2015 Giro d'Italia preview

9 days to the start in San Remo

Overview

• 3,481km across 21 stages, from May 9-31
• Six mountain finishes, six stages for the sprinters
• 59.2km individual time trial
• Race starts with a team time trial in San Remo

When the 98th edition of the Giro d’Italia was presented in Milan’s Palazzo del Ghiaccio last October, it was widely considered as a balanced and fair route – a parcours that would allow the pure climbers to prove their mettle, while providing the robust time triallists with enough kilometres to establish their own credentials. Throw in a sprinkling of stages for the sprinters and a dash of love for the puncheurs, and just about every clan within the peloton had something to aim at.

With the race just a matter of days away those sentiments remain true and the 2015 Giro d’Italia – on paper, desktop and tablet – looks a mouth-watering proposition.

In the ‘fight for pink’ a volley of GC contenders will vie for the maglia rosa with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo) returning to the race for the first time since 2011 as he seeks the first part of his Giro-Tour de France double. He will face stiff opposition in Rigoberto Uran (Etixx QuickStep), Richie Porte (Team Sky) and home favourite Fabio Aru (Astana), while several other contenders, old and new, could make significant impacts on the race.

Outside of the GC battle the rest of the peloton has typically eclectic feel to it with Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Tom Boonen (Etixx Quickstep) set to ride, the latter for the first time in his long career.

André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) is the pick of the sprinters while Michael Matthews (Orica GreenEdge) leads the brigade of talent that can sprint, climb and most importantly, win.

In the high mountains, Carlos Betancur, Domenico Pozzovivo (both AG2R La Mondiale), Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) and any number of Gianni Savio’s Androni-Giocattoli foot soldiers will look to shine.

The key stages

Stage 1 San Lorenzo al Mare to San Remo 17.6km

The opening stage is a team time trial set to finish in San Remo. Those hoping to see teams of nine split to pieces on the Cipressa and Poggio will be disappointed but the pan-flat course should still provide enough excitement as the Giro starts with a bang. Orica-GreenEdge will be smarting from their recent defeat to Team Sky at Romandie and as defending champions in the discipline they’ll be looking to start the race by utilising one of their undoubted strengths. The time gaps between the overall contenders will be seconds rather than minutes but a single mistake can derail months of planning, as we saw with Dan Martin’s crash in Belfast last year. Contador, Uran, Aru and the others will be hoping to get through the stage unscathed.

Stage 5 La Spezia to Abetone 152km

Stage 3 and 4 see the race organisers providing back-to-back days that could have consequences on the overall battle but stage 5 to Abetone will see the race tackle its first uphill finish. By now the race should have settled with a provisional pecking order established. The final 17 kilometre ascent will see gaps appear and any weakness will be exploited on the ramps that reach 10 per cent. Francesco Casagrande won a stage here in 2000 – although the stage that year was more demanding in the run up to the final climb – and it provided a blueprint for GC contenders until the final weekend before the Vini Caldirola-Sidermec leader cracked. Interestingly, Davide Rebellin was 12th on that 2000 stage, though it seems that the CCC-Sprandi Polkowice man will not be on the start line fifteen years on.

Stage 8 Fiuggi to Campitello Matese 188km

The second summit finish should see the climbers to the fore and could establish a race leader who will carry the maglia rosa through week two. That factor could be key to how the stage plays out as few genuine GC contenders will want to control affairs all the way until the stage 14 time trial. Therefore it’s not impossible to envisage a break being allowed to contest the stage while the likes of Contador, Uran and Porte battle it out for longer-term supremacy. In 2002 Gilberto Simoni (Saeco-Longoni Sport) won on the final climb and the 12 per cent inclines will certainly provide the landscape for fireworks in the Apennines.

