Learco Guerra, known as the Human Locomotive, became the first rider to wear the famous pink jersey back in 1931. Ninety years on, 184 riders will do battle to wear the maglia rosa on the final podium of the 2021 Giro in Milan. Only a handful of those riders can realistically follow in the footsteps of Francesco Camusso, the first rider to win the inaugural leader’s jersey at the end of that nineteenth edition of La Corsa Rosa.
The self-styled toughest race in the most beautiful place gets under way in Turin with a short time trial this Saturday, with one rider the overwhelming favourite. But this wry Brit of few words faces opposition from a Tour de France winner, a perennial under-achiever, a debutant, a host of young guns and emerging stars ready to leave their mark, not to forget a double Giro champion battling back from injury.
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Here are the riders we can expect to see in the fight for pink in a race that celebrates the ninetieth anniversary of the eye-catchingly iconic maglia rosa.

The favourite: Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange)

Britain's Simon Yates in pink during the 2018 Giro d'Italia

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The (still only) 28-year-old famously imploded in 2018 the day Chris Froome rode himself into the record books and by-passed a wilting Tom Dumoulin into pink. Before that, Yates had ridden imperiously, notching three stage wins in swashbuckling style as his compatriot from Team Sky largely floundered off the back.
Yates learned from his implosion on the dirt-road ascent of the Colle delle Finestre: three months later, he rode the Vuelta far more conservatively and opened up his Grand Tour account by securing the red jersey. Things haven’t gone to plan since: Yates struggled to eighth place in the 2019 Giro, then saw his push for pink last year curtailed by contracting Covid.
Could it be a case of fourth-time lucky for the Lancastrian? He’s warmed up with victory in the Tour of the Alps and has a solid BikeExchange team around him. Seeing compatriot Tao Geoghegan Hart – who will not defend his maglia rosa – win last year in his absence would have hurt. Surely, with a route that features two potentially key dirt-road climbs, it’s now time for Yates to draw a line under 2018 and make unfinished business plain business before he moves on to focus on yellow…

The challenger: Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers)

Egan Bernal alla Strade Bianche 2021 - Getty Images

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The last time the Colombian properly crossed swords with Yates, he was in the white jersey on the Col d’Iseran, hoping to dislodge Julian Alaphilippe from yellow while his British counterpart was targeting a third stage win in Tignes in the 2019 Tour.
Hailstorms and a freak landslide put paid to any of that playing out by conventional means: if Yates was denied a chance to add another win, the neutralising of the stage over the penultimate summit of the day did secure an upgrade from white to yellow for Bernal.
Bernal’s first victory in the Tour as a fresh-faced 22-year-old was meant to usher in an era of maillot jaune domination for the Colombian. But a combination of Primoz Roglic’s rise, Tadej Pogacar’s stellar Tour debut, and a nasty lingering back issue, has fast made Ineos Grenadier’s prized asset fall a few rungs down the ladder.
As crazy as it would seem two years ago, Bernal now finds himself heading to the Giro in dire need of a victory – or, at least, a few commanding performances – to kick-start his career. It’s a shrewd move for Ineos: the start-list is not overly stacked, while Geraint Thomas clearly merits one last throw of the dice as team leader in France – supported by Geoghegan Hart and, ideally, the team’s second Giro champion in half a year.
On his day, Bernal is more than a match for Yates. But it hasn’t been his day in months and months. The Colombian did finish well ahead of Yates in Tirreno-Adriatico in mid-March but – worryingly – he hasn’t raced since. It’s hard to know which Bernal we will see this May.

The former champion: Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)

Vincenzo Nibali al Giro d'Italia 2020 - Getty Images

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The same can be said for the 2013 and 2016 Giro champion, who hasn’t raced for almost as long as Bernal. Nibali’s last competitive ride came in Milan-Sanremo on March 20, the veteran Italian having broken a bone in his wrist in a training crash in April.
The Sicilian’s participation was in doubt for a while, but Nibali and his Trek-Segafredo team confirmed earlier this week that he will be making his tenth – and who knows, perhaps final? – appearance in the Giro this month.
Nibali finished runner-up to Richard Carapaz in 2019 in what was arguably a stronger field than we’ll see this time round – with the likes of Roglic, Mikel Landa, Miguel Angel Lopez and Yates all involved. But he struggled in the Tour later that year, while his first Giro for Trek in the pandemic-skewered 2020 season saw him finish over eight minutes down on GC as a new generation very much put the Shark in the shade. Truth be told, even without his injury, Nibali would perhaps struggle to impose himself on this race.
Yesterday’s man may have won all three of cycling’s Grand Tours, but that doesn’t make him capable of replicating any of those wins again today or tomorrow.

