With just 10 days to go until the start of the Giro d’Italia, Cyclingnews begins its annual countdown to the first Grand Tour of the season. From here to the eve of the race on May 3 we’ll have a string of special features, interviews, and previews to build up to the big occasion.
We start with those who have designs on wearing the iconic maglia rosa and lifting the famous trofeo senza fine in Rome in a month’s time. 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin is back for more, and he’s joined on the start line by four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome in the first instalment of a hotly anticipated rivalry between the riders who shared last year’s Grand Tours.
Yet this is not just a case of Froome vs Dumoulin; Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot add proven Grand Tour pedigree to the start list, while there’s also a string of up-and-coming riders who may well come of age this May.
Here are Cyclingnews’ top 10 contenders for the Giro d’Italia.
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
2018 race days: 17
Best result: 4th overall, Tour of the Alps
Chris Froome has reportedly been paid 1.4 million Euros to ride the Giro d'Italia, yet their star attraction brings with him a cloud of controversy as he prepares to take to the start line in Jerusalem 'subjudice' - that is, competing while his salbutamol case remains unresolved.
Many riders, managers, and even the UCI president have urged Froome not to ride the Giro d'Italia, fearful of the fall-out if he were to win it and later receive a ban. However the Team Sky rider is sticking to his guns - and he is entirely within his rights to do so - even if his presence threatens to undermine the race as a whole and ensures intense scrutiny from Jerusalem to Rome, and indeed beyond.
Victory for Froome would make him the first rider since Alberto Contador to win three Grand Tours in a row, but then again he could become the first rider since Alberto Contador to be stripped of a Grand Tour title. Indeed, while there's plenty on the line - Froome could confirm his status among the greats by becoming the seventh rider to win all three Grand Tours and the third to hold the three titles at the same time - the pursuit of history comes with an acerbic sub-plot.
As for Froome's form and prospects on the bike, it's hard to draw too many conclusions. He was 10th at the Ruta del Sol, 34th at Tirreno-Adriatico, and 4th at the Tour of the Alps.
Last week he was far from convincing; he was dropped for a while on the final stage while his teammate Kenny Ellissonde followed the accelerations, and the attacks he made himself earlier in the week were largely ineffectual - cursory, almost - and effortlessly snubbed out by his rivals.
We haven't seen Froome anywhere near the height of his powers so far this season, but is that really cause for concern? There was a time where Froome would steamroller everything before him but last year he was completely anonymous from January to June yet still dominated the Tour de France. Factor in the fact that Froome will also target the Tour de France in the summer - and is measuring his workload accordingly - and it's difficult to make a true case for Froome's chances until the second week of the Giro.
Naturally, he'll have one of the strongest teams in the race, with Wout Poels, Kenny Ellisonde, and Diego Rosa all likely to be attendance. However, it's unlikely to match the backing he's had at the Tour in recent years, and it remains to be seen how much control Team Sky can exert on proceedings. They have, after all, always found the Giro to be a rather more unruly beast than the Tour de France.
So, Froome the preeminent Grand Tour rider of this generation, starts as favourite, but all of the above conspire to ensure a complicated month ahead for the 32-year-old.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb)
2018 race days: 12
Best result: 15th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Twelve months on, Tom Dumoulin returns to the scene of his breakthrough. After the 2015 Vuelta, few doubted the Dutchman's potential as a Grand Tour rider, but few realistically expected him to land his first title on his first true tilt at the general classification. So impressive was he at last year's Giro - where he beat multiple Grand Tour champions in Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali - he was billed as the prime candidate to break Froome's stranglehold on the Tour de France.
Over the winter everyone was talking about a possible showdown between the pair in July, but it's now being served up a little earlier than anticipated, though it could yet be a double billing as both riders attempt the Giro-Tour double.
Dumoulin is the only serious Grand Tour contender who can go faster than Froome in a time trial and for that reason, a fascinating contest is in store. At the Tour at least, Froome hasn't gained serious time in the mountains since 2015, so will the presence of Dumoulin force him back onto the front foot?
For Dumoulin himself the biggest challenge might be avoiding that difficult second album syndrome. He has had a miserable start to the year, blighted by crashes, mechanicals, and illness - and that's without mentioning the difficulty he's had adapting to his new-found status.