Stage 14 Treviso to Valdobbiadene 59.2km

After his exploits in the Barolo time trial last year, Uran will be looking forward to this stage as soon as the race starts. It’s a brutally long time trial and although it starts out relatively flat, the second half is a demanding slog with barely a metre of road that isn’t over rolling terrain. Last year Aru lost significant time on the way to Barolo and although he’s been in the wind tunnel over the winter it’s hard to see him not losing around two minutes to at least some of his competition – anything less would probably be a success. Porte and Contador look evenly matched but the surprise package could come in the form of Porte’s teammate Leopold König – the Czech demonstrated during last year’s Tour that he can compete with the best over long time trials.

Stage 15 Marostica - Madonna di Campiglio 165km

After the previous day’s travails this mountain test will allow the climbers to regain their footing. The stage suits a climber who hasn’t had to dig into his reserves during the previous day, so a rider far down on GC could take advantage with an early attack either on the Passo Daone or on the lower slopes of the Madonna di Campiglio. Arredondo or Betancur are decent shouts for a stage win as the main contenders for the maglia rosa take chunks out of each other on the climb to the finish.

Stage 16 Pinzolo – Aprica 175km

Immediately after the rest day, the race returns to the Dolomites with arguably the most demanding stage of the race so far. Five mountains, a summit finish, the Mortirolo and, for good measure, two ascents into Aprica, where Marco Pantani famously won in 1994 when up against Miguel Indurain and Evgeni Berzin. The 18 percent gradient of the Mortirolo will reduce the peloton to less than a small pack of riders and even though riders can make contact on the descent, the final climb will ensure that riders trickle over the line in ones and twos. This is a day where the race could be won, not just lost.

Stage 19 Gravellona Toce – Cervinia 236km

Cervina has been crucial in a number of Giro battles in the past. In 2012 Ryder Hesjedal used the climb to move into pink on stage 14, while in 1997 Pavel Tonkov cracked and lost the race lead to Ivan Gotti. This video doesn’t show that memorable stage in its complete glory but it offers a fantastically grainy account from one of the corners on the climb. There’s no sound so we can only guess as to what the tifosi are arguing about before the rocket-fuelled contenders including Gotti, Tonkov, Stefano Garzelli and Chepe Gonzalez whizz by. But back to present day and at 236km this stage could see another seismic shift in the overall race. The Saint Barthelemy and Col Saint Pantaleon will sap the strength of an already weary bunch before the final ascent.

Stage 20 Saint-Vincent to Sestriere 196km

The penultimate stage of the race and the final chance for the overall contenders to either go on attack or defend what they already hold. The race could still be wide open by this point, with everything still to play for, in which case expect a cagey and tense affair right up until the final climb when leading protagonists fight tooth and nail. Experience will certainly count with few riders holding more than one or two matches after nearly three weeks of racing as the peloton climb the Colle delle Finestre and then up to Sestreire and the Giro podium will be decided.

The main contenders

Much has been made of Contador’s preparation for this year’s race. In December he told Cyclingnews that the ambition of a Giro and Tour double was “only impossible until someone makes it possible,” and that remains the case. At 32, this is arguably the last roll of the dice for the rider who has dominated stage racing for almost a decade.

However his last attempt at the Giro-Tour double ended in failure when in 2011 he trounced the opposition at the Giro before hobbling to fifth at the Tour with a knee injury. His Giro ride that year was arguably his most dominant stage racing display as he toyed with the opposition like a kitten would a ball of string, while he almost blew the Tour apart with a ride to Alpe d’Huez that had cycling fans watching from the edge of their seats.

In the end it all counted for nought when CAS saw him banned for a 2010 doping violation. This time, at least, Contador will arrive at the Giro with a more astute and calmer outlook on the challenge at hand. On paper he’s head and shoulders above his opposition – none of whom (Porte, Aru, Uran) have won a Grand Tour – and the departure of Bjarne Riis came at a time when the Spaniard was focused on training, so he’s avoided the media spotlight, unlike his unlucky teammate Peter Sagan. Broadly speaking, any Grand Tour course suits Contador too, although it would be disrespectful to Aru and Uran to suggest that Contador’s main challenge will be asset and strength management with the Tour also in mind.