The perennial nearly man: Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious)

Mikel Landa, en un ataque en el Tour de Francia 2020

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The Basque climber left his previous three teams because he did not feel his leadership credentials were being taken seriously – having found himself behind the likes of Nibali and Fabio Aru at Astana, Froome and Thomas at Team Sky, and then Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde at Movistar.
At Bahrain-Victorious, Landa has seemingly seen off the internal challenge from Wout Poels and Pello Bilbao to establish himself as the team’s top dog. But as we saw in that compelling stage to the Col de la Loze in last year’s Tour, there’s only so much groundwork you can do for your leader before you expect some kind of payback.
Landa faded to finish seventh that day, then fourth overall in Paris to equal his best finish in the Tour from 2017. Amazingly, he has only once made the podium of a Grand Tour – six years ago on the Giro. Turning 32 later this year, the time for Landa to deliver is surely now or never. With the field as it is, plus the likes of Bilbao, the dependable Damiano Caruso, the experienced Matej Mohoric, and starlet Gino Mader in support, Landa could see this as his best chance ever to break his hoodoo.

The time-to-shines: Marc Soler (Movistar), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates)

Hugh Carthy vince la tappa dell'Angliru alla Vuelta 2020 - Getty Images

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If Landa thought he was being squeezed out at Movistar, then Marc Soler was even further down the pecking order. The 27-year-old Spaniard will relish leading a team away from the clutches of Valverde and the other stalwarts (past and present). A stage win and fourth overall in Romandie bodes well for a top five in his Giro debut.
Another Giro debutant with lots of big race experience is Emanuel Buchmann, who came of age with fourth place in the 2019 Tour but struggled last year with injuries and the disruption of the pandemic. Now is the time for the talented German climber to tackle his first Giro – and a high finish would be a great springboard going forward on a Bora team crying out for results in light of Peter Sagan’s steady decline and likely departure.
Victory on the Angliru en route to a career-first podium finish in the Vuelta last November was confirmation of Hugh Carthy’s huge potential. The 26-year-old from Preston is not the most elegant of climbers, but he has staying power and a decent EF Education-Nippo team behind him. Carthy narrowly missed out on the top 10 in his last Giro performance two years ago and saw a less established Briton win the race in his absence last October.
Finally, there’s Davide Formolo. Twice 10th in the Giro, he hasn’t finished his previous three Grand Tours. UAE Team Emirates seem to be trying to mould him into a rider for the hilly classics, but a top 10 here could make him the team’s GC go-to man for when Pogacar is left at home.

The young guns: Jai Hindley (Team DSM), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Joao Almeida (Deceuninck Quick-Step)

Almeida küzd az értékes másodpercekért

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Jai Hindley was 16km away from winning the Giro last year having ridden most of the race in support of the teammate Wilco Kelderman. Now the leader at Team DSM – albeit with the skinny spectre of Romain Bardet over his shoulder – the 25-year-old has the impossible task of improving on his 2020 race. Impossible because, to be fair, it doesn’t look like he’ll come remotely close. Form and fitness are question marks, too, after Hindley failed to finish his previous two stage races.
While Hindley finished second in 2020, Aleksandr Vlasov failed to get beyond the second day of his maiden Grand Tour. Six months on and the rangy Russian hopes to bounce back after encouraging performances in Paris-Nice and the Tour of the Alps.
It will be interesting to see if Portuguese tyro Joao Almeida suffers second album syndrome in May. The 22-year-old battled to keep hold of the pink jersey in his maiden Giro last year, eventually folding on the Stelvio, but doing enough to finish fourth in Milan. This year he’s Deceuninck Quick-Step’s leader, albeit alongside a rider perennially dubbed as the new Merckx.

The old-timers: Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Domenico Pozzovivo (Team Qhubeka ASSOS)

Dan Martin

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Dutchman Mollema will ride in support of teammate Nibali, but should the Italian feel the pinch riding on an injured wrist, the 34-year-old could emerge as Trek’s main man. He finished fifth and seventh in his last two Giro outings.
Ireland’s Martin came third in the main summit finish of the Tour of the Alps – but almost a minute behind Yates. Fourth place in the Vuelta six months ago will give the 34-year-old hope of finally snaring that elusive Grand Tour podium. With so much climbing, it will be a big ask.
The second oldest rider in the race, 38-year-old Pozzovivo has kept a low profile so far this season and finished 11th last time round. His days are surely numbered at the top, and even a stage win looks beyond the Italian’s capabilities in what may well be the last Grand Tour of his career.