"A good result gives you wings for a moment, but then also the expectations, of myself, of everyone, I am announced everywhere as Giro winner and I think I have to live up to that," he said in April. "My spring was bad, partly due to bad luck, partly because I wanted too much. I was not relaxed and did not ride with pleasure, I only had an eye for the result."
After overtraining in the winter, Dumoulin has had the lightest load of any serious Giro contender so far this season, with just 12 days of racing under his belt. It's exactly the same schedule, however, that clearly served him so well last year, and even if the results haven't caught the eye, Dumoulin insists he's on track. "The feeling is a bit like last year," he said after finishing 15th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, "and last year I was not particularly bad at the Giro..."
If the words above are to be believed, he will be a force to be reckoned with. The drawback for Dumoulin is that this year's route is not so heavy on time trialling as last year - 45km as opposed to 70km - but on the flipside last year put so much vital experience in the bank, from handling race leadership and the onslaught (both physical and psychological) from rivals, to dealing with the jours sans and those unpredictable situations like that infamous emergency toilet stop.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)
2018 race days: 14
Best result: 1st overall, Tour of the Alps
What is it about Thibaut Pinot and Italy? The Frenchman emerged as France's next great hope in the early years of his career, but after some struggles on the roads of the Tour de France, Pinot has seemingly found liberation - and some of his best results - over the border. Fourth overall at last year's Giro, he enjoyed the experience so much he persuaded his team to let him do it again - no mean feat when part of the backing comes from the French state.
Pinot has raced sparingly in 2018, with the two Grand Tours in mind, but he underlined his Giro credentials with a confident victory at the Tour of the Alps - the biggest stage race success of his career.
Even if there are still a few doubts over Pinot's descending, he will thrive when the road goes uphill - as it will do a lot in the final week. Yet the key might in the time trials. Pinot suddenly emerged as a time triallist of genuine quality in 2016, but those powers waned last year, and ultimately cost him a spot on the podium at the Giro.
If he can rediscover that prowess then not only is he a solid shout to go one better than last year and make the podium, but he'd surely in with a real shout for the maglia rosa.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)
2018 race days: 25
Best result: 3rd overall, Tour of the Alps
Crashes and injuries have hampered the early years of Miguel Angel Lopez's career and perhaps prevented him from fulfilling his potential, but there's a sense that the Colombian could come of age on the roads of the Giro next month.
After being wiped out of his debut Grand Tour - the 2016 Vuelta - after five stages, he returned to the roads of Spain last year for his first full crack at a Grand Tour and served everyone a reminder of the excitement that had followed him since his Tour de l'Avenir victory of 2014. Working for Astana leader Fabio Aru, Lopez lost ground in the first half of the race but came roaring back relentlessly in the second, with two stage wins and two further podium stage finishes. By the end of the race he was up in 8th overall, five places and 12 minutes ahead of Aru.
Lopez has built on those foundations with an encouraging start to 2018. Victory on Green Mountain gave him second overall at the Tour of Oman, and he then finished third overall in Abu Dhabi. After finishing 16th at Tirreno-Adriatico he resurfaced last week at the Tour of the Alps, where he finished on the final podium with a stage win and an impressive ride. While his approach on stage 3 - he needlessly worked on the climbs and the flat and lost 14 of the 15 seconds that separated him from the top step of the podium - was somewhat confusing, there was little doubt about his legs and his willingness to take the race on.
Weighing in at 59kg, Lopez will no doubt lose ground in the time trials - the damage could be as much as two minutes to Froome and Dumoulin on stage 16 - but will go about making that up in his natural terrain of the mountains. Written on his custom bike are the words 'Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman Lopez'. If he can channel that spirit, casting off the shackles of Grand Tour leadership debut to race with the sense of freedom on display at the Vuelta, the Giro be a defining chapter in his career. It's also worth noting that the Alps proved that Astana - with Luis Leon Sanchez, Jan Hirt, and Pello Bilbao - will have one of the strongest teams in the race.
Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates)
2018 race days: 23
Best result: 6th overall, Tour of the Alps
After a wayward couple of years, can a return to the Giro d'Italia bring about a resurgence in Fabio Aru? Having announced himself as the next great Italian Grand Tour racer with a podium at the Giro and victory at the Vuelta in 2015, Aru went off the boil in the following couple of seasons as his attention turned to the Tour de France.
