Chris Froome will look to put off-the-bike controversy aside as he bids for an historic Grand Tour triple at the Giro d’Italia, which starts in Jerusalem on Friday (May 4).
While his build-up to the race has been overshadowed by the news surrounding the adverse analytical finding he returned for Salbutamol, the restricted asthma drug, at the Vuelta a Espana, Froome insists he expects to be found innocent – having always maintained he did nothing illegal.
And now he will bid to start making headlines on the bike again, as he bids to seal his third consecutive Grand Tour win and become the first man to hold all three of the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana and Giro d’Italia at the same time since the Vuelta was moved to the summer.
His leading rivals for the maglia rosa, which he has never previously targeted, include defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), home favourite Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and the in-form Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
So who will come out on top, and where will the race be won? We’ve taken a closer look at the route and the form of the leading contenders…
The Giro d’Italia will tread new ground when it rolls out in Jerusalem on Friday 4 May as the first ever Grand Tour to start outside of Europe, though the decision to race in Israel has proved controversial.
Nevertheless, the race will begin with a 9.7km individual time trial before two flat stages for the sprinters and a travel day as the peloton flies across to Sicily. The first big challenge for the GC riders will be stage six, which finishes on Mount Etna with a 15km climb at 6.5 per cent.
The following weekend poses two big back-to-back challenges, meanwhile, with summit finishes on the Montevergine di Mercogliano and then Campo Imperatore – the latter will send the riders into the second rest day with a 45km climb to conclude the 224km stage nine.
All eyes will then be on Monte Zoncolan, which concludes a climb-heavy stage 14, and will be tackled from its toughest Ovaro side with pitches up to 22 per cent in gradient.
A lumpy stage 15 in the Dolomites takes the riders into the third and final rest day, before racing resumes with a time trial in which Froome and Dumoulin will look to strike home an advantage.
The largely flat 34.2km stage will be a chance for the world time trial champion and the world time trial bronze medallist to put time into the pure climbers ahead of the final week.
More climbing follows on stage 18, with a 15km slog to the finish at Prato Nevoso up an average gradient of seven per cent, while stage 19 not only features this year’s final summit finish but also the Colle delle Finestre – complete with 8km of gravel.
A back-loaded penultimate stage packs all of its climbing into the latter half, with category-one ascents on the Col du Mont-Tseuc, Col Saint-Pantaleion and Cervinia to negotiate, and the man in the maglia rosa atop Cervinia should be crowned champion with only the flat, circuitous stage of Rome to complete the race.
The defending champion – Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb)
Heading the contenders looking to stop Chris Froome is defending champion Tom Dumoulin, though he will have less distance against the clock in which to strike home an advantage than he did in last year’s race.
Dumoulin is far from a one-trick pony, of course – you don’t come anywhere near winning a Grand Tour if you are – and the Dutchman has climbed with the very best repeatedly over the last few years.
But time trialling is his obvious strength, and if he gets over Monte Zoncolan unscathed – and unhindered by unscheduled toilet stops – the world time trial champion will be well-placed to open up an advantage after stage 16.
His form so far this season has been nothing to write home about, whereas this time last year he had already finished third at the Abu Dhabi Tour, sixth at Tirreno-Adriatico and fifth at Strade Bianche, but – after failing to finish Tirreno-Adriatico this year – he finished 15th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege to get valuable racing miles in his legs.
He can strike an early blow to his rivals on the 9.7km time trial in Jerusalem and will bid to kick on from there. No man has won the Giro d’Italia in consecutive years since Miguel Indurain, a man Dumoulin has already earned plenty of comparisons too.
The favourite – Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Chris Froome rolls out as favourite for the Giro d’Italia, despite all the controversy surrounding his participation in the race, as he bids to win a third consecutive Grand Tour.
He has established himself as the finest Grand Tour rider of this generation with his consistency in the Tour de France, and his historic Vuelta a Espana win last summer, and now he will bid to make more history in only his second Corsa Rosa.
Other riders, Dumoulin included, have been keen to point out they would not be racing in similar circumstances – Team Sunweb are part of the MPCC, and therefore an adverse anti-doping finding would lead to him being withdrawn from racing.
Team Sky, however, are not; Froome insists he is confident he will be cleared of doping and the 32-year-old (who turns 33 during this year’s race) will compete on a course well-suited to his climbing and time-trialling abilities.
He climbed well at the Tour of the Alps, finishing fourth overall, but with the Giro-Tour double his prime target he will not have expected to peak yet – just as he didn't until the Tour last year. There is more to come, and the key now will be how much of an impact, if any, the off-the-bike issues will have had on his mindset ahead of the Giro d’Italia.
The Giro is considered by many to be the toughest of the three Grand Tours, with plenty saying that Froome needs to win it before he can take his seat among the pantheon of Grand Tour greats. But win it, on his day, Froome certainly can.
