Blazin’ Saddles: 8 key questions ahead of the Giro d’Italia 2021

Blazin’ Saddles: 8 key questions ahead of the Giro d’Italia 2021 thumbnail

The first Grand Tour of the season gets under way with a short 9km individual time trial on Saturday 8th May in Turin. The race features six mountain-top finishes, seven hilly stages, and almost 47,000m of climbing, with six stages for the sprinters sprinkled along the 3450-kilometre route, which includes key stretches of dirt roads and reaches its climax with a time trial into Milan on Sunday 30th May.

Overlooked by most of cycling’s top stage racers, the 104th edition of the Giro nevertheless promises a thrilling tussle between two riders who, between them, have won both of the sport’s other major stage races – the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. A good a place as any to start our line of questioning…

Giro d’Italia

Bernal named Ineos joint-leader for Giro


Can anyone win beyond Egan Bernal and Simon Yates?

Last seen together on the Col d’Iseran ahead of serious hailstorms in stage 19 of the 2019 Tour de France, the Colombian and the Briton are, on paper, the two stand-out favourites for the race – especially given Vincenzo Nibali’s injury and the withdrawal of Thibaut Pinot.

Bernal, however, finds himself there on reputation alone, the 24-year-old without a major win since his de facto victory in the 2019 Tour – achieved after that cancelled stage to Tignes. While his Ineos Grenadiers team looks extremely solid, Bernal has struggled with a back injury for over a year, although managed to finish third in Strade Bianche and fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico.

Egan Bernal and Simon Yates during stage 19 of the Tour de France 2019

Image credit: Getty Images

You certainly get the sense that compatriot Dani Martinez and Russia’s Pavel Sivakov could well be called on to take a step-up – much in the way that Tao Geoghegan Hart did so effectively last year when leader Geraint Thomas crashed out. It’s a sign of the times that Bernal, a rider who many thought would dominate the Tour for a decade after his win, is now a unknown quantity, perhaps even a mere footnote.

Team BikeExchange all-rounder Yates, on the other hand, has warmed up for the Giro with victory in the Tour of the Alps, winning the queen stage quite convincingly as he builds up to his main focus of the season. Earlier this spring, he was second only to Tadej Pogacar in the queen stage of Tirreno-Adriatico where, it’s worth adding, he nevertheless ended up behind the likes of Bernal, Mikel Landa, Joao Almeida and Romain Bardet on GC – all riders who’ll be at the Giro.

While this Giro culminates with a potential banana-skin of a 30.3km TT into Milan, there’s enough climbing in the final week – and eight uphill finishes in total – to ensure that Yates has a large enough buffer to avoid doing a Jai Hindley. That is, of course, if he doesn’t do a Simon Yates and blow up in earlier on a dirt climb in the mountains…

Yates’s unfinished business at the Giro is so widely reported that it’s almost become a cliché, the 28-year-old having collapsed while in pink the year compatriot Chris Froome won the Giro. Yates famously went on to win the Vuelta that year but has struggled in the past two editions of La Corsa Rosa, last year withdrawing along with his entire team after contracting Covid. “I hope this year I can have clear run and a good go at fighting for the win,” the 28-year-old said this week.

In theory, this should be the year Yates finally adds the pink jersey to his palmares before he shifts his focus to completing his grand slam and winning the Tour in the next phase of his career. But Grand Tours are not won on paper, they won on the road.

‘Superb’ – Yates cruises to impressive Stage 2 win in the Alps

Will Ineos Grenadiers win as many stages as last year?

It’s unlikely. Primarily because, although they ended up winning the whole race last year, that was not the plan following Geraint Thomas’s freak accident and withdrawal. Also, with one fewer time trial than last year, Filippo Ganna may only strike twice this May. On current form, perhaps that’s being generous (after eight consecutive TT wins, Ganna has only made the podium once in his last three).

Tao Geoghegan Hart’s decision not to defend his maglia rosa, plus the absence of 2019 winner Richard Carapaz, has opened the door for Pavel Sivakov, who will be the back-up Plan B behind Bernal. The 23-year-old Russian finished ninth in his maiden Giro two years ago and finished behind Yates in the queen stage of the Tour of the Alps last week, where he was dropped by teammate Martinez on numerous occasions (albeit a day after a heavy spill).

Neither Bernal nor Sivakov are stage hunters, so it’s unlikely we’ll see Ineos get close to matching their seven successes from 2020. Gianni Moscon, however, is in good nick, winning two times in the Tour of the Alps, while Ganna is always game for a breakaway and new recruit Martinez provides options.

Ineos Grenadiers have the strongest team by a stretch – but it remains to be seen if they have the strongest man to front that team. Should Bernal feel the pinch, stages may become a priority again – just without the cherry applied to the cake from Geoghegan Hart last October.

