Giro d’Italia – A Preview in Top 5’s

It’s been a year since I kicked off this website with my underdog preview of the 2021 Giro d’Italia so it feels quite poignant to be here, about to encounter the first and arguably most beautiful of the Grand Tours, once again.

The Giro d’Italia garners the lion’s share of the love when it comes to the Grand Tours. While the Tour de France is the ‘gateway Tour’ for many fans, bringing them to the sport in the first place, the Giro is for many their first true love. While the Tour de France endures as the reliable companion, the Giro is the skittish lover who promises much, and – usually -delivers on that promise.

It’s a race unrivalled in its beauty: while the French Alps, the Pyrenees, and the rugged wild chaos of the Picos de Europa all impress, the Giro is the race that even on its quiet days, can charm, entrance and entice. From coastal resorts on crystal blue seas, to quaint medieval villages, to austere monasteries nestled onto mountainsides, the Giro d’Italia really does have it all.

Lest I begin to sound like a travel brochure, let’s return to the cycling. Renowned for being the most ‘climby’ of the Grand Tours, of the three it’s the one that tends to backload with climbing, often making for a couple of weeks of flat stages, and a late surge of action in the GC competition.

This year, the route is more varied than ever, although it includes the least kilometres against the clock in twenty years at just 26km. Beginning in Hungary, the first stage has a punchy finish and is tailor-made for Mathieu van der Poel, Biniam Girmay and the stronger of the sprinters.

After that, a short time trial and a sprint stage virtually guarantee that the rider in the maglia rosa as the race travels to Italy will not be the eventual victor. That honour will of course be decided in Italy itself…

Top 5 Pivotal Stages of Giro 105

The last chaotic couple of years have redefined attacking racing and shown that GC contenders can’t be content to sit on their metaphorical laurels (sitting on actual laurels wouldn’t be particularly aero, let’s face it) while they wait for someone else to animate the race. Having said that, there are always stages meant for sprinters, and others tailor-made for breakaway artists; the profile, length and timing of these stages all but guaranteeing the teams of the main contenders for the pink jersey will control, rather than attack.

Yet it’s early doors this year in terms of stages which should bring the GC race to life. Here are some of the key stages that will make all the difference in the contest – for a comprehensive guide to each stage of the race, see my stage previews over at Cycling News.

Stage 4 – Avola – Etna (170km)

To have such a big climbing day so early on in the race is not unheard of in a grand tour, but the Giro gives us not one but two significant days of ascent before the first rest day this year, when of the three, it’s usually the grand tour most likely to delay its serious elevation metres.

Sicily is the first Italian stage and represents the first real test for the riders in terms of climbing. It follows an early transfer day from Hungary, so the riders are likely to be in good shape. It’s too early to suggest that it will define the GC race, but it’s certainly a chance for those riders who feel good to try and make a statement.

The climb itself is a category one test, listed as 22.8km at an average gradient of 5.9%, but when they hit the beginning of the ascent the peloton have already been climbing for just over 18km so the climb to the summit will be decisive.

Stage 9 – Isernia – Blockhaus (189km)

The second of two huge climbing days in the first half of the Giro culminates in the intimidating ascent of Blockhaus, purportedly the longest climb in Italy. Part of the Apennine ridge running down the centre of the country, Blockhaus is a Mont Ventoux-style climb: long, arduous and never-ending. If Etna hasn’t cause any major ripples in the GC pond, then Blockhaus almost certainly will, as the top contenders try to steal a march on one another in the standings going into the first rest day.

Totalling 28km at an average gradient of 7.3%, the relentless grind of Blockhaus will be a slog from start to finish, and to add insult to injury it’s a double ascent, forcing riders to endure twice the pain as they first have to tackle the Passo Lanciano approach, with the total elevation on the stage a daunting 5000m.

Stage 14Santena – Turin (147km)

The shortest stage of the Giro is a hilly circuit race around the city of Turin. Reminiscent of the final stage of the Tour of Catalunya, the circuit will be a stringent test, with constant ups and downs and no respite. I predict this stage will blow the race wide open, and not only will there be a scintillating battle for the stage, the GC contenders will be forced on the offensive in a fast and furious tour of Turin. One not to be missed, I’m probably as excited for this stage as I am for any of the big climbing days.