Other contenders – Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)
Thibaut Pinot arrives at the Giro d’Italia in fine form, winning the Tour of the Alps to gear up for this race in the perfect way possible.
Victory there continued his run of impressive results on Italian soil – he was third at Tirreno-Adriatico last year; fourth at the Giro d’Italia despite winning the final mountain stage; and enjoyed a string of top-tens in the Italian autumn classics.
Pinot was a victim of the route last time out, climbing brilliantly to force his way into the podium reckoning on the penultimate day only to be pushed back down to fourth by Dumoulin’s performance in the final time trial.
A former podium finisher at the Tour de France too, Pinot is now 27 and approaching what many French fans hope will be a prolonged career peak, and his form is certainly encouraging ahead of the Giro.
With support from the likes of Steve Morabito and Sebastien Reichenbach, Pinot has a strong team unit behind him too and at the very least can go one better than last year and finish on the podium.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates)
The Italian champion, twice a podium finisher at the Giro d’Italia, will bid to replicate his performances at his most recent Corsa Rosa when he won the final two stages to finish second in the 2015 race.
Those stages included the climb of the Colle delle Finestre and a summit finish on Cervinia as he claimed second place behind Alberto Contador and the white jersey of best young rider.
When he then went on to beat Tom Dumoulin to the Vuelta a Espana that same year, much was expected of Italy’s rising star – only things have not worked out as planned since.
Injury cost him a place at the Giro last time out, but he impressed at the Tour de France where he won a stage and held the yellow jersey for two days before eventually dropping down to fifth overall.
Now, with a new team, including back-up from former Giro stage winners Jan Polanc and Diego Ulissi and climbing ace Darwin Atapuma, Aru will look to start the latest chapter of his career with a big statement of intent.
He proved how dangerous it is to write him off when he performed so well at last year’s Tour de France, and the Italian champion will certainly be at the sharp end of this Giro d’Italia as Italy’s best hope of a home winner.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)
Fabio Aru’s departure has allowed Miguel Angel Lopez to take on the Astana team leadership for the Giro d’Italia.
The 24-year-old Colombian is, at the very least, a leading contender for the white jersey of best young rider but after a decent start to the year and a good performance at his first Grand Tour, last year’s Vuelta a Espana, he will hope for more.
In Spain, Lopez won two stages and finished eighth overall while his build-up to the Giro has included podium finishes at the Tour of Oman, Abu Dhabi Tour and Tour of the Alps.
He can climb with the best, there is no question of that, but what he needs to prove is he can do it consistently over the course of a Grand Tour, rather than just grabbing stage wins and settling for a top-ten finish.
Lopez is the latest off the Colombian production line of stunning Grand Tour talents, and will win the white jersey if he reaches his top level at the Giro. It may be too soon to expect more, however… for now.
Simon Yates/Johan Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott)
Simon Yates was supposed to line-up at last year’s Giro d’Italia before injury to Johan Esteban Chaves forced Mitchelton-Scott to swap him into their Tour de France line-up.
After twin brother Adam finished ninth at the Giro, missing out on the white jersey on the final stage as he ultimately paid the price for his crash on Blockhaus, which also ended Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa’s GC hopes, Simon claimed seventh at the Tour and the best young rider prize.
He is too old for the white jersey now, so the next step up for the 25-year-old British rider will be a Grand Tour podium place – and he has shown superb form so far this year in his bid to do that.
A stage win and second place overall – pipped to the overall win on the final stage by just four seconds – and then a stage win and fourth at the Volta a Catalunya were both reminders of his undoubted talents in the mountains.
Team-mate Johan Esteban Chaves already has a Grand Tour podium to his name, however, finishing second at the 2016 Giro d’Italia. He won the Herald Sun Tour at the start of this year, but did not finish Paris-Nice or the Volta a Catalunya as he played second fiddle to Yates.
Nevertheless, he is both a contender and a fiercely-strong team-mate for Yates, who can also count on the backing of Alberto Contador’s former henchman Roman Kreuziger and Chris Froome’s old super-domestique Mikel Nieve. This is a seriously strong Mitchelton-Scott team, headed up by a very talented British rider.
Alongside Froome and Yates, there will be two other British riders to keep an eye on at the Giro d’Italia as they bid for stage success.
Hugh Carthy (Team EF-Drapac) was third in the mountains classification at last month’s Tour de Romandie as he shaped up for the Giro d’Italia and will race the Italian Grand Tour for the second consecutive year. At 23, he is even a potential contender for the maglia bianca.
Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin), meanwhile, will finally return to the Giro d’Italia after bad luck with injuries and being overlooked for selection means he has been yet to race at the Corsa Rosa since taking a stage win on his debut in 2013.
Dowsett is yet to record his first win in Katusha-Alpecin colours, but with no GC contenders in the team for the Giro, he will likely have the freedom to target stage wins – not least the stages one and 16 time trials where he and team-mate Tony Martin will be among the men to watch.