Like always, the Giro d’Italia offers a series of races within the race, with the battle between the many big-name sprinters likely to keep us highly entertained until the overall contenders emerge in the final week of the race.
Injury, crashes and an ever wider proliferation of races around the planet have limited the number of sprint showdowns so far this season but the concentration of sprinters at the Giro d’Italia should ensure sparks fly often in the first two weeks. Only Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep) are missing from the Giro d’Italia start list. Everyone else, from Arnaud Demare (FDJ) to Elia Viviani (Team Sky), including Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge), will be fighting for victory in the sprints.
Race director Mauro Vegni of RCS Sport must have been feeling benevolent or indebted towards the sprinters when he designed this year’s route, ensuring there are at least seven stages which should finish in adrenaline-fueled fast finishes. Two come immediately after the opening time trial in Apeldoorn and so the three-day Grande Partenza weekend will all be about speed.
Of course, the sprinters and their teammates will have to earn their opportunities and chase the breakaway riders who always attack in search of glory and time on television for their sponsors. If they want to contest all the sprint finishes, the velocisti will also have to make it all the way to the finish in Turin, or at least Cassano d’Adda on stage 17.
Modern day professional racing demands constant success from the sprinters and so many will no doubt bail out of the Giro d’Italia before the mountain stages begin on stage 13 in the north-eastern Friuli region to rest up for the Tour de Suisse and other pre-Tour de France appointments. Only the Italian sprinters keen to fight for the red points jersey will perhaps stay in the race until the very end, knowing that they will not have to fight in the sprints all over again at the Tour de France.
The seven sprint stages
The flat roads of the Netherlands immediately offer the sprinters two chances, literally on a plate, with only the risk of echelons and bad weather putting their domination at risk.
Stage four to Praia a Mare follows the Calabria coastline north but then some rolling roads in the finale makes the 200km stage like a mini Milan-San Remo.
Stage five offers a fourth consecutive opportunity for the sprinters but they will have watch out for attacks on the Via del Fortino climb that kicks up at 18% briefly and comes just 8.6km from the finish.
Stage seven rolls through the central Apennine valleys for 211km and climbs the Valico della Somma with 40km to go. However, in 2014, a similar stage ended with Nacer Bouhanni taking victory and this is widely expected to throw up another sprint opportunity before a hilly finale in Arezzo and the Chianti time trial.
Following the tough mountain stage to Sestola near Bologna, the sprinters will return to the fore on stage 11 as the Giro d’Italia heads northeast but they will have to suffer for any stage success. The 227km ride from Modena to outside the Selle Italia headquarters in Asolo is plan flat until the Forcella Mostaccin climb with 19km to go. Then the road kicks up and dips and rolls until the final kilometre. Whoever survives the selection will sprint for victory.
Stage 12 crosses the plains of the Veneto region north of Venice, with the first sprint in Ormelle, after 94km, the highest point in the stage at 19 metres above sea level. Two eight-kilometre finishing circuits will give the sprinters a taste of the fast finale in the holiday resort of Bibione. Venice airport is only an hour away and with four days in the mountains starting the day after, the stage is likely to be the last hurrah for most of the sprinters.
Those who make it through the Friuli stages and the loop around Alta Badia’s legendary climbs will be rewarded with a sprint finish in Cassano d’Adda to the east of Milan on stage 17. However their teams will have control any determined breakaway attempts and that is never easy in the third week of a Grand Tour.
Stage 18 to Pinerolo could be won by a fast finisher but the pure sprinters will have to survive two big days in the Alps before a final shot at victory on the last stage to Turin. Last year the sprinters let Luke Durbridge and eventual winner Iljo Keisse steal their thunder.
The sprinters to watch for at the Giro d’Italia:
Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep): With eight wins in 2016, the powerful German is so far the most successful sprinter of the season. It is a remarkable turnaround after his much-publicised problems of 2015 and confirms Etixx-QuickStep’s winning mentality. Kittel won the Scheldeprijs race, and most recently a stage at the Tour de Romandie. With the Etixx-QuickStep team built around Kittel, and having Fabio Sabatini and Matteo Trentin as key leadout men, Kittel could easily repeat the two stage victories he won in 2014, perhaps even in the opening stages in the Netherlands.
Arnaud Demare (FDJ): The Frenchman first rode the Giro d’Italia in 2012 but often struggled to be competitive on Italian roads. All that changed in March when he won Milan-San Remo with a perfectly executed sprint on Via Roma. Several stages at the Giro include late climbs and so Demare’s Classics skills and climbing ability could help him in the first week.
Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal): The Gorilla has enjoyed far more success at the Tour de France than the Giro d’Italia but he has three Giro stages on his palmarès from 2008, 2010 and 2015. A fractured rib in the Volta a Algarve has slowed Greipel this spring but he showed he on the way back with several finely executed sprints at the Tour of Turkey, winning a stage and finishing second in another.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo): The Italian has racked up a long series of placings in the Giro d’Italia and won the red points jersey in 2015 but remarkably he has still to win a stage. Nizzolo is fast but often comes up against sprinters who are just that little bit faster. However, Trek-Segafredo has a beefed-up his lead this year, and two victories while sprinting against Cavendish in the Tour of Croatia have boosted his confidence and his finishing speed.
Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge): The 21-year-old Australian pocket rocket won his first Grand Tour stage at the Vuelta a Espana last year and he is keen to step up another level at the Giro d’Italia. It will be fascinating to see how he fares with his super aero sprinting style against the power and pure speed of Kittel, Greipel and Co.
Elia Viviani (Team Sky): The rider from Verona is still smarting after losing the Omnium world title on the track to Gaviria but always raises his game for the Giro d’Italia, and won his first sprint stage last year in Genoa. He is again likely to tussle with Nizzolo for the points jersey, but can be relied on to play a vital team role in support of overall contender and new team leader Mikel Landa.
Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida): Two stage victories last year in Jesolo and Lugano raised Modolo’s profile as a sprinter and secured him even more space in the Lampre-Merida Giro squad. His erratic sprinting style makes his rivals hesitate, and he again has Roberto Ferrari to help him out this year. If there are any polemics after some sprints, it is likely to concern Modolo.
Leigh Howard (IAM Cycling): The Australian has natural speed thanks to his track skills and can win Grand Tour sprints when things go his way. The IAM squad also includes sprint alternative Matteo Pelucchi and the highly experienced and fast Heinrich Haussler. They will create an effective sprint trio.
Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data): The Tuscan rider took a breakthrough win at the Vuelta a Espana after a climb distanced some of the bigger and faster finishers. He has been held back a little by Dimension Data to ensure he is fresh for the Giro d’Italia. Watch out for him on the stages to Praia a Mare, Foligno, Asolo and Pinerolo, when the late climb will crack some of the sprinters.
Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Southeast): Last but not least is Italy’s latest velocista who has the speed and aggression to take on the best in the world. Mareczko was born in Poland but moved to Italy with his mum as a boy and is a naturalised Italian. He will be the protected rider at Wilier Triestina-Southeast with Filippo Pozzato and Manuel Belletti obliged to sacrifice their chances for their young and faster teammate on the sprint stages. Mareczko was ill after racing in Belgium this spring and is making his Giro d’Italia debut but could become the new star of Italian cycling if he lines up a series of sprint victories.