Tao’s fairytale: How Geoghegan Hart and Ineos won Giro

What hope do the hosts have following Nibali’s setback?

Not a lot, is the short answer. Having fractured the radius in his right wrist in a training crash, the two-time Giro champion is back in training with a tailored carbon brace. After being forced to skip the Tour of the Alps, Nibali hasn’t raced since placing 35th at Milan-San Remo on 20th March. Even for someone who notoriously peaks in the third week of a Grand Tour, this may be cutting it too fine.

The Sicilian’s seventh place last October ended a sequence of six podium finishes in his last six Giro participations. Now 36, Nibali hasn’t really been in contention in a three-week race since he came runner-up behind Carapaz from a very weak field in 2019. It’s highly likely that even a fully fit Nibali would struggle to put himself in the pink picture.

It’s a sad reflection on Italian cycling that a crocked Nibali still represents the host’s best chances of glory in May. Trek-Segafredo teammates Gianluca Brambilla and Giulio Ciccone look good bets for stage wins but not for a tilt at the title – as do UAE Team Emirates duo Diego Ulissi (winner of a brace last time round) and Valerio Conti. Nibali’s teammate Matteo Moschetti will hope for a breakout win in the sprints – but his previous Giro best is fourth.

Ninth last year and a stage winner the year before, the in-form Fausto Masnada looks like he will be playing a domestique role again at Deceuninck Quick-Step, while the best days are surely behind Dario Cataldo (Movistar) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Team Qhubeka ASSOS).

Only 28-year-old Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) looks capable of building on his two top 10 finishes in the Giro, although he seems to be focusing more on the classics these days, as his 20th in Tirreno suggests. Dog days for Italian cycling, indeed.

Will Hindley and Almeida struggle to hit last season’s highs?

It’s looking that way. That’s not to say either riders were flashes in the pan. But it’s one thing breaking through – and another building on that once you’re a marked man. In Jai Hindley’s case, the 24-year-old Australian will no longer have to work for Wilco Kelderman – but the Dutchman has been replaced at Team DSM by Romain Bardet in what looks a fairly like-for-like swap.

Both Hindley and Bardet lined up together in the Tour of the Alps – and while Hindley says he enjoyed riding with the Frenchman, he was also forced out of the race with a crash. Earlier in the season, illness saw him abandon the Volta a Catalunya. So last year’s runner-up arrives in Turin without a GC result of note this season, vying once again for team leadership. There have also been murmurs of his angling for a move away, with Hindley confirming that he’s “not one-hundred per cent sure” whether he will stay beyond 2021.

Things are certainly a bit more settled for Joao Almeida at Deceuninck Quick-Step. Fourth in his maiden Giro last year after two weeks in pink, the 22-year-old Portuguese has notched top 10s in Catalunya and Tirreno-Adriatico this term, and he’s part of a two-pronged attack for Deceuninck alongside debutant Remco Evenepoel.

The Belgian tyro insists that it’s all-in for the young man who stepped up to the plate after his Lombardia crash curtailed Evenepoel’s season in 2020. But it’s the debutant who has the number 91 bib, not Almeida – so make of that what you will. In any case, Deceuninck seem focused on a tilt at GC: in a rare move for Pat Lefevere’s team, there’s no room for a sprinter.

Remi Cavagna will target pink in the opening time trial, climbers James Knox and the aforementioned Masnada will provide support in the mountains, while all-rounders Mikkel Honore and Pieter Serry will do whatever road captain Iljo Keisse says. It’s a strong unit. But are they riding for Almeida, Evenepoel, or both?

‘Looks like he could be in real trouble’ – Leader Joao Almeida cracks on Stelvio

Who can stop Simon Yates from finally winning?

While there’s an extended list of contenders, there only seems to be a couple of real favourites in Yates and Bernal. Then again, most fans wouldn’t have included Geoghegan Hart or Hindley among the contenders last year, let alone considered them even outside favourites.

If Nibali’s wrist is not up to it, then Trek-Segafredo have the Dutch veteran Bauke Mollema as a fallback – although his days of GC riding seem to be over. Ireland’s Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) says he’s in the form of his life – but that was only good enough for 15th place in the Tour of the Alps.

Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov has allegedly caught the eye of Sir David Brailsford at Ineos – but the 25-year-old did not even last two days of his maiden Giro last year. The Astana climber has been in good nick this year, with podium places in both Paris-Nice and the Tour of the Alps. But with only Spaniards Luis Leon Sanchez and Gorka Izagirre in support at what looks to be a rather threadbare Astana Premier-Tech team, Vlasov may find himself isolated in the third week.

Briton’s Hugh Carthy will look to keep up with fellow Lancastrian Yates in the mountains – and he’ll take inspiration from Geoghehan Hart in his bid to cause an upset. Carthy has been around far longer than last year’s surprise winner and he will hope to build on his breakthrough victory on the Angliru and Vuelta podium last November.

Hugh Carthy goes deep into the pain cave on the Angliru

The 26-year-old will relish the mountains and, while not super strong, his EF Education-Nippo team boasts the likes of last year’s blue jersey Ruben Guerreiro, the American veteran Tejay van Garderen, and Italian all-rounder Alberto Bettiol.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Yates and Bernal will come from a strong Bahrain-Victorious team behind the Basque climber Mikel Landa. Still looking for that elusive Grand Tour win, Landa’s only podium came in the Giro in 2015 where he finished third behind Alberto Contador and teammate Fabio Aru.

The 31-year-old has been fairly sprightly this season, with third in Tirreno and eighth in Itzulia. He will form the more prominent part of a double-pronged ascent on pink alongside compatriot Pello Bilbao, who finished fifth last year, with the likes of Italian veteran Damiano Caruso, the experienced Slovenian Matej Mohoric, and emerging star Gino Mader in support. Landa will know that he’s never had a better chance at finally getting that major win. Then again, so will Bilbao…

How will George Bennett cope at being Jumbo’s top dog?

The rise of Primoz Roglic and arrival of Tom Dumoulin alongside his consistent compatriot Steven Kruijswijk has seen George Bennett squeezed out slightly at Jumbo-Visma. The New Zealand national champion has still played a huge role as a key domestique to his leaders, but he’s had fewer opportunities to lead himself than his talent might otherwise have merited.

Sure, his on-going side stitch issue – now cleared up with the removal of a rib – held him back, but you sense that in an alternative reality, Bennett may well have more to show for his efforts than an eighth-place finish in the 2018 Giro and three minor victories to his name. Be that as it may, the 31-year-old now has a chance to assume the mantle as leader chez Jumbo – albeit of a team that’s very much the watered-down version of what we’ll see in the Tour and Vuelta.

Bennett’s only real uphill support will come from Dutchman Keon Bouwman so he will have to pack his own musette in the mountains, so to speak. There’s also the small matter of his form: he hasn’t raced since withdrawing halfway through Catalunya back in late March. As such, any tilt at the GC would seem fanciful. But Bennett will hope to win a maiden Grand Tour stage win, plus build on his 12th place at last year’s Vuelta while riding in support of Roglic.

Will the sprints be one-way traffic for Ewan?

Caleb Ewan is hands-down the most established of a middling field of sprinters, the Australian pocket-rocket having notched wins in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours. The 26-year-old from Lotto Soudal will face opposition from Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Italy’s Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Belgium’s Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Italy’s Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-ASSOS) and, most notably, Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma).

Groenewegen makes his long-awaited return after serving a ban for his role in the crash that almost ended the career of Fabio Jakobsen during the opening stage of last year’s Tour of Poland. The 27-year-old also broke his collarbone in the high-speed spill, and he would have done a lot of soul searching since his last competitive pedal stroke.

Perhaps wisely, Jumbo-Visma have also opted to send fellow Dutch sprinter David Dekker, the 23-year-old starlet who has been knocking on the door in Groenewegen’s absence. Twice a runner-up in sprints in the UAE Tour, Dekker underlined his promise and can now make a Grand Tour debut while all eyes are on his compatriot. Should Groenewegen find himself understandably off the pace, Jumbo have a valid Plan B.

With just one single victory since swapping the Wolfpack for Cofidis, Viviani will hope to propel himself back into contention in this Giro, while Gaviria, too, is on a winless stretch in Grand Tours dating back to the Giro in 2019 – a victory that only came after Viviani was disqualified for veering off his line.

Sagan could do with some victories as he looks to rebuild his confidence ahead of the Tour, while debutant Merlier will hope to build on his three victories from the spring. Ewan may have been off the boil during his last outing in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana – but if things go according to plan, the Australian will take some beating in the sprints.

Remco Evenepoel vince la Clásica San Sebastián 2019 – Getty Images

Image credit: Getty Images

Can Evenepoel win his maiden Grand Tour?

He hasn’t raced since his horrific crash last August and insists he’s there to fight for teammate Almeida, but it would take a mad man to bet against the Belgian tyro from making a splash in his belated Giro curtain-raiser.

Billed as the new Merckx for quite some time, the 21-year-old was on a run of victories in four consecutive stage races in 2020 when the wheels came off his development with that terrifying crash off a bridge during Il Lombardia. While he hasn’t featured since, the numbers from his training have been impressive and Evenepoel is a born winner.

While he may not have enough to beat teammate Remi Cavagna or the Italian powerhouse Filippo Ganna to the race’s first maglia rosa, a strong showing in the opening time trial coupled with some solid performances in the first hilly stages could see Evenepoel in pink during the opening week. No one in the sport would begrudge him that as he makes his long-awaited comeback.

Giro d’Italia

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Giro d’Italia

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