Aru has since moved from Astana to UAE-Team Emirates but the way things have started doesn't provide much cause for optimism ahead of the Giro. After finishing a relatively anonymous 13th and 12th at the Abu Dhabi Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, respectively, he abandoned the Volta a Catalunya with a leg injury and then finished 6th overall at the Tour of the Alps. That may not sound like a bad result on paper, but Aru, despite repeatedly going on the offensive, lost ground to his fellow Giro hopefuls on three of the five stages - most notably on the Pampeago summit finish and over the final climb on the final day.
What Aru lacks in pre-race form, he makes up for in Grand Tour pedigree. He has won the Vuelta, finished on the podium of the Giro, and worn the yellow jersey at the Tour. And then there's his familiarity with 'home' roads and the challenges of competing at the sharp end of the Giro, not to mention the fact that the penultimate stage finishes in Cervinia, scene of one of his stage wins in 2015.
One of a string of pure climbers, he'll lost ground in the time trial but will look to attack in the final week. As evidenced at the Tour of the Alps, if Aru lacks the legs he never lacks the heart, so one way or another we'll see him swinging in that final week.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida)
2018 race days: 24
Best result: 2nd overall, Tour of the Alps
Domenico Pozzovivo is something of a Giro d'Italia stalwart, with 11 participations under his belt, and five top-10 finishes from them. He's only done one Tour de France but seems more comfortable on the roads of his 'home' Grand Tour.
After finishing sixth overall last year, Pozzovivo would be a good bet to repeat that this year but after the Tour of the Alps there's growing anticipation that, even at the age of 35, he could record his best-ever Giro result.
Has he ever been in better form going into the race? Actually, yes. Pozzovivo has always gone well at the Tour of the Alps (formerly Trentino), winning it in 2012, and has also been known to do well at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But still, Pozzovivo looked remarkably good in the Alps last week and confirmed his credentials with a fine fifth place in Liège. In the Alps he followed every attack with apparent ease, even when others like Froome started to struggle. When asked how much of a threat Lopez was after the final stage, Pinot said he felt Pozzovivo was even stronger.
Another featherweight climber who should ensure a thrilling battle in the final week, Pozzovivo, even if his team is far from the strongest, will be hard to get rid of in the mountains.
Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott)
2018 race days: 21
Best result: 1st overall, Herald Sun Tour
Another rider with plenty to prove, Esteban Chaves returns to the Giro d'Italia hoping to recapture the sort of form that took him to the podium two years ago - and then to that of the Vuelta a few months later. Last season's Tour de France debut was derailed by a knee injury and the death of a close friend, and he missed out on the top 10 at the Vuelta later that year.
The big problem for Chaves at that Vuelta was his time trialling, with four minutes conceded to Froome over 40 kilometres. Over the winter he spent plenty of time in the wind tunnel with his team, and his 10th place finish in the Paris-Nice time trial was an indication that the hard work was paying off.
Generally, though, it's hard to read too much into Chaves' form. He won the Herald Sun Tour but things haven't gone as smoothly since his return to Europe. That time trial performance moved him into the top 10 at Paris-Nice but he finished outside the time cut on the final day after working for Simon Yates. He then went to the Volta a Catalunya and abandoned on the final day, though he'd already insisted he wasn't there for a result.
A long stint at altitude training in his native Colombia has followed, and all we have to go on is Matt White's vague assertions that he is "ready". If the Paris-Nice time trial wasn't just a flash in the pan, and if he can rediscover the form and the vim of 2016, there are few limits for the 28-year-old.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
2018 race days: 25
Best result: 2nd overall, Paris-Nice
Who's the leader for the Australian team? Chaves may have the superior Grand Tour pedigree but Simon Yates has enjoyed a great start to the 2018 season, hitting the ground running after finishing seventh on his Tour de France debut last year, and then heading to the Vuelta for the first double Grand Tour load of his career.
While Chaves has a couple of DNF's to his name, Yates won a stage and finished second overall at Paris-Nice - where he had Chaves working for him - and then won a stage and finished fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya. He has since been training at altitude in Andorra, and there's little reason to doubt he'll be in good shape.
Questions have previously hung over his time trialling ability but, like Chaves, the Paris-Nice time trial - they were tied for time - hinted at a marked improvement against the clock. Along with his twin brother Adam, Simon Yates has been touted as a future Grand Tour star for several years, and - aside from that 'non-intentional' doping ban - barely a pedal stroke has been out of place in his and his brother's steady development. Another step up at the Giro would come as no surprise.
