For the first time in Grand Tour history, the Giro d'Italia takes place in this most curious and unsettled of years after the Tour de France and in the month of October. With the coronavirus outbreak drawing the curtain on the initial plan of a Hungarian grande partenze, the rescheduled race shifts to Sicily for four stages before hitting mainland Italy as it builds up to the usual mountain crescendo ahead of last-day time trial in Milan – the final of three races against the clock.
With some 65 individual time trial kilometres, six summit finishes (including two peaks over 2,700m), six potential sprint stages, a couple of punchy uphill finales, and at least four days crying out for a breakaway, it's a varied route that will provide opportunities for all manner of riders – but not defending champion Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, who does not line up for Ineos Grenadiers.
But five stand out – rightly or wrongly – on the start list as the main men to watch in the battle for pink. Felix Lowe weighs up their chances and wonders if, as we saw at last month's Tour, there could be some surprises up the sleeves of the new generation...
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Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)

Vincenzo Nibali im Maglia Rosa beim Giro 2016

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The poster boy for the 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa is the Italian 2013 and 2016 winner, the only former champion on the start list of 176 riders. Runner-up to the absent Carapaz, Nibali has never failed to finish on the podium of his previous six appearances in his home race. But at 35 years of age, and somewhat short of form, even the Shark of Messina may find his teeth somewhat blunted this time round.
Nibali rode to a disappointing 19th place in Tirreno-Adriatico and is without a win for over 15 months. The re-jigged grande partenza to his native Sicily may provide the perfect stage for a swansong for the Shark, but Trek's leader could find himself well down as early as day three when the race heads up Mount Etna for the first time via the northern approach from Linguaglossa.

Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)

Jakob Fuglsang - Giro di Lombardia 2020 - Getty Images

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Another 35-year-old searching to rediscover his stage race form is the Dane, Fuglsang. Victory in Il Lombardia in August added another monumental notch to his bedpost, but it's now been seven years since Fuglsang cracked the top 10 of a Grand Tour – and he's yet to ever reach the podium.
Fuglsang's only previous appearance in the Giro saw him ride to 12th place in 2016, and while he was in the mix for the rainbow jersey last week, he was underwhelming in Tirreno-Adriatico where he came 14th. There's no doubting the class of Fuglsang in one day races as he comes to the twilight of his career, but surely his days of being a Grand Tour contender are over, if ever they were there in the first place.
Whisper it quietly, Fuglsang may not end up Astana's main man, let alone a veritable contender to these four other riders…

Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)

Simon Yates vainqueur en solitaire de la 11e étape du Giro à Osimo

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The form of Nibali and Fuglsang certainly pales in comparison to that of the man who convincingly won Tirreno-Adriatico a fortnight ago. Yates enjoyed an aggressive 13 days in pink in 2018 before cracking with three days to go. The Briton bounced back by winning the Vuelta later that year, but struggled to get things right in last year's Giro.
Coming so close to winning the Giro has clearly left Yates with a point to prove – and he stuck to his original plan of putting things right in Italy even after the season was turned on its head by the lockdown. With a strong and united Mitchelton-Scott team to support him, and some superb form in the legs, the 28-year-old is definitely the man to beat on paper.

Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers)

Sky’s Thomas not distracted from Giro prep despite scrutiny surrounding team

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Yates' biggest challenge could come from his compatriot Thomas, who saw the Giro become his enforced focal point of the season after his controversial snub from the Ineos Grenadiers team selected for the Tour. Like Yates, the Welshman has unfinished business with La Corsa Rosa, having crashed out when Sky team leader in 2017 the year before his Tour victory confirmed his GC pedigree.
After a troubled return to competitive racing following the lockdown, Thomas finished runner-up to Yates in Tirreno-Adriatico. If conceding 35 seconds to his rival on the summit finish at Sassotetto will be a concern given the combined 40,000 metres of climbing in store over the next three weeks, then his 22-second advantage in the final 10km time trial will be a boost ahead of a race bookended by and centred upon ITTs.

Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma)

Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) remains in the overall lead at the 99th Giro d'Italia after 17 stages - Photo Credit: ANSA - PERI / DI MEO / ZENNARO

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Like Thomas, the Dutchman is another rider who never intended to be at the Giro. While the Welshman was struggling to finish in the gruppetto during the Dauphiné, Kruijswijk was a key component of the Jumbo-Visma train leading Primoz Roglic to yellow in the pre-Tour warm-up. That was, until he crashed and broke his collarbone.
Whether Kruijswijk's presence on the Tour would have made any difference for Roglic is something we'll never know; looking back, the Slovenian's problem was not his team, but his own individual performance at the end of three gruelling weeks. In any case, that's all immaterial now, and a victory for the Dutch 33-year-old would help the healing process after the team's disappointment in France.
On a personal plane, too, it would heal some old wounds. For Kruijswijk also has unfinished business in Italy: the last time Nibali triumphed, the race was his to win. But a crash into a snow wall atop the Colle delle Agnello while in pink changed everything, and Kruijswijk eventually, agonisingly, dropped to fourth on GC.
The presence of the Agnello in the penultimate stage that will play out in late October will surely raise the spectre of snow walls once again. If Kruijswijk has the legs and mental capacity to deal with this, he could be huge factor in this Giro. Although he hasn't raced since that crash, so could be a little rusty.

The main outsiders: Lopez, Majka, Kelderman

Twice a top 10 finisher in the Giro, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) would in any normal year be among the main favourites. But the 26-year-old Colombian rides the Giro off the back of the Tour, where a poor time trial performance saw him drop off the podium and into sixth. Lopez will be here to support Fuglsang (and perhaps Astana's not-so secret weapon of a Plan C) and only a back-up option for GC.
Third in Tirreno-Adriatico, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) is without a win for over three years now but has four Giro top 10 performances in his palmares, including sixth place last year. The three time trials will hurt the 31-year-old Pole, though. Perhaps a better option for Bora will be the Austrian Patrick Konrad, who finished seventh in 2018.
Soon to be joining both Majka and Konrad at Bora is the forgotten man Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) whose career seems to have stuttered since finishing fourth in the Vuelta in 2017. Now 29, the Dutchman will hope to build on Sunweb's superb Tour by riding aggressively; he finished an encouraging fourth in Tirreno.
Another Dutchman at Sunweb worth watching is Sam Oomen. The 25-year-old finished ninth in his Giro debut in 2018 although crashed out a year later. He just missed out on the top 10 in Tirreno and could ride under the radar in Italy.

Trofeo Senza Fine / Trophy / during the 103rd Giro d'Italia 2020, Team Presentation in Archaeological Park of Segesta in Palermo City / Temple of Segesta

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The big surprise package of last year's Vuelta was the Norwegian Carl Fredrik Hagen (Lotto Soudal), who ghosted to an impressive eighth in his Grand Tour debut at a relatively late age of 27. Now 29 (a curious statistic, but please do check if you're not convinced), Hagen has not had much to write home about since, finishing 30th in the Dauphiné and 48th in Tirreno. Can he prove he was not a flash in the pan?
One GC rider who needs a good race is the Russian Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team), who abandoned the Tour after a rather lacklustre opening two weeks. The 31-year-old is out of contract next year and the future of his current team is in doubt. He picked up a stage en route to coming 10th last year so he has pedigree – although many say he's not been the same rider since crashing on the descent of the Agnello the same day Kruijswijk's pink dream went up in a puff of snow.
We should also mention the rangy British climber Tao Geoghegan Hart, whose role at Ineos Grenadiers will be very much a supporting one for Thomas, but who may ride himself into the top 10 (just like Jack Haig in support of Yates at Mitchelton-Scott). Lastly, a top 10 would have once been the target for Ineos' Rohan Dennis, but the Australian's GC days look to be well over and his primary focus will be on those TTs.

Youngsters or debutants: Vlasov, Almeida, Knox

Vlasov - Giro dell'Emilia 2020 - Getty Images

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This was meant to be the year we saw Remco Evenepoel unleashed on a Grand Tour, but the Belgian tyro's crash in Il Lombardia means he won't be the Marc Hirschi or even Tadej Pogacar of the Giro. But Evenepoel's Deceuninck Quick-Step team have two other youngsters who could well be a factor in the battle for pink.
James Knox is no newcomer, having broken through with an impressive 11th place in last year's Vuelta. Now 24, the Briton will hope to improve on his Giro showing from 2019 when an early crash saw him struggle before pulling out ahead of the high mountains. Seventh in Tirreno shows that Knox is in good nick.
More intriguing, perhaps, is the Portuguese debutant João Almeida. The 22-year-old was seventh in the Tour de l'Ain and made the podium in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. Almeida will be riding his maiden Grand Tour in support of Knox and for the experience, but you never know with the way the new generation seems to be springing through – perhaps he could come of age?
A more likely scenario is that we see the Russian Aleksandr Vlasov emerge as Astana's main GC threat – and a potential outsider for the podium. The 24-year-old was one of the stand-out riders following the lockdown, winning the Mont Ventoux Challenge and Giro dell'Emilia either side of his third place in Lombardia. Fifth, and the white jersey, at Tirreno confirmed his decent legs. Could manager Alexandre Vinokourov be using Fuglsang and Lopez as mere decoys in Italy?

Ciclamino jersey: Démare vs Gaviria?

Fernando Gaviria celebrates on stage 13

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While there are around six stages which could end up in a bunch sprint, only three of those are flat parcours with the others featuring steep ramps or climbs near the finish. With a further few uphill sprints, the battle for the ciclamino points classification jersey may come down to a duel between Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), with their second-tier rivals Enrico Battaglin (Bahrain-McLaren) and Diego Ulissi (UAE-Team Emirates) very much in a different league.
That said, the Giro is still not the Vuelta, and for the past seven editions, it has been an out-and-out sprinter who has topped the points classification (defending champion Pascal Ackermann is not present this time round). With this in mind, keep an eye on the likes of Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates). Frenchman Démare has been in superb form this season, and Thibaut Pinot's struggles in the Tour will have led to much regret from manager Marc Madiot for overlooking his key sprinter last month.
Colombia's Gaviria has six wins to his name this season but has been beaten by his French rival on more than one occasion; theirs should be a thrilling duel. Throw into the mix Italy's Elia Viviani, still without a win chez Cofidis, and Deceuninck Quick-Step duo of Davide Ballerini and Alvaro Hodeg, and we should have some interesting sprints.

Blue jersey: Ciccone vs Masnada?

LOVERE, ITALY - MAY 28: Arrival / Giulio Ciccone of Italy and Team Trek - Segafredo Blue Mountain Jersey Celebration / Jan Hirt of Czech Republic and Astana Pro Team / during the 102nd Giro d'Italia 2019, Stage 16 a 194km stage from Lovere to Ponte di Leg

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Last year's king of the mountains Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) will surely be at it again, and will face stiff competition from his countryman Fausto Masnada, who jumped ship from CCC mid-season to join Deceuninck Quick-Step.
Old hands Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) and Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Sagafredo) may be in the mix, too, while Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) could put his focus here after his GC tilt in the Tour. While you can never rule out Thomas De Gendt for KOM points, it will be interesting to see how his British Lotto Soudal teammate Matthew Holmes gets on in his Giro debut.

White jersey: Knox or Vlasov?

UAE Tour : Interview post stage 5 : James Knox

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A massive 51 riders qualify for the white jersey competition, which is contested by the best young riders (who must have turned 25 after 1st January of this year). Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates), João Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step), Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb) all have an outside chance in ascending order of likelihood, but the favourites for white will be James Knox (Deceuninck Quick-Step) and Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana).
The safe money is on teh Russian, although it's his first three-week race so Britain's Knox could have the edge.

Predicted top 10

1. Yates, 2. Thomas, 3. Vlasov, 4. Kruijswijk, 5. Kelderman, 6. Oomen, 7. Nibali, 8. Konrad, 9. Majka, 10. Fuglsang (11. Knox)
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