Stage 16 – Salò – Aprica (202km)

One of only three stages of this year’s race to receive the Giro’s own top rating of five stars in difficulty, stage 16 features the famed Mortirolo Pass at its centre. ‘Il Pirata’ Marco Pantani made his name on this climb in 1994, and it’s featured on a number of editions of the race. This year the riders will approach from the ‘easier’ side, but they then face an absolutely brutal ascent, the third of three category one climbs, to round out the day.

The climb in question is Valico di Santa Cristina. Gaining 1078m of altitude in just 13.5km, the average gradient for the ascent is 8%, however it becomes steeper as it gets higher, with the second half of the climb averaging 10.1% and maxing out at 13%. With narrow roads and hairpins to navigate, if the race hasn’t blown apart on the Mortirolo, it surely will here. It’s not a summit finish but the race does finish uphill, and it’s a day that will ask questions of the GC leaders and determine who still has a chance to make it onto the podium.

Stage 20 – Belluno – Marmolada (Fedaia Pass) (168km)

The final test of the Giro, Stage 20 is your classic Dolomites climbing day. Featuring the cima coppi, on the Passo Pordoi, the stage has three category one climbs and will ultimately decide the order in which the riders will face the final day’s time trial, but will itself prove far more decisive than the relatively short ride against the clock. The final climb of the whole grand tour is the Passo Fedaia, and it’s a summit finish truly befitting the nature of the race, with the climb progressively worsening to the hellish crescendo of the final 5.4km, which average 11.2%, and feature pitches of up to 18%. It will truly be survival of the fittest GC rider.

Top 5 GC Contenders

Who will wear pink and who will fall short? Here’s my tip for the top 5 GC riders to look out for at this year’s race.

1. Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers) – probably the favourite of the favourites, the Ecuadorian is no stranger to pink, having won the GC in 2019. He’s been consistent in recent Grand Tours and without the threat of the Slovenians in his way and a decent, albeit possibly not the strongest, Ineos team to support him, he is a sure-fire front-runner.

2. Simon Yates (BikeExchange Jayco) – Yates has struggled with consistency over three weeks in the past but when he’s good, he’s really good. At Paris-Nice he proved that not only was he still a serious contender for GC against top competition, but also that he could put in an impressive time trial performance. Although there aren’t many time trial kilometres in this year’s race, if there’s not a lot in it going into the final day, Yates’ rivals would be right to fear him.

3. João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) – another strong time triallist, Almeida goes into the Giro sole leader for UAE, following a turbulent couple of years at the Giro where he has come close but not quite been able to put together a good performance over the full three weeks. He was 6th last year, riding for the first half of the race in support of Remco Evenepoel, and 4th the year before. This year he has arguably his strongest chance yet to become the first Portuguese rider ever to win a grand tour.

4. Romain Bardet (Team DSM)– the French are rolling back the years in 2022, with Bardet winning his first GC in nine years at the Tour of the Alps, while his compatriot Thibaut Pinot took his first world tour win in over three years. Bardet has looked revitalised since joining Team DSM and with the support of a strong team and the wind in his sails there’s every possibility that Bardet could challenge for the podium, perhaps even for the maglia rosa, if things go his way in Italy.

5. Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) – another rider who has shown good form at week-long stage races is Bahrain’s Basque rider Pello Bilbao. He’s been in consistent form this season, making the top ten on GC in four out of the five stage races he’s ridden, and taking a stage in the most recent, the Tour of the Alps. Bilbao’s biggest problem will be proving himself as the out-and-out leader of a team with a number of strong candidates, including Mikel Landa, who himself would love a crack at the title, and Damiano Caruso, who came 2nd in Landa’s stead last year. If he can prove his worth ahead of these riders after the first half of the race has elapsed, he has a team around him strong enough to deliver him to the podium.

Top 5 Stage Hunters

It’s not all about the maglia rosa. Plenty of riders will arrive in Budapest ready for three weeks of chances to attack. Here are five to watch out for when you’re looking for someone to back for a stage win.