The write-off: Romain Bardet (Team DSM)

Once a Tour de France runner-up, Bardet has gradually slipped down the peloton hierarchy. A move away from Ag2R-Citroen was what the Frenchman needed – but can he emerge from Hindley’s shadow in what will be his debut Giro? Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get with Bardet – it could just as well be a soft-centre as a salty caramel.

The gregario: George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma)

After years in the service of others, the New Zealand national champion finally gets a chance to lead Jumbo-Visma himself – albeit a very different Jumbo-Visma from the well-oiled machine we’ve grown accustomed to at the Tour. On a team made up of sprinters and veterans, Bennett will have to largely fend for himself in the mountains, with just Koen Bouwman in support.
But with his side-stitch issues behind him following a removal of a rib, the 31-year-old will look to ride into some form ahead of the final week of mountains. Bennett’s highest finish in a Grand Tour – eighth – came in the 2018 Giro. He’ll hope to improve on that – and take an elusive stage win, too.

The debutant: Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck Quick-Step)

Remco Evenepoel wears yellow in the Tour de Pologne 2020, one of four stage races he won last year.

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It’s impossible to know what to expect from the 21-year-old Belgian tyro given he hasn’t raced since plunging into a ravine in last October’s Il Lombardia. Before that, Evenepoel was in line to make his Giro debut off the back of four victories in his previous four stage races in 2020. Six months on, he’ll get the chance to do just that – albeit with an extra half-year of recovery behind him.
With no sprinter in their ranks, Deceuninck Quick-Step clearly think their two-pronged attack of Evenepoel and Almeida – with a combined age of just over a single Alejandro Valverde – can reap rewards in Italy. If it were anyone else, we wouldn’t expect much. But this is Evenepoel and the hype is all too real.

The Plan Bs: Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious), Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers), Mikel Nieve (Team BikeExchange)

Pello Bilbao López of Spain and Team Bahrain Victorious celebrates on arrival during the 44th Tour of the Alps 2021, Stage 4 a 168,6 to stage from Naturns to Valle del Chiese - Pieve di Bono

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One of the most consistent riders last term, Bilbao finished 16th in the Tour before making the top five in the Giro. A stage winner in the Tour of the Alps shows that the 31-year-old has the form to help teammate Landa to glory in Italy – or pursue podium dreams himself should his compatriot falter.
With such a huge question mark over Bernal, it’s wise for Ineos Grenadiers to go in with a valid back-up in Russia’s Sivakov, who made the top 10 of his debut Giro two years ago. The 23-year-old came second behind Yates in the queen stage of the Tour of the Alps before a crash saw him fall to sixth on GC. Still yet to reach anything near his potential, Sivakov could finally break free this May.
Should Yates’s unfinished business with the Giro go on into a fifth year, then dependable climber Nieve may be elevated at BikeExchange. The Spaniard hasn’t cracked the top 10 of a Grand Tour since the Vuelta in 2015 but, on his day, can stick with most in the mountains.

The Plan Cs: Dani Martinez (Ineos Grenadiers), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), James Knox (Deceuninck Quick-Step)

Giulio Ciccone all'arrivo di Vallter 2000 - Volta a Catalunya 2021 - Getty Images

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With such a huge question mark over Sivakov, it’s wise for Ineos Grenadiers to go in with a valid back-up to the Russian Plan B in new signing Martinez. The Colombian swapped marauding freedom at EF Education-Nippo for comparative constraint of Ineos, and instead of stage hunting or targeting the GC himself, Martinez will be asked to do a job for compatriot Bernal.
It’s fair enough: the 25-year-old is still young and fairly unproven at Grand Tour level in GC terms. And in the not infeasible scenario of Bernal bonking and Sivakov struggling, Martinez – who dropped the Russian on numerous occasions in the Tour of the Alps – could get the green light to disrupt.
It’s a sad indictment of Italian cycling that the host nation’s best chances of a high finish in Milan, should Nibali’s injury or age prove a stumbling block, may come with Bahrain-Victorious’ third man. The 33-year-old came eighth in 2015 and an impressive 10th in the Tour last year.
Italy do have another great hope in Giulio Ciccone, Nibali’s Trek teammate who sealed the blue jersey in 2019 with victory after conquering the mighty Zoncolan. His second Giro for Trek was a bit of a disaster last year, resulting in a DNS before the big mountains got going. The 26-year-old has done little of note this term but could come good this May.
Eleventh in his maiden Vuelta in 2019 saw Britain’s James Knox announce himself on the world stage. But the sudden rise of both Almeida and Evenepoel at Deceuninck, plus the signing of Italian climber Fausto Masnada, means the 25-year-old is fallen down the food chain somewhat. He’ll be in musette mode this May, but you never know… so was Geoghegan Hart before a stray bidon inadvertently put him in the pink picture.
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