Chris Froome rolls out as favourite for the 2018 Giro d’Italia, as he bids to win a third consecutive Grand Tour – and the Team Sky rider will do so on a course which could be well suited to him.
Arduous climbs and a long, flat individual time trial are key to the 2018 Giro d'Italia route and both play into Froome's hands as he gears up for an assault on the Corsa Rosa. If Froome proves successful, he will join Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as only the third rider to have won three consecutive Grand Tours.
First Froome must conquer Sicily's Mount Etna, the feared Monte Zoncolan and the gravel road atop the Colle delle Finestre, in a race that rolls out of Jerusalem on Friday May 4, and concludes in Rome on Sunday May 27.
So where will the race be won or lost? We’ve picked out seven key stages in the battle to win the pink jersey at the 101st Giro d’Italia.
Stage six – Caltanissetta to Mount Etna
As the race did in 2017, the 2018 Giro d’Italia will come to life with Mount Etna hosting the first summit finish, this time on stage six.
The Giro will kick off with a time trial in Jerusalem, after which there will be two flat Israeli stages for the sprinters and two Sicilian stages for the rouleurs.
Then, just under a week in, it’s the turn of the climbers, with a lumpy stage concluding with the 30km ascent of Etna – the most notable change compared to last year is that the finish line will be at the Astrophysical Observatory.
Last year sorted the men from the boys, though the key GC contenders were still relatively close together overall – it remains to be seen if any rider will look to steal an early advantage this time out.
Stage nine – Pesco Sannita to Gran Sasso d’Italia
After a transition stage on stage seven, the mountains return on the second weekend – and it is the Sunday which promises to shake up the general classification with a huge 45km climb to conclude the 224km stage.
Expect a war of attrition en-route to Campo Imperatore, where the stage finishes at 2,135m above sea level.
A climb of two halves, the gradient kicks up to Calascio at 1,190m, with some double-digit pitches to negotiate, before ramping up again after a short false flat.
The biggest sting is saved until the end, with the average gradient for the final four kilometres sitting at 8.2 per cent, and an energy-sapping maximum 13 per cent slope just shy of the flamme rouge.
Stage 14 – San Vito al Tagliamento to Monte Zoncolan
Cycling fans will have stage 14 marked on their calendars – on Saturday May 19 – as it heralds the return of Monte Zoncolan to the Giro d’Italia.
First appearing in the 2003 edition, this will be just the fifth time the mythical climb has returned and it will do so on the west side from Ovaro – one of the toughest climbs in pro cycling.
The bare statistics tell their own story – 10.1km at an average gradient of 11.9 per cent and eye-watering pitches of up to 22 per cent along the way.
There is a thigh-numbing section from around 8km to go, through to the 2km-to-go mark, where the average is nearer 15 per cent – and that’s before you factor in the passionate tifosi.
Resurgent Michael Rogers soloed to victory on the climb when it last featured in 2014, but Francesco Bongiorno will forever wonder what might have been when an over-enthusiastic roadside spectator forced him to unclip as he chased victory alongside the veteran Aussie.
Stage 15 – Tomezzo to Sappada
If the Zoncolan hasn't totally sapped the reserves of the peloton, then stage 15 will go a long way to doing so – four Dolomites giants feature, over the course of 176km of racing.
The Passo della Mauria, Passo Tre Croci, Passo di Sant’Antonio and Costalissoio must all be tackled on a stage offering little let-up before the final ascent to Sappada.
The latter two both peak within 30km of the finish line, too, so expect plenty of attacking on the climbs and descents as the key GC contenders look to steal some time before the second and final rest day.
Stage 16 – Trento to Rovereto (ITT)
The final rest day will offer up the chance to recharge after the brutal ascents of the previous two days, but for the GC men it will be hammers down again on stage 16.
The 34.5km individual time trial – the second race against the clock after the first stage in Jerusalem – is a stage for true powerhouses with hardly any ascending to worry about.
A few (tiny) little lumps ensure it can’t be called entirely pan-flat, but the course will favour the likes of Froome and defending champion Tom Dumoulin over the more diminutive climbers. With a time trial like this, it's easy to see why Froome has chosen the 2018 Giro as his opportunity to win the maglia rosa.
Stage 19 – Venatia Reale to Bardonecchia
Stage 19 kicks off the final weekend in style, with the Cima Coppi (the highest climb of the race) at the heart of the stage.
This year, the honour falls to the Colle delle Finestre, and it’s not just the height (2,178m) to concern the peloton but, of course, its gruelling gradients and 8km of gravel to the summit.
The Finestre is 18.6km long, with an average gradient of 9.1 per cent and a maximum pitch of 14 per cent, and there's added difficulty in the rough surface on the top slopes.
And, when it’s been climbed, the peloton will still have 71km to race, including an ascent of Sestriere and the final steep Jafferau climb – the latter barely dropping below ten per cent gradient all the way up.
Stage 20 – Susa to Cervinia
Having experimented with a final stage time trial in 2017, which saw Tom Dumoulin claim victory on the final day, the Giro d’Italia has reverted to a processional finale in 2018 – this time in Rome.
That means stage 20 serves up the final chance for gains – and realistically to snatch the maglia rosa – and it will be well worth the wait.
Whoever starts the stage in the maglia rosa will have their resolve tested on a back-loaded 214km stage, which features three massive climbs packed into the final 85km.
The Col du Mont-Tseuc kicks off proceedings, with a particularly relentless final third to the 16km climb, before the Col Saint-Pantaleon must be negotiated.
Again, the steepest sections are towards the top, before a rapid descent and then the final climb to Cervinia, which peaks at 2,001m.
Whoever finishes the day on the pink jersey podium will be a worthy winner – but will it be Froome?