Team Sky have always struggled at Giro d'Italia, their scientific logic and marginal gains meaning little on the torturous and unpredictable roads of the Corsa Rosa. But this year, with Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa as equal leaders, the British super team is hoping to end their annual embarrassment and finally add the Italian Grand Tour to its long list of important victories.
Dave Brailsford and his performance staff believe that the talented Welshman can prove his Grand Tour ability or that the unpredictable Basque climber can finally live up to expectations and race consistently all the way to Milan. It will be fascinating to see how they both handle the 3612km race and see how they finish in Milan on May 28.
Team Sky has won the Tour de France four times in the last five years with its tried and tested strategy but has stumbled year after year in Italy.
Bradley Wiggins gave Team Sky a great start in its inaugural season in 2010, winning the opening time trial of the Giro d'Italia in Amsterdam. The Giro d'Italia has been a series of trials and tribulations ever since. Wiggins crashed the day after pulling on the pink jersey and only finished 22nd overall.
Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France and started the 2013 Giro d'Italia as the star of the race but he was sulking and downbeat after being told he would not lead Team Sky at the Tour de France. He finished second in the individual time trial but struggled on the slippery roads of the Apennines and quit before stage 13 due to a chest infection. In Wiggins' absence, Rigoberto Uran stepped up to finish third overall, then left the team at the end of the season.
Team Sky thought Richie Porte could do better in 2015 but he was infamously docked two minutes for an illegal wheel change, crashed hard and quit due to his injuries in the Dolomites. Landa was signed from Astana after finishing third overall in the 2015 Giro d'Italia but in 2016 he struggled during with illness during his first winter at Team Sky, and was hit by a stomach bug in the Giro, forcing him to quit on stage 10.
Thomas and Landa will roll out of Alghero on Friday as joint team leaders of Team Sky's roster, hoping that Team Sky have paid their dues to the gods of Italian cycling. The Team Sky management has opted to leave Italian sprinter Elia Viviani at home and bring seven riders dedicated to helping them on the climbs. It is an all or nothing strategy for Team Sky, aimed at winning or at least finishing on the final podium of the Giro d'Italia in Milan.
Both Thomas and Landa were impressive at the recent Tour of the Alps but they are far from being proven and complete Grand Tour riders.
Thomas has ridden 10 Grand Tours, including the Giro d'Italia in 2008 and 2012. However this year will be his first as a team leader after years as a key support rider for Wiggins and then Chris Froome. He has won Paris-Nice and impressed on other stage races but has yet to prove himself over three weeks. The Giro d'Italia could make his graduation in the school of cycling and elevate him to a new level. Defeat and difficulty in the next three weeks could make him decide to accept a bit part in the sport's biggest race.
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Landa is very different and in a very different position as a rider and as a Grand Tour contender. He is in the final season of his two-year deal with Team Sky and is riding for his future. He seems to be back to his best after a difficult 2016 and a frustrating final season at Astana in 2015 when he had to play second fiddle to Fabio Aru despite often being the stronger rider.
Landa is an attacker, a naturally aggressive pure climber. Thomas is what the Italians call a 'passista', who uses his strength and power to fight gravity and survive on the climbs. He will ride the climbs at a controlled pace, hoping that any time he gains in the time trials is enough to cancel out any time he loses on the climbs and especially the mountain finishes.
The contrast between Thomas and Landa is diametrical and so it will be fascinating to see who is the strongest and best placed overall. It could lead to some difficult tactical moments that will define Team Sky's strategy. If Quintana attacks on a climb to the finish, Thomas will probably ride to limit his losses. But what will Landa be allowed to chase and even work with an attack, even if it distances Thomas and ruins his overall chances?
At the Tour of the Alps, Landa attacked with Domenico Pozzovivo and looked set to win the stage to Funes only for Thomas to make a late solo charge across the gap and then win the stage, ahead of Landa. Will he be able to do the same thing at the Giro d'Italia without sparking the ire of Landa?
