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Giro d’Italia 2016: preview and six riders to watch

The key stages and the riders set to animate the 2016 Giro d'Italia

The Giro d’Italia is the most romantic of the Grand Tours and the 99th edition looks set to please the eye as well as the heart. With stages in beautiful Tuscany and later in the majestic Dolomites, the 2016 race is likely to cement the Corsa Rosa’s status among the cognoscenti.

It is another international affair. After a successful Grande Partenza in Belfast two years ago, the Giro will again begin overseas, this time in the Netherlands, before making deviations into France and Switzerland in week three, as the race reaches its climax among the highest mountain peaks in Europe.

– Giro d’Italia 2016: TV schedule –

While the withdrawal of Alex Dowsett means there will be no British interest at the Giro this year, the rider roster is a five star affair, headed by 2013 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Dowsett’s Movistar leader, Alejandro Valverde, the world number one.

The eyes of the world will turn to Apeldoorn on Friday (May 6), where the riders will commence battle on a 9.8km prologue time trial course. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), the surprise package of last year’s Vuelta a Espana, will seek to lay an early marker on home soil, riding in his favoured discipline before a passionate home support.

Alberto Contador won the Giro d’Italia in 2015 but won’t return to this year’s race, instead focusing on the Tour de France (Pic: Sirotti)

 

Key stages

Sweeping vistas, sun-drenched piazzas, majestic mountain passes… the Giro will serve up another visual banquet in the weeks ahead.

But with an emphasis placed heavily this year on short, individual time trials, and later on the giants of the Dolomites – six of them on stage 14 alone – the riders will have little time to drink in the scenery.

Instead, this a parcours for the Grand Tour specialist, who must prove himself tactician, tester, and grimpeur. The presence of Nibali and Valverde at the head of the contenders speaks to the potential of this Corsa Rosa to reward the all-rounder.

 

After a flat, three-stage aperitif in the Netherlands, the first five engagements on Italian soil are hilly or mountainous. One can imagine Valverde, seven times a winner in the Ardennes, and triumphant for a fourth time at the Ruta del Sol as recently as February, relishing the prospect.

Stage 14, however, is of another magnitude. It’s unnerving profile is the rendering of six major climbs in a monstrous, 210km journey from Alpago to Corvara, taking in, among others, the Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, and Giau. Surely this is a day on which the pure climbers will have their say.

Twenty-four hours later, the GC might receive another vigorous shake-up. The stage 15 individual time trial rises relentlessly from 1,060m at the start in Castelrotto to 1,844m just 10.8km later in Seiserlam. The simple, brutal parcours – aka the ramp of the Alpe di Siusi – is pitched at an average gradient of 8.3 per cent and peaks at 11 per cent. Advantage Nibali? Or could this be Dumoulin’s date with destiny?

Few nations match the Italians’ talent for spectacle, and stages 19 and 20 can accurately be described as spectacular. They also represent the last opportunities to alter the GC. Stage 19 concludes at 1,862m, but the riders must scale the towering 2,744m Colle dell’Agnello before they reach safe harbour at Risoul and a single night’s respite before their final engagement in the mountains.

– Giro d’Italia 2016 route: five key stages –

Stage 20 is still more savage, taking in three first category climbs – the Col de Vars (a 19km climb to 2,108m), the Col de la Bonnette (22km to 2,715m) and the Colle della Lombarda (20km  to 2,350m), before concluding matters on a sharply pitched, third category slope into Sant Anna di Vinadio.

That the queen stage should come on the penultimate day’s racing is all but guaranteed to carry the suspense almost to the final conclusion. A flat and gentle 150km run into Turin brings matters to a close on Sunday May 29.

Vincenzo Nibali appears lost in a storm of pink confetti. Was stage 18 the Italian's coronation as new Giro champion?
Mikel Landa arrives at his first Grand Tour with Team Sky having won the Giro del Trentino (Pic: Sirotti)

Giro d’Italia 2016: six riders to watch

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

Vincenzo Nibali’s victory at the 2013 Giro was handsome, and built on impressive performances in that edition’s three time trials. Sound familiar? Add a truly heroic performance to wrap things up with a stage win on a snow-blown Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and it’s little wonder that the Shark of Messina returns to his home race among the favourites for victory.

While his 2013 ride to his fifth Grand Tour title began a rich vein of form that would lead to the sixth (the 2014 Tour de France), Nibali has struggled more recently, battling commissaires and internal strife at Astana as much as his rivals on the road.

Last year saw him save his season by winning the Giro di Lombardia in impressive style after a disappointing opening fortnight at the Tour and a forgettable Vuelta, where he was expelled after taking a blatant tow from his team car on stage two.

Vincenzo Nibali sealed his 2013 Giro d’Italia win with victory on a snow-blown stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Pic: Sirotti)

Nibali’s 2016 campaign has been up and down. He won the Tour of Oman, but more recently was dropped from the favourites group 7km from the finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when the pace became intense.

