Blazin' Saddles: The Big Five who can win the 2019 Giro d'Italia
The first Grand Tour of the season gets under way on Saturday with an intriguing 8km time trial in Bologna which concludes with a savage ramp to the line. Felix Lowe previews the 102nd edition of the Giro d'Italia and looks at the big five favourites, the fastest sprinters, stand-out climbers, escape artists and key stages.
British rider Simon Yates (Team Mitchelton-Scott) waves during the team presentation of the upcoming 2019 Giro d'Italia,
There's something for everything with three individual time trials, six stages for the sprinters and five mountain-top finishes, featuring legendary climbs such as the Passo Gavia, the Passo del Mortirolo and the Passo Manghen. It's a route brimming with nostalgia and one that recalls the defining moments in the careers of former champions Fausto Coppi, Francisco Moser and Andy Hampsten.
Kicking things off on Saturday is an eye-catching 8.2km time trial around the streets of Bologna, concluding with the double-digit 1.8km climb to the San Luca basilica which overlooks the Emilian capital.
It's the third time La Corsa Rosa has featured the leg-sappingly steep climb which has become a firm fixture in the autumn one-day classic, the Giro dell'Emilia.
Average Man vs Hardknott Pass
The race's first inclusion of the climb to San Luca in 1956 saw Italian legend Fiorenzo Magni bite down on an inner-tube he had tied around his handlebars to help alleviate the pain from a broken collarbone; the last visit, one decade ago, saw the now-retired Simon Gerrans drop a young, chunky journeyman by the name of Chris Froome on his way to victory.
Wind on 10 years and Froome, the defending Giro champion, doesn't return to Italy to defend his maglia rosa. His new-look Team Ineos had planned to make Egan Bernal their main man in the Giro, but the Colombian tyro broke his collarbone last week and has been forced to withdraw. Unlike Magni, he wasn't prepared to chew on rubber.
Bernal is not the only big-name rider forced out of the first Grand Tour of the season: the world champion Alejandro Valverde has pulled out of Movistar's team following his crash in the Ardennes ahead of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Dutch climber Wilco Kelderman – a key lieutenant to Sunweb team-mate Tom Dumoulin – is another absentee after fracturing a vertebra in the Volta a Catalunya.
Despite the pre-race withdrawals, the Giro is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Grand Tours of the year with a Big Five emerging as the main contenders.
Fresh from a large training block at altitude, the 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) will be relishing 58.5km against the clock as he looks to return to the top step after missing out to a resurgent Froome last year. But he'll come up against another time trial and climbing specialist in Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma), the in-form Slovenian.
Roglic has won every stage race he's done this year – the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie – and came fourth in his maiden Tour de France last year off the back of three smaller stage race wins. Three victories in Romandie – over rolling terrain, a summit finish, and an ITT – shows that he should be the man to beat.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has had a quieter season to date but he's the last rider to win a Grand Tour and his victory in the Paris-Nice time trial shows that the Briton should not be discounted on the grounds of his inferior TT pedigree. Indeed, the 26-year-old held his own against Dumoulin last year, and was only found out after a bad day in the mountains coincided with Froome's incredible solo break that prised the pink jersey from Yates's shoulders.
With arguably the strongest team support of the Big Five, Colombia's Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) has won both the Tour Colombia 2.1 and Volta a Catalunya this year and finished third in both the Giro and Vuelta last year. Still only 25 years old, Lopez has what it takes to go up a step or two.
Entering with perhaps his last realistic chance of winning a Grand Tour, Italian veteran Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) showed glimpses of his ability in his third place in the Tour of the Alps in April. The 34-year-old had a dud year in Grand Tours last year, but you write someone off with Nibali's class and experience at your peril.