Those kinds of questions will be for lead directeur sportif Dario Cioni and Team Sky's performance staff. This year's Giro d'Italia will also be a severe test of their ability. Whatever happens, Thomas and Landa will be one of the best internal rivals to watch this month, alongside that of Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis at BMC.
Thomas: a simple outsider or potentially much more?
Despite dominating the Tour of the Alps, Thomas modestly describes himself as an outsider, hoping to quietly get on with his race, while the likes of Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali carry the weight of expectations and the responsibility of controlling the peloton on their shoulders
Thomas endured a difficult 2016 season, cracking at the Tour de Suisse after a strong initial showing. He put it down to problems getting his weight under tight control for stage races. At the Tour of the Alps, he revealed he has remained constantly close to be 68kg and is probably even lighter now.
Thomas effuses natural calmness whenever he races, naturally playing down any problem with his often deadpan humour. He is a debutant as Grand Tour team leader but unlike the Team Sky leaders that have gone before him, he has experience of the Giro d'Italia and racing in Italy thanks to his years at the Great Britain Academy in Tuscany and then his three seasons at Barloworld.
"It's the 100th Giro. You go into saying: it's just another race. But it's not," Thomas admitted recently.
"I don't see myself as one of the favourites. Nibali has won…. what? Numerous Grand Tours; he's won all three. Quintana is Quintana and won what he's won. Pinot has been on the podium at the Tour. Even Dumoulin and Kruijswijk have performed really well. I haven't even been in the top 10, so it's new territory for me but it's something I'm really looking forward to.
"There's a lot of other guys who have finished on the podium in Grand Tours, so for sure they're still the favourites and I'm…. I don't know what I am."
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Landa is back to his best
Landa was quiet and lacked self-confidence in 2016 as he struggled to integrate at Team Sky and fought illness. This season he is very different as his smiles and relaxed demeanour clearly show. He looked very strong at the Tour of the Alps, pushing the big ring on steady climbs and then almost catching Thomas in sight of the finish line after the Welshman had jumped across and then away in the final kilometre.
"It was about time to finally show some form…" Landa joked at the Tour of the Alps.
"It's true [I haven't won yet] but the feelings I'm going into the Giro are very good. Obviously I'd have liked to have achieved something beforehand, but that wasn't to be. I finished the Tour of the Alps very satisfied. I'm ready for the Giro d'Italia," he recently told Marca.
"I know I've done some good work over the winter and that it has to bear fruit sooner or later. Even the previous winners of the Giro hadn't won anything in the preceding months, so I'm calm about it."
Landa was not afraid to clash with Aru and the Astana management in 2015 and his relaxed but defiant character remains as he lines up alongside Thomas. He is not concerned that the Welshman may have some favoured status after spending much of his career at Team Sky and the British system.
"We're both leaders and the road will decide who goes the best and emerges as team leader," he predicted. "Having a co-leader is great because we can play our tactics. G is a very good climber but is maybe a rider who moves better in mid-mountain stages and in time trials, whereas maybe I'm better at uphill finishes, so if we stay together and make a good plan then hopefully we can work well together."
Cioni is in charge of any internal rivalry
Dario Cioni is part of Dave Brailsford's inner circle and is a key part of the Team Sky management. He has again been entrusted with the task of managing the Thomas-Landa co-leadership strategy, of trying to win the Giro d'Italia and stopping any damaging internal rivalry.
Cioni finished fourth in the 2004 Giro d'Italia while riding for Fassa Bortolo and has years of stage race knowledge. He is Anglo-Italian and has lived in Tuscany for most of his life but has a strong streak of logical thinking and pragmatism, making him ideal for Team Sky.
There is no sign of favouritism when Cioni speaks about Thomas and Landa to Cyclingnews.
"Our two leaders are on form and the team that is built around them is on form too," Cioni says with natural pre-race optimism after both riders performed well at the Tour of the Alps.
"They will both be able to take advantage of their individual strengths, then depending on what happens out on the road, we'll see if they can both do well overall or if one is stronger than the other and we need to make a decision. We think it's better to start with two strong leaders like Geraint and Mikel than just one. They'll both have their chances and any decision on leadership will only be taken late in the race."
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