He will be surrounded at the Giro by a strong Astana line-up. Significantly for a team now divided between the opposing poles of Nibali and his young, Vuelta-winning team-mate Fabio Aru, the Sicilian will have his key men with him in Italy: Agnoli, Fuglsang, Kangert and Scarponi.

Best Giro result: 2013 – winner
Best results of 2016: Tour of Oman – stage four and overall; Giro del Trentino – stage one (TTT)

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde is always likely to divide opinion after his (disputed) implication in the Operacion Puerto affair, but it is fruitless to deny that he is a rider of the very highest calibre.

Since returning in 2012 from a two-year ban, Valverde has won 35 races, including five Grand Tour stages, four GC victories at the Ruta del Sol, a hat-trick at La Flèche Wallonne, and another victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège to make three in total.

Alejandro Valverde has been in fine form so far this season, winning the Vuelta a Castilla y León, Vuelta a Andalucia and, for the fourth time, La Flèche Wallonne (Pic: Sirotti)

The 99th Giro, however, will be Valverde’s first appearance in the race. His participation owes more to the growing influence within the Movistar ranks of his young Colombian team-mate Nairo Quintana, who will target the Tour de France. Quintana won the 2014 Giro, and has set a high benchmark for his older, more accomplished team-mate.

Valverde’s Grand Tour record is impressive, however. He has ridden 18 of them,  finishing on the podium seven times and winning the 2009 Vuelta. Last year, he was third at the Tour de France and seventh in Spain. Valverde knows how to ride a three-week race as well as he knows how to win a one-day Classic.

Best Giro result: First participation
Best results of 2016: La Flèche Wallonne – winner; Ruta del Sol – winner; Castilla y Leon – winner

Mikel Landa (Team Sky)

The signing of former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski for 2016 was, on paper, Team Sky’s biggest acquisition of the closed season, but if Mikel Landa wins the Giro, Sir Dave Brailsford may feel he struck an even better deal.

Landa’s aggressive rides last year both at the Giro and at La Vuelta indicated that he was the strongest man in the Astana team, but in both cases this largely Italian outfit rode for Fabio Aru rather than his Basque team-mate. Landa has joined Sky in the hope of leadership, at the Giro at least, and it will be interesting to note how he handles his new responsibilities.

Off the bike, Landa is confident, if undemonstrative; on the bike, he is aggressive and single minded, even to the extent of ignoring team orders and riding his own race. In this regard, he seems a very poor fit for Sky, whose rigid approach has drawn criticism and results almost in equal measure.

Team Sky’s Mikel Landa fine-tuned his Giro d’Italia preparations with victory at the Giro del Trentino in April (Pic: Sirotti)

So far, Landa has proved that he can deliver spectacular performances in the high mountains: witness his emphatic victory on the eleventh stage of the 2015 Vuelta, an exercise in savagery designed by Andorran local Joaquim Rodriguez and billed by the race organisers as the hardest stage in Grand Tour history. Or how about his magnificent brace at the Giro, achieved on its two toughest stages? There is little doubt that Landa can climb with the best.

His time-trialing, however, is less impressive, as his scant regard for team hierarchy. His relationship with Aru had echoes of Chris Froome’s relationship with Sir Bradley Wiggins. Sky may continue to channel Landa’s energies into races that Froome does not have on his ‘to do’ list. The Giro is a good place to start.

Best Giro result: 2015 – third
Best results of 2016: Tour of the Basque Country, stage two – winner; Giro del Trentino, stage two and overall

Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin)

Tom Dumoulin’s performance at last year’s Vuelta a Espana had echoes of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ emergence as a Grand Tour contender at the 2009 Tour. Established as a formidable time-trialist, Dumoulin showed climbing skills to match the smallest climber, though he stands 1.85m in his socks and weighs 69kg.

Sixth overall at the Vuelta barely tells the story of a courageous three-week campaign that saw Dumoulin spend nearly a third of the race in the leader’s red jersey. He continued to battle beneath stinging attacks from Astana in the high mountains, notably on the penultimate stage to Cercedilla.

Tom Dumoulin emerged as a GC contender at last year’s Vuelta a Espana (Pic: Sirotti)

The Giro will reveal whether Dumoulin’s performance at last year’s Vuelta was an aberration or a taste of things to come. He has returned to his default position of time-trialist deluxe so far this season – though he has finished second on three occasions – and the Giro’s prologue in Netherlands has this hometown hero’s name written all over it, if he can beat Fabian Cancellara.

Can Dumoulin mount a challenge in the mountains? It seems unlikely, but we’d have said the same before last season’s Vuelta. The Butterfly of Maastricht may sting the pure climbers again.

