underdog (noun): a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.
I don’t remember exactly when rooting for the underdog became my default sporting position. Probably in the dark days of Watford FC’s pre-Premier League years, standing on the terraces (yes I’m that old) listening to my Dad moan about tired tactics and wingers lacking in drive.
It translated down the years through many other sports: tennis, ice hockey, university sport, some more Watford FC (losing 6-0 to Man City in the 2019 cup final, where I finally put to rest my lifelong love of the game). There was an upside to it though: always the underdog; never disappointed.
Because, much like sitting down on a comfortable sofa, being the underdog is easy. You can scream at the TV, enjoying your sport of choice, safe in the knowledge that it’s probably not going to be your day (as it rarely is), and sink back into that familiar, well-worn spot right after, shaking your head knowingly.
But on those magical days, those rare occasions when the underdog comes good? Now that is what sport is all about.
There had to be a pay-off, somewhere along the line, however, and the tables were turned when I nailed my colours to the mast with Team Jumbo Visma. So, now it’s my turn to support a winning team. Right? Wrong. I mean sometimes, sure. But the beauty of cycling is nothing is a given; there’s no obvious result, or done deal. Even when you have one of the race favourites on paper, nothing is guaranteed.
And so to the Giro d’Italia 2021. With a field jam-packed with GC contenders, it’s safe to say that Jumbo Visma’s team leader George Bennett has got his work cut out for him. So, is it time for me to settle back down onto that comfortable sofa, and confidently state that I’m back in my safe place: supporting the underdog?
Maybe not. Browsing through the leading contenders for the overall win in Italy, I began to wonder… is there anyone who couldn’t be considered, in their own way, an underdog?
Here for you now, I’ll argue that each and every one of the main contenders are all underdogs in their own unique ways. I’ll then go on to shine a spotlight on some of the actual underdogs, and suggest reasons why this year might be their year to take home the Maglia Rosa. And I’ll try to work out who the smart money is on – the guys in between.
BOOKIES’ FAVOURITES – the front runners. The main contenders. The guys we expect to see battling it out all the way to Milan on the final day.
Name: Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers)
Er, he’s going to win, right? Probably. INEOS will send a stacked line-up to support their leader. He sat out the Tour de Romandie but that may have just been to preserve his fitness. And did you SEE him sticking it out all the way to the final of Strade Bianche? If Bernal is feeling good, everyone else is in big trouble.
Underdog credentials: I’ll admit, going to be tricky. The 2019 TDF winner has already proven himself in top form this season; as well as Strade Bianche he came 4th in Tirreno Adriatico. It’s by no means a done deal though. Despite his good form there are still question marks over his back injury, and it’s a big ask for such a big injury to hold out over a three-week grand tour.
Name: Simon Yates (Team Bike Exchange)
No actually, he’s going to win, right? Probably. Yates is arguably THE form rider going into the Giro, taking the GC at the Tour of the Alps with an assured performance. He showed effortless ability to distance his rivals on climbs, and his confidence is brimming. He’s happy to take on a climb alone, and give it everything right to the finish line.
Underdog credentials: Like a classic case of twin theory, separating out the Yates twins this season might finally provide an answer to the question: which Yates is which? Purely by nature of being the one not at INEOS, Simon could be viewed as an underdog. Adam’s form this season is arguably stronger, taking the GC at Volta a Catalunya and coming second in the UAE tour. Yes, Simon’s shown he can put down a win over a week, but can he do it over three? As yet, it’s an unknown.
Name: Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quickstep)
Surely he can’t win? You’d be right to have doubts, despite the bookies’ faith in the young Belgian superstar. Despite his long period off the bike following his horror crash at last summer’s Il Lombardia though, there’s no way he’d be sent to the Giro if he wasn’t feeling good. He comes as part of an incredibly strong wolfpack who have serious designs on the GC. The race starts and finishes with an individual time trial, which will be a great chance for Remco to gain confidence over his rivals, and snatch back any time he loses in the mountains. Which, let’s face it, he probably won’t.
Underdog credentials: You would be forgiven for laughing at the notion that Remco could ever be considered an underdog, in any bike race. It’s no secret that the former footballer has talent for days and is expected to have a huge future in the sport. However, he’s been rehabilitating gradually and the decision to wait until the Giro to trial his form means that despite his talent, his ability to grind through three weeks of gruelling grand tour riding remains untested, and the team have been quick to play down his chances of success. Yet he’s one of the favourites for the race simply by reputation. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it pans out.
Name: Hugh Carthy (EF Education Nippo)
Hang on, that lad from Lancashire, one of the favourites? Yes, technically speaking. Some might argue he’s not quite up there with Yates and Bernal. Still, the enigmatic young climber from has shown good form this season and has the potential to be a serious contender. Who could forget his relentless attack on the Angliru at 2020’s Vuelta a Espana, which cemented his podium finish in that race? He’s been lurking at key moments this season and has ensured the eyes of the cycling world are firmly on him going into the lumpiest of grand tours.
Underdog credentials: Carthy’s time trialling isn’t the best, and he will have to ensure he keeps out of trouble on the sprint stages. He’s a bit of a lone wolf so if he gets the chance to attack and is feeling good, it’s likely he’ll go. But can he make it stick on the longest climbs when he’s up against the world’s best?
Name: Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana PremierTech)
This guy! Right? Vlasov is the kind of rider you want to get behind. He wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to chase down an attack or to go solo on a climb. He will liven up proceedings where necessary and if he’s feeling good, will be a daunting prospect for his rivals. He’s already chalked up two podium spots in stage races so far this season, including an impressive second place in Paris-Nice. Nice.
Underdog credentials: Vlasov is incredibly talented, works hard and puts it all on the line. Astana have proven strong this season, but when working alone, Vlasov isn’t quite there tactically, and is prone to blowing up after attacking too early. He’ll have to pace himself and use his team wisely if he’s to stay the course.
PICK OF THE BUNCH: The good shouts. If you were a betting person, you’d go for one of these. Solid chances; sensible odds
Name: Pavel Sivakov (INEOS Grenadiers)
Hang on, haven’t we already had an INEOS guy? Yes. That’s how strong they are. For me, I think Sivakov has almost as good a chance as Bernal to take the GC. If Bernal’s not feeling at his best or if his injury plagues him, INEOS will switch leadership and Sivakov will have the full support of an extremely intimidating team at his behest. He has looked dangerous this year and if he’d had better luck, he may have challenged for podium spots.
Underdog credentials: as it stands, he’s second in line in the INEOS set-up, and if Bernal has the legs, Sivakov will ride in service of him and won’t get his shot. If he does get his chance, he will have to prove himself a leader – something he’s managed over week-long stage races, but the young Russian will need to step up to the next level to compete with the more experienced heads around him.
Name: Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious)
Well, he’s got a good shot, hasn’t he? Yes. Landa’s climbing prowess has never been in doubt, and he has an impressive palmares that just falls short of a Grand Tour GC podium. Now leading the team at Bahrain-Victorious, in a race that suits him, he will be looking to go one better.
Underdog credentials: despite close calls on previous occasions, this season has proven more difficult for Landa, and he hasn’t been able to convert solid form into results. He’ll be looking to redress that balance but will have to find another gear if he is to stay in contention and challenge for the top spot.
Name: Bauke Mollema (Trek Segafredo)
Stalwart Dutch dude one of the GC contenders? You’d be a fool to rule him out. Mollema has looked strong all season, and has floated on the periphery of greatness for some time now. With team mate Vincenzo Nibali out through injury the team will throw their support behind him and hope he can convert consistency into results.
Underdog credentials: he’s been knocking at the door for years now but despite his vast experience, Mollema has never quite been able to make it stick in the grand tours. He’s one of a big group of riders who seems as though they should have won something big, but he’s just never quite done it. With plenty of young guns coming through, is there any reason to believe this year will be any different?
WHO LET THE UNDERDOGS OUT? Want to take a punt on a true underdog, but one who might just have a chance of sticking with the big guns all the way to the finish? One of these might be for you…
Name: Dan Martin (Israel Start-up Nation)
Now we’re talking. Dan Martin epitomises what it means to support an underdog. He’s hard-working, tenacious and above all, a really nice guy. He has said this week that he feels at his strongest and with buckets of experience and a proven ability to hunt down stages, it might finally be time for Dan to achieve at the highest level.
Name: Romain Bardet (Team DSM)
Bardet has quietly gone about his business in 2021 so far, placing well in Tirreno Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps. He’s shown he’s got good legs on the big climbs and he’s a rider that’s always had a hint of possibility about him – will this be the year he comes good? Working against him will be his lack of all-round ability; if he can put down a good time trial or two, you never know.
Name: Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Almeida garnered attention for his incredible efforts in last year’s Giro which ultimately saw him just miss out on a podium spot. Almeida is brilliant and has potential to succeed but the field is a lot stronger than it was in the autumn, and he has work to do on his all-round skills. This year he heads to Italy as the nominal leader of DQS but methinks they protest too much – if Remco is in anything like the form he showed prior to his crash last year, they will surely ride for him.
Name: George Bennett (Jumbo Visma)
And finally we come to the reason I began this piece in the first place. My chosen underdog, Kiwi national road champion George Bennett.
Smart, experienced and an incredibly talented climber, George has ridden selflessly in the service of others for a long time, and was frustrated in 2020, losing out on his chance to lead in the Giro in favour of supporting Primoz Roglic at the Tour de France. He has no problem with the physical demands of a three week grand tour and he showed in the late season classics and Il Lombardia that he is knocking at the door of being at the top of his game. He will be driven to produce a good result in this make or break year as he comes up for contract renewal. It’s finally his time to shine: has he got what it takes? I’m going to be on the comfortable sofa, hoping, as is my default position, that the answer just might be ‘yes’.
Too much winning? Prefer a good, old-fashioned underdog?
Perhaps these tantalising glimpses of glory, though, are not for you. Perhaps, like the old me, you just want a good, reliable underdog, who you can confidently support without fear of them doing anything so silly as winning.
There are some outside contenders who for me, fulfil this role. Each a great rider, capable of brilliance, but who I don’t feel will have what it takes in the GC race this year. Take your pick from:
Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious): great showing in the Tour of the Alps, but likely a lieutenant for Mikel Landa
Jai Hindley (Team DSM): pushed Tao Geogeghan-Hart all the way in last year’s edition of the race, bags of raw talent, potentially too lightweight for this field of riders
Emmanuel Buchmann (BORA-Hansgrohe): had a cracking 2019 season and will be looking to back up that promise, but he’s showed inconsistent form this season
Marc Soler (Movistar): always in the mix, but his team’s tactics might let him down once again. Stage hunting sure but GC? Not for me.