A fifth Grand Tour win in Verona on 2nd June and the Shark would become the sixth rider in history to win a hat-trick of Giri – up with the likes of Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni and Bernard Hinault.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) claims his second Giro d'Italia victory and fourth grand tour win of his career - Photo Credit: ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Image credit: Eurosport
As for the best of the rest, well, the absence of Valverde has made compatriot Mikel Landa the top dog at Movistar, with Ecuador's Richard Carapaz waiting in the wings. Luxembourg's Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Poland's Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrpohe) and Russia's Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) should feature in a top 10.
Italian veteran Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) often saves his best for his home Tour – although it remains to be seen if he's over that crash and concussion from the Ardennes.
Outsiders include Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), Ion Izagirre (Astana), Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), who in any normal year would be up there with the big guns, but whose form and fitness has dropped since being diagnosed with mononucleosis last year.
Finally, and an omission from the ratings below, with Bernal injured there's a chance at Team Ineos for youngsters Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart to shine. They finished first and second respectively in the Tour of the Alps, snaring three of the five stages between them. Can they sustain this over three weeks? It's unlikely, but they should nevertheless animate the race.
The sprinters, climbers and breakaway specialists
Former team-mates Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) top the billing when it comes to the sprints, with Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) waiting to pounce should they slip up.
Despite his three wins last year and superb form in 2019, Ireland's Sam Bennett has been omitted from Bora-Hansgrohe's squad as they look towards youngster Pascal Ackermann. The 25-year-old German champion is a talent, but you sense this please-the-sponsors move may backfire.
There's a whole host of Italian sprinters who will look to take advantage of the more established stars having collective off days, but you don't much fancy the chances of Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Jakub Mareczko (CCC Team), Sacha Modolo (EF Education First), Kristian Sbaragli and Davide Cimolai (both Israel Cycling Academy), Manuele Belletti (Androni-Giacattoli), Simoni Consonni (UAE Team Emirates) or Marco Canola (Nippo Vini Fantini).
As for the climbers, the bottom-heavy nature of the course should mean the best climbers vying for the maglia azzura could well be those also battling it out for the maglia rosa, so it's worth looking out for the usual suspects in Lopez, Majka, Yates and Pozzovivo.
In terms of specialists, keep an eye out for Fausto Masnada, the Italian youngster from Androni Giacattoli who won two mountain stages in the Tour of the Alps, as well as fellow Italian Giulio Cicconi (Trek-Segafredo).
As for breakaway artists, well, it's all about that man Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) who will look to kick off his Grand Tour triple with a strong showing in the Giro the only way he knows: off the front of the peloton.
In the likes of Tony Gallopin (Groupama-FDJ), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Fausto Masnada (Androni Giacottoli), the Belgian should find some ideal breakaway bedmates. Throw in some home-grown riders from the Italian wildcard teams – Enrico Barbin, Mirco Maestri, Manuel Senni and, of course, Marco Frapporti – and you get the picture.
Things get really serious from stage 13 onwards when we see the first proper summit finish of the race beside the Serru Lake in the shadow of the breath-taking Colle del Nivolet.
This is the kind of views the riders and spectators can expect of a climb made famous by that cliff-hanger of a scene in the Italian Job…
A day later, the riders will be put through their paces in the shortest stage of the race, which features four tough climbs in 131km ahead of the final rise to Courmayeur.
The queen stage comes in stage 16 which features both the Gavia and Mortirolo climbs as well as 6,000m of climbing in 226 draining kilometres.
But there's still the final mountain stage of the race, the 193km stage 20 which boasts 5,000m of climbing and four ascents including the whopping Passo Manghen.
Of course, it's not over until the gentlemen of Verona cross the line – and although the final time trial includes a four-kilometre climb, its short 15.6km length may mean the gains and losses are kept to a minimum. Still, if the gaps are close going into stage 21 then we should have fireworks right up until the last rider crosses the line.
Giro 2019 predicted top 10
1. Tom Dumoulin, 2. Miguel Angel Lopez, 3. Primoz Roglic, 4. Simon Yates, 5. Vincenzo Nibali, 6. Mikel Landa, 7. Davide Formolo, 8. Bob Jungels, 9. Ion Izagirre, 10. Ilnur Zakarin