As for the leadership question, few teams seem capable of dovetailing their riders ambitions like Mitchelton-Scott, who have as yet avoided any significant hiccups in sharing responsibilities between Chaves and the Yates twins. The 2016 Vuelta is a case in point; Chaves finished third and Simon Yates sixth, with the team showing themselves to be innovative and ambitious in equal measure.
George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo)
2018 race days: 28
Best result: 6th overall, Volta a Catalunya
The 2018 Giro is full of riders on the rise who could be on the verge of a significant step forward, and George Bennett is very much one of them. The Kiwi rider gave a first real indication of his calibre in 2016 when he finished 10th at the Vuelta a España, despite going into the race working for Steven Kruijswijk. After winning the Tour of California last year, he went into the Tour de France with no ambitions beyond a stage win yet rode into the top 10, though his race was derailed by illness in the final week.
Bennett has further established himself this season with a string of solid performances at WorldTour level, with 11th at Tour Down Under, 9th at Tirreno-Adriatico, and 6th at the Volta a Catalunya ahead of his 5th place at the Tour of the Alps. A picture of consistency, you might think, but like the duck paddling furiously underwater, it has all been achieved despite numerous complications - from off-season surgery to early-season illness, and even a recent life-threatening collision with a car. The way Bennett bounced back from that horrific incident to begin the Tour of the Alps the next day, and then to go onto finish 5th while igniting the race, was remarkable, and underlined his reputation as a tough, plucky fighter.
At the Giro d'Italia Bennett is openly targeting the general classification of a Grand Tour for the first time, with Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic both going for the Tour this year. It's a chance to prove himself but it's also a new focus that will require a new approach. Bennett revelled in the all-out attacking racing in the Alps last week, and indeed his preemptive attack just ahead of the Peyragudes finish at last year's Tour smacked of youthful exuberance, and it remains to be seen to what extent he'll curb those efforts in line with the more prosaic demands of resource management over a full three weeks.
Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac)
2018 race days: 21
Best result: 2nd, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
How far can Michael Woods go? The Canadian's journey from middle-distance runner to one of the world's best professional cyclists continues apace and, after finishing runner-up at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, the Giro d'Italia represents a big opportunity to prove his mettle as a three-week stage racer.
That Liège podium completely changed the pre-Giro tone for Woods after what had in fact been a lackluster start to the season. The turnaround in form couldn't have come at a better time and as a result he heads into his first Grand Tour as a GC rider brimming with confidence.
Woods only made his Grand Tour debut this time last year as one of Cannondale's army of stage hunters, and his three-week potential was revealed later that year as he rode to 7th overall at the Vuelta a España. There was little expectation back in August but now Woods must adapt to a leadership role, and the daily pressures and responsibilities that brings. The Giro is also a very different beast to the Vuelta, with the punishing high mountain stages that pepper the final week a different proposition to the punchier, more staccato rhythm of the Vuelta.
This Giro, then, represents yet more new ground in the late exploration of Michael Woods' potential, but then again new ground hasn't been much of a problem so far fin his career.
The best of the rest
Rohan Dennis leads the line for BMC Racing in his first major experiment as a three-week general classification rider. The Australian wanted to test himself here last year, only to abandon after a crash, but he returns determined to follow in the footsteps of Dumoulin as a time triallist turned Grand Tour contender. Against the clock Dennis is one of the best in the world - as he again proved at Tirreno-Adriatico - and he will surely gain significant time over almost everyone else on stage 16, though Dennis still has much to prove as a climber before he can seriously be talked about as a contender.
Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) is always a solid bet for a top-10 finish, the 26-year-old's consistent if uninspiring style of racing having already yielded two 8th place finishes at the Tour. He's had a poor start to life back at Dimension Data and said he was having a mixture of good and bad days in training. At the Tour of the Alps it was more of the latter, which doesn't bode well.
Davide Formolo rides his first Grand Tour for Bora-Hansgrohe. The Italian burst onto the scene at the 2015 Giro with a memorable stage win and has matured sufficiently in recent years to go about targeting the overall classification, as he did by breaking into the top 10 at the Giro last year.
Finally, with each of Movistar's 'Big Three' focusing on the Tour de France, the door is open for Andrey Amador - wearer of the pink jersey two years ago - or even Carlos Betancur to lead the line for the Spanish team.