Best Giro result: First participation
Best results of 2016: Paris-Nice prologue – second; Tour de Romandie prologue – second; Tour de Romandie, stage three ITT – second

Rafal Majka (Tinkoff)

Rafal Majka is a rider whose time has come. His stage wins at the Tour have salvaged his team’s campaign twice in successive seasons; both times in the light of misfortune suffered by Alberto Contador. Granted the starring role at last season’s Vuelta, Majka didn’t disappoint, riding to a place on the final podium in Madrid.

Majka’s highest finish at a Grand Tour owed more to strategy and courage than to spectacular performances, though he has delivered those too, notably at the Tour (half of his six professional wins have come in cycling’s biggest race). He sealed a spot on the Vuelta podium with a ride of guts and guile on stage 20, repaying the team’s faith in such a young leader.

Half of Rafal Majka’s six professional wins have come at the Tour de France, where he also won the King of the Mountains classification in 2014 (Pic: Sirotti)

His time-trialing, however, remains a work in progress. On a good day, it is enough to limit losses, but at this early stage of his Grand Tour career (he turned 26 on the penultimate stage of last year’s Vuelta) there is still time to improve. The Giro’s three tests may prove his undoing this year, however.

Majka has ridden the Giro twice previously and twice he has finished in the top 10. Moreover, he will have the three key riders from his Vuelta campaign with him in Italy: young guns Jay McCarthy and Pawel Poljanski, and the vastly experienced Matteo Tosatto, who will ride his 32nd Grand Tour.

Best Giro result: 2014 – sixth
Best results of 2016: Tour de San Luis, stage one, TTT – fourth; Ruta del Sol, stage five – third; Tour de Romandie, stage two – seventh

Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep)

Away from the battle for the maglia rosa, Marcel Kittel is the lead sprinter and the German’s return to form since joining Etixx-QuickStep in January has been so complete that last season might already be marked as an aberration.

The sprint powerhouse has won emphatically and often since leaving Giant-Alpecin and hooking up with Patrick Lefevere’s squad, adding eight wins to his palmares already this season, including two stages and the GC in Dubai.

There is little question that the unofficial title of world’s fastest man has passed to Kittel from Mark Cavendish. The 27-year-old continued his dominance over the Dimension Data leader to win Scheldeprijs for a record fourth time – a bitter pill for the Manxman, who finished second.

Marcel Kittel has been given a new lease of life at Etixx-QuickStep after a dour final season at Giant-Alpecin (Pic: Tim de Waele/EQS)

Kittel’s greatest threat at the Giro will not come from Cavendish, who will miss the race to focus on the Tour and his preparations for the Olympics, but from André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal). The German showdown might produce fireworks on the Giro’s five flat stages (despite Cavendish’s frequent complaints, this is a Grand Tour that still finds room to accommodate the quick men).

Much will depend on whether Greipel can reproduce his form of 2015, where he equaled Kittel’s career highlight of winning four stages at a single Tour. As the countdown to the Giro reaches its climax, it is definitely advantage Kittel.

Best Giro result: 2014 – two stages
Best results of 2016: Dubai Tour – two stages and overall; Volta ao Algarve – two stages; Three Days of De Panne – stage 3a; Scheldeprijs – winner; Tour de Romandie – stage one

And also keep an eye on…

Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo) won the Giro d’Italia in 2012 and has finished in the top ten twice since: ninth in 2014 and fifth in 2015. This time round the Canadian is aiming for another top five finish, or, if all goes well, a shot at the podium. Hesjedal’s forte is excelling when the going gets tough in the second half of a race, but at 35 is in the twilight years of his career and has hinted the Giro could be his last Grand Tour.

Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) has twice finished second on the Giro’s final podium without truly threatening to take the title. finishing more than four minutes adrift of Vincenzo Nibali in 2013 and nearly three minutes awry of Nairo Quintana in 2014. The Colombian has had a quiet start to life at Cannondale, with his most notable result a top ten finish at the Volta ao Catalunya.

Ryder Hesjedal animated the second half of the 2015 Giro d’Italia and will hope to do so again this time out (Pic: Sirotti)

Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin was one of the breakthrough riders in 2015, claiming the Tour de Romandie title ahead of a stellar line-up which included Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, before winning a medium mountain stage of the Giro. This year the Russian has already won a stage of Paris-Nice, finished fourth at the Tour de Romandie and fifth at a particularly tough edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Now Zakarin, who is also a strong time trialist, will test himself as a GC contender in a Grand Tour for the first time.

Finally, Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEDGE) will look to muscle in on the Giro’s bunch sprints and break the German stranglehold of Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel. Ewan turned pro last season and has established himself as a prodigious talent, taking a Grand Tour stage win at the first attempt in the 2015 Vuelta. At 5’4″ and 61kg, Ewan is the polar opposite of the bulking powerhouses Kittel and Greipel, but his sprint is undoubtedly effective. Also watch out for FDJ’s Arnaud Démare and Team Sky’s Elia Viviani in the Giro’s fast finishes.

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