As for Uran, he may be happy to see the back of Quintana in this year’s race but the Columbian will need to improve if he is to warrant the tag as genuine contender for the maglia rosa. The Etixx rider faded in last year’s race but showed flashes of brilliance along the way. The individual time trial should see him put time into most of his rivals – including Contador – but a lack of team support when it really matters, plus question marks over his durability when put under consistent pressure could be his undoing. Second in the last two years, he remains Contador’s closest challenge and at 28 he should be approaching his best.

Uran’s former teammate, Richie Porte, comes into the race with his form at an all-time high. Only Alexander Kristoff (11) has won more races than Porte (9), and the Tasmanian will have a strong supporting cast from Team Sky. It’s been five years since his best grand tour result – seventh in this race – and at 30 he will struggle to have another chance of leading the line in such a high-profile setting, so a top five result is the bare minimum. Over such a long time trial it’s difficult to predict how he will fare but the sterner test will come in the third week, where Porte has struggled at points in the past. However, if he can navigate through the first week, prosper in the time trial and remain healthy ahead of the mountains he could find himself in with a chance of the podium. The overall win isn’t out of the question but he may need a slightly bigger slice of luck than some of his rivals if that’s to play out.

Fabio Aru will arrive in San Remo as Italy’s main hope, having finished on the podium twelve months ago and taking a breakthrough stage victory at Plan de Montecampione. The lack of a mountain time trial will hurt him although he has spent time in the wind tunnel with Specialized over the winter in a bid to improve his bike positioning and power output. The final week certainly suits him and much could depend on his recovery from a recent illness and the subsequent change in race programme that has followed. However, of greater importance could be how the 24-year-old Sardinian handles the spotlight and pressure associated with the tag of being the home-grown favourite.

And keep an eye on…

Canada’s first and only Grand Tour winner Ryder Hesjedal lines up for Cannnodale-Garmin and will be joined by fellow veteran Tom Danielson. This could be Hesjedal’s final year and a top five place isn’t out of the question given his strong rides in the mountains last year. If his team can stay upright in the team time trial and then marshal him through the tricky first week, then the 2012 race winner could surprise a few.

Hesjedal’s teammate Davide Formolo could be the wild card in Jonathan Vaughters’ deck. The former Petroli-Firenze rider is enjoying his second season in the pro-ranks and although a GC bid is out of the question, the baby-faced all-rounder is regarded by many as a future star.

AG2R-La Mondiale arrive at the race in a familiar state of unpredictability. Either hopelessly off the pace or trail-blazingly brilliant, they start with the erratic Carlos Betancur and the diminutive Domenico Pozzovivo, who enjoyed a strong opening two weeks last year before fading in the third and settling for fifth overall. Stage wins are more likely than an overall title bid, from either man, but on their day both can be hugely impressive. Pozzovivo could trouble the top five if he remains healthy and his time trialling has improved immeasurably in the past two years.

Julian Arredondo returns after winning a stage and sealing the mountains jersey in 2014. The pint-sized Columbian is capable of a top ten finish but more certain will be his constant attacking in the mountains.

His countryman Esteban Chaves is another rider to watch. The Orica-GreenEdge rider has found his feet after a serious injury threatened his career a few years ago and although a GC bid may be beyond him a strong ride in the medium mountain stages is well within his capabilities.

Outside of the overall bubble Michael Matthews returns the race eager to impress after a strong spring campaign. The Orica rider won a stage into Montecassino last year and pulled on pink for good measure and there are several stages in the opening week that suit his characteristics. The most accomplished sprinter set to descend on San Remo is André Griepel, and the Lotto rider returns to the race for the first time since 2010. He has just two race stages to his palmares but few could argue against him adding to that tally.


 

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