It has been one the most prestigious stage races in women's cycling for nearly three decades - Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile (more informally known as the Giro Rosa) - and it will kick off on July 6 in Verbania, along the scenic shores of Lago Maggiore, in Northern Italy.
In a surprise twist to this year's starting line-up, the event's defending champion Anna van der Breggen announced that she would skip the race just several weeks before its start date. The ever-changing and demanding 10-day race is one that she has competed in 10 times and won twice over the course of her illustrious career. As she takes on an exciting new endeavour with a debut on the World Cup mountain bike circuit at Val di Sole, her absence at the Giro Rosa could lead to one of the most unpredictable editions in its 29-year history, as the fight for the maglia rosa is now completely wide open.
Van der Breggen has dominated the women's circuit in recent years in all disciplines from sprinting to climbing to time trialling. She is currently leading the Women's WorldTour, of which the Giro Rosa is the 14th round, with 977 points after storming to a series of victories this spring at Strade Bianche, Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She will continue her one-day race appearances during the second half of the season as she takes aim at winning her first world title at the UCI Road World Championships in Austria in September.
Her closest rivals in the series are Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott), who is in second place with 745 points after winning Emakumeen Bira in May, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla) is in third with 571, Annemiek Van Vleuten (also Mitchelton-Scott) is fourth with 563 and Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) is fifth with 558 points - and all will be on the starting ramp of the opening team time trial. They will all be ready to play key roles in this year's race, and all of them have the potential to win.
Cyclingnews selected five contenders to watch in our collection of countdown features earlier this week. Those riders include last year's podium finishers Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) and Van Vleuten, along with Niewiadoma, Moolman-Pasio and former overall winner Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans).
Guarnier won the title in 2016, and has shown promising form this year, particularly after her 2017 season was marred with two significant injuries. Despite her bad luck, she did manage to place fourth overall last year, while helping her teammate Van der Breggen to her second overall victory. She will no doubt want to win a second title for herself this time. She comes with strong reinforcements in world champion Chantal Blaak and Amy Pieters.
Niewiadoma will come to the Giro Rosa with a strong Canyon-SRAM squad that includes former podium finisher Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. Niewiadoma has placed inside the top 10 on several occasions and has won the youth classification twice. The team's director Ronny Lauke told Cyclingnews in March that the pair would target the Giro Rosa.
"Second place is the first loser that nobody wants to talk about. I think it's always nice to be on top of the podium. Whenever we target something, we target the victory. The last two years it hasn't worked that well, but we haven't given up on that goal," Lauke told Cyclingnews. "With Pauline and Kasia in the team, we want to try and win the Giro, that's a clear goal."
Van Vleuten, the current time trial world champion, has won five stages at the Giro Rosa in previous years. The majority of those wins were against the clock; two prologues and one time trial. In recent years, however, she has shown her ability to out-climb her rivals, particularly after winning La Course atop Izoard last year.
She has spent a lot of extra time building her strength on the climbs and recently attended an altitude training camp with the Dutch national team in Austria, to preview the Worlds courses. That trip was followed by a training camp in the mountains of Tenerife. Her talent in the time trials and strengthened ability in the mountains make her a clear favourite for the overall title this year. She comes with a powerful teammate in Spratt, who recently won Emakumeen Bira, Spain's toughest stages race for women, and she was fifth overall at the Giro last year. Together, they make a tough-to-beat duo for Mitchelton-Scott.
"I'm really looking forward to the Giro-Rosa this year, it is a big target for the team and it will be my tenth time racing it this year," Van Vleuten said. "I think I have proven that I am climbing well and it will be great to have Amanda Spratt and the addition of Lucy Kennedy. I think we will have a super strong climbing team.
"Last year, I won the TT and this year I think it will be even harder, it is only uphill so it will be a special time trial. The second to last day we finish uphill on the Zoncolon, the same as the men raced in this year's Giro d'Italia, so it will be a super hard edition of the Giro Rosa and we will for sure need our best climbing legs."
Moolman-Pasio has been a staple in the top tier of the general classification at the Giro Rosa. She skipped the event in 2016 and fell ill last year, but will take the start line in Verbania as one of the top contenders. A strong spring Classics campaign and recent wins in France will give her a boost of confidence heading into this Giro Rosa. She will have several strong teammates in former stage winner Lotta Lepistö and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
Longo Borghini started the season ill and was disappointed in her third place at Strade Bianche, a race she won last year, and although she has played key roles in every race that she's started, she hasn't quite bounced back to her most robust self. Her season took a turn for the better at Emakumeen Bira, where she placed fifth overall and then at OVO Energy Women's Tour where she was sixth and won the mountain classification. She took a confidence-boosting win at the Mediterranean Games just days ahead of the Giro Rosa start. She is the favourite among the Italians in the race and will no doubt focus on another top performance in this edition.
There are many Italians eyeing success in their home tour including Ale Cipollini's Marta Bastianelli, who had had a stellar run of success in the Classics with wins at Gent-Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl and Trofee Maarten Wynants. She's a former world champion and stage winner at the Giro Rosa and will be looking to give her team success on home soil in July. She may not be one to watch for the overall title, but she will indeed be there on all types of challenging terrain from flat sprints to punchy climbs, as will her teammates Chloe Hosking and Janneke Ensing.
Marianne Vos lines up with her Waowdeals team as a three-time overall winner (2011, 2012 and 2014), and although she hasn't shown the same form as in years past, she arrives at the Giro Rosa fit and prepared to race. After taking second overall at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, along with the points classification, and then third at the Dutch national championships, she has shown that she is still hungry to win. She will line up with strong teammates in Sabrina Stultiens, who won the opening stage at Emakumeen Bira, Jeanne Korevaar and Dani Rowe.
Sunweb might not have an outright favourite for the overall classification, but they do have a series of champions for stage wins including Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand and Ruth Winder - and neither of them can be discounted for a top place in the final rankings.
All-in-all there are 24 teams from around the world set to start the Giro Rosa. Other riders to watch include runner-up at the Amgen Women's Race Tayler Wiles (Trek-Drops), French champion Aude Biannic, Spanish champion Eider Merino and Polish champion Malgorzata Jasinksa (all Movistar), former double world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance), Roxanne Fournier (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope). Not to be discounted are Italian-based teams Top Girls Fassa Bortolo, S.C. Michela Fanini, Conceria Zabri-Fanini and Aromitalia Vaiano, that will look for opportunities in every part of the Giro Rosa.
Monte Zoncolan: the showstopper
It will be one of the toughest Giro Rosa routes in its 29-year history with a re-visit to one of the most iconic Italian climbs in professional cycling - Monte Zoncolan.
Organisers announced last December that they intended to bring back the mighty mountain to the Giro Rosa parcours as the final summit of the penultimate stage 9. It was first and last used in the 1997 edition (although it has been used six times in the men's Giro d'Italia - ed.) and won by five-time overall champion Fabiana Luperini.
Route organisers of 2018 editions of the Giro Rosa and Giro d'Italia worked together to bring both pelotons up the steepest and toughest side of the ascent, from Ovaro, which is just over 10km with an average grade of 12 per cent, with sections as steep as 22 per cent.
In May's Giro d'Italia, Chris Froome (Team Sky) won atop the summit of the Zoncolan at the end of stage 14, before his long-range solo win on the stage 19 summit of Bardonecchia that all but sealed his overall victory ahead of the parade into Rome.
"It has always been important for us to include the toughest climbs that Italy has to offer in our women's race," Giuseppe Rivolta, who has been the director of the Giro Rosa since 2002, told Cyclingnews.
"Everyone wants to be in the big mountains during the Giro Rosa, like the men of the Giro d'Italia are, because it's the best and most prestigious race for women in the world."
A punchy, unpredictable route
There is a lot of racing before the women hit the summit of the Zoncolan. The 2018 edition will cover a total of 964km during the 10 days of racing across Northern Italy.
It will begin on Friday, July 6 with a flat 15.5km team time trial in Verbania on the shores of the scenic Lago Maggiore. This will be a chance for teams that are strong in this discipline to show their form early on. Look for the current world champions Sunweb or Boels-Dolmans to win the stage and put one of their riders in the first leader's jersey.
The race will head south for stage 2, a rolling 120.4km route in Ovada, at the foot of the Passo Turchino. The stage offers two intermediate sprints and a category 1 ascent mid-stage to kick off those classifications. However, its flat final will suit the sprinters. Stage 3's 132km race in Corbetta, west of Milan, is pan-flat and will be another test for the pure sprinters. As will stage 4's 109km race in Piacenza. This is Bronzini's hometown, and if she hasn't won a stage already, look for her at the head the bunch sprint here.
The climbing starts on stage 5 for the 117km race around Omegna. It will be a punchy appetiser ahead of the real mountains, as the peloton will take on a category 2 climb to Lesa. The race heads east stage 6 for a 114km race that will start in Sovico and travel along a rolling parcours toward the first summit finish of the Giro Rosa atop Gerola Alta at 1,050 metres. It will be the first test for the overall contenders before Monte Zoncolan two days later.
The peloton will contest a mountain time trial on stage 7 that climbs 1,000 metres in 15km, from Lanzada to the Diga di Campo Moro. It is a steady climb with one steeper pitch midway before the gradient tapers off in the last kilometre. Separations among the overall classifications contenders will be important here, as it will be one of the last opportunities before the final climb on stage 9.
Stage 8 heads to the Veneto region for a 121.6km race from San Giorgio di Perlena to Breganze. There are two smaller climbs in the first 40km of the