1. Lennard Kämna (BORA Hansgrohe) – the German breakaway artist is in good form with two victories and two top tens already this season. There will be a number of stages marked on his card and I’d be surprised not to see him come away with one as he returns back to his best form after a troubled 2021.

2. Mattias Skjelmose (Trek Segafredo) – Trek have struggled in recent seasons to really get a GC campaign off the ground in the Grand Tours. In Mattias Skjelmose they have a potential solution. But aged just 21, this will be his first grand tour, and in a team with other more prominent leaders such as Giulio Ciccone, he may not be a protected rider, but rather there to build experience. He’s not short of talent though, and I expect him to see him showcase it on some of the bigger stages and potentially come away with a stage win for his troubles.

3. Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux) – the Estonian loves a big occasion – he’s often to be found in breakaways on climbing stages and he won a stage at last year’s Vuelta, and wore the leader’s jersey there for a couple of days too. Taaramäe has been visible in breakaways already this season at the likes of the Tour de Romandie and I feel confident in his ability to translate his current form into a stage win.

4. Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux)– the first black African to win a Belgian classic, the history maker will arrive at the Giro with his sights set on more glory. He’s in great form, and with both punchy and sprint stages to try his luck on, it feels like the Eritrean is destined to stamp his authority on this Giro d’Italia and add a stage win to his budding palmares.

5. Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Easypost) – despite his impressive win on Angliru in the 2020 Vuelta, 2021 failed to deliver much for the Lancastrian rider, and it’s fair to say looking at previews that he’s being overlooked for this Giro by most, if not all, of cycling media. It’s a long shot, granted, but Carty quietly went about business at the Tour of the Alps and finished 9th on GC, meaning there’s a good chance he will build to some decent form by the time the biggest climbs arrive.

EF have had a quiet season so far and on a good day, Carthy has shown he has what it takes to overcome the likes of Carapaz and Yates. I foresee a stage win on one of the big climbing stages later on in the race for Carthy, maybe with enough of a gap to lift him into the top ten on GC and silence the doubters.

Top 5 Italians seeking home glory

In 2021, Italians accounted for an incredible one third of the stage wins at the Giro. This year, 45 Italians will take to the start line in Hungary, according to the provisional start list. Going for glory in your home grand tour is an honour only three nations get to enjoy, and the Italians are a proud cycling nation who will pin their hopes on a wealth of talent this year.

This year, the absence of Filippo Ganna, who was responsible for two of those wins, will be felt. But there are plenty of opportunities for a home win among the rest of the Italian riders. Here are a few who may succeed:

1. Edoardo Affini (Jumbo Visma) – with such a small proportion of the race given over to time trialling, Affini is one of only a handful of specialist time trialists at this year’s Giro – and most of the others are on his own team. As a result, Affini will have a big chance of keeping the honours for the time trial stages in the home trophy cabinet.

2. Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel Premier-Tech) – despite having won the points classification at two previous Giros, it took until last year for Nizzolo to break the agonising run of second place stage finishes and finally grab a victory. Then it was for Qhubeka Assos; this year the veteran sprinter rides for Israel, and will hope to add a second stage victory to his palmares, in a sprint field that features some – but, crucially, not all – of the world’s best.

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) – in his final year of racing, the Shark of Messina would love nothing more than to take a stage at his home grand tour. The race visits his home island of Sicily and if he’s on the day of his life, he might think about trying his chances on Mount Etna – and what a way it would be for him to bow out of top level cycling.

4. Giulio Ciccone (Trek Segafredo) – another hope for Trek is the climbing talent of Ciccone, who last shone at the race in 2019, where he took the KOM classification. In that race he won on the Mortirolo and it’s likely that the inclusion of a climb where he’s previously succeeded will give confidence to a rider who struggled last season with bad luck. It remains to be seen how his GC credentials will stack up, or if he may opt for stage hunting, but expect him to fare well on the big climbs.

5. Vincenzo Albanese (EOLO Kometa) – one of the most memorable moments of last year’s Giro was Lorenzo Forunato’s win on Monte Zoncolan, and the subsequent reaction of EOLO team boss Alberto Contador. This year Fortunato’s form is unproven, and although he may fare well again, it’s Albanese who I feel represents a better prospect for a stage win, for Contador and Ivan Basso’s team. The sprinter has had a mixed bag of results so far this season and is yet to win a world tour race, with only one professional win to his name. The home advantage could prove the charm for him in 2022.

Top 5 Things to look out for

1. Underrated Hungary – this year sees the first start outside Italy since 2018, and for anyone unfamiliar with Hungary, which is likely to be a fairly large proportion of the viewing audience, they are in for a real treat. From the Grande Partenza in the stunning capital of Budapest, to beautiful lakeside resorts (Balatonfüred) to otherworldly villages (Tihany), the visit of la Corsa Rosa to Hungary should make for unforgettable viewing. And will undoubtedly add to your list of places to visit.

Beautiful Tihany, on the banks of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Would you just look at it, though?!

2. MVDP in pink (or purple?) – the announcement of the participation of Mathieu van der Poel in this year’s Giro led to much excitement, and with due cause. The Dutch rider made headlines riding his first Grand Tour last summer at the Tour de France, and there’s no denying that he lights up any race he’s a part of, so don’t expect the Giro to be any different. Stage one is has a punchy finish that will suit him well, so there’s a strong possibility that he will be the first wearer of the maglia rosa. While it’s unclear how much of the race he will complete, there’s a good chance we will see him in one of the jerseys at some point in the race.

3. Unpredictable weather – Italy in Spring? It sounds like paradise, but the Giro is notorious for its mixed weather conditions, from long hot days in the south to full-on snow in the mountains. One thing we shouldn’t expect is echelons – these just don’t happen at the Giro, well, until they do. 2021 saw a freak occurrence of every cycling fan’s favourite weather-based phenomenon, so it’s quite possible we will be able to live a full four seasons in the three-week duration of the race – stay tuned to find out what each day has in store – if you can. Which leads us neatly to…

4. (Hopefully) improved television coverage – every year fans bemoan the unreliable coverage provided by the host broadcaster RCS, to the point that it’s become a running joke. Many a time have we sat and watched a static view of a finish line while goodness knows what was playing out on the mountains, as the aforementioned weather interferes with the coverage. This year, we’re reliably informed that a Belgian broadcaster will be taking the reins, so in terms of reliability, it’s got to be an improvement. Having said that, this is the same team responsible for providing us with the finish line shots of Milan-Sanremo, and it’s fair to say these left a lot to be desired.

5. Mark Cavendish’s 18th Giro Win – it’s been 9 years since the Manx Missile last took a stage at the Giro d’Italia, and with a strong, but not insurmountable sprint field attending the race, this year could well see him notch up his 18th win. With the recent announcement of Michael Mørkøv as the team’s 8th member following Ilan van Wilder’s involvement at the crash at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cav has an even stronger chance of a stage win or three.

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Published by katymadgwick

I am a freelance cycling writer and fiction author. I have followed pro cycling for nine years, making the move in 2021 into writing and content creation. You can find my work at rouleur.cc, Cycling News, Cyclist Magazine, the British Continental and on my own site: writebikerepeat.com. I am a co-host on the Quicklink podcast, and also have a YouTube channel where you can find my Highlights Reel series, featuring conversations with cycling fans about the 2021 season.

2 thoughts on “Giro d’Italia – A Preview in Top 5’s

  1. Hot take: I like the Giro *least* of the grand tours, less than many of the shorter stage races, and less than almost all of the classics. Some of it is amazing, naturally, but overall Italy does not appeal to me. So much of it looks run down that the aesthetics that characterize so many other races are missing for me. And while it is a major event, at least since I have been a fan – 2019 – it just has not had the same caliber of field and winner as many other races. This year’s field will not likely improve on that.

    I’m not down on it or its fans, just noting that it does not hit me the way it does others.

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    1. That’s fair enough – it would be a boring world if we were all the same! I personally have a soft spot for La Vuelta, which I know is most people’s least favourite. I think the Giro gets an unfair share of the love partly due to its place in the calendar – everyone is super excited for the Grand Tours and it’s up first so naturally is prioritised, whereas by the Vuelta some people are a bit jaded. It’s overly romanticised, being Italy. I have to say though having previewed every stage that the start and finish locations at least are almost without exception pretty breathtaking this year.

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