaders falter, he looks the like the most reliable proposition.
What about the sprinters?
Whereas the Tour de France seemed somewhat bereft of the best sprinting talent, this Giro - with its kindlier first two weeks - offers more. Suggestions are that Peter Sagan will ride his first ever Giro, presumably looking to atone for his Tour disappointments, and he will be joined by Michael Matthews to fight out the punchier finishes.
The pure sprinters are out in force, too, with Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, Arnaud Demare, Caleb Ewan, and Davide Ballerini all slated to start. Of those, Demare has shown the most exciting form post-lockdown.
*Odds correct at the time of writing
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