Giro d'Italia director Mauro Vegni knows that he faces an uphill task to convince Chris Froome to return in 2019, but he is confident Team Sky will send one of their Grand Tour leaders to the Corsa Rosa and hinted to Cyclingnews that Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) will both be on the start line in Bologna on Saturday, May 11.
Vegni came under fire after reports suggested that Froome was paid close to €2 million to ride the 2018 Giro d'Italia despite his then on-going salbutamol case. Vegni denied doing a deal with Froome, insisting he only deals with teams, not their star riders.
"I don't think riders like Froome, Alberto Contador or Peter Sagan are driven by money. They already earn a lot. Whatever I can offer doesn't change their lives. Chris came to this year's Giro d'Italia for sporting reasons, not financial reasons," Vegni told Cyclingnews after the 2019 route presentation in Milan.
Vegni appears to again have some kind of financial deal in place with Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford. Froome refused to confirm or deny that he will be back at the Giro d'Italia and courteously attended the presentation. Geraint Thomas has hinted he has unfinished business at the Giro d'Italia and so may favour racing the Corsa Rosa before helping Froome target a fifth Tour de France victory. If neither Froome nor Thomas line up in Bologna, then Egan Bernal is expected to lead Team Sky at the Giro d'Italia, with Gianni Moscon as key support.
"Team Sky have not confirmed any team leader but have also not excluded anyone," Vegni pointed out.
"Chris confirmed that they'll have one team leader for each Grand Tour, and they have the riders to do that. Any final decision will be made based on the race routes, but I'm confident that one of Team Sky's captains will be at the Giro d'Italia."
Nibali was flying back to Europe from his end-of-season holiday in Zanzibar and missed the Giro d'Italia presentation. He will fly to Tokyo on Friday for ASO's Saitama criterium, but that should not be considered as evidence he will target the 2019 Tour de France.
Indeed Vegni seemed convinced he has a deal in place with Bahrain-Merida to ensure Nibali will be back fighting for the maglia rosa in 2019. The Italian won the Giro d'Italia in 2013 and 2016, and the mountainous route, with limited time trials, fits him like an Italian made-to-measure suit.
"I've got a good feeling that Nibali will be at the start in Bologna," Vegni said, emphasising every word.
"I think that both Italian contenders – Nibali and Fabio Aru – could be at the start. I think it's important for them and it's important for us. The Giro d'Italia needs an Italian to excite the Italian public."
Vegni admitted that negotiations were underway to try to also entice Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to finally ride the Giro d'Italia. The three-time world champion has always opted to ride the Tour of California after a long spring Classics campaign. But that might change, possibly with the help of his team sponsors.
"I'd be over the moon if Sagan did decide to ride, because I think a rider of his calibre, like Chris Froome did this year, has to ride the Giro d'Italia at least once in their career," Vegni argued with Italian pride.
"It's up to him to confirm or deny his plans for the Giro d'Italia because he was the one who made some kind of announcement that he'd ride. Unfortunately, it's hard for him because there's another WorldTour race on at the same time on a different continent. It's near the home of one of his personal sponsors, and so that's why I think there's a big question mark hanging over his presence at the 2019 Giro d'Italia. But we're talking. We're thinking about how to make it happen. We want to make it happen, but cycling is funded by sponsors and they play a role in all of this."
Vegni warned that whoever eventually lines up for the Giro d'Italia in May, should be ready to suffer during the three weeks of racing.
"I think this will be the hardest Giro d'Italia of the last 20 years. It's the hardest race route I've ever been involved with," he said.
"It's not hard just because of the 46,000 metres of altitude but because of the way it is designed, with 25,000 metres of climbing in just four or five stages.
"We've created what we think is a modern, balanced and open race. The time trials are not for specialists, and so the race is open to a wide number of riders. We've presented the race route. Now it's up to each rider and team to decide if they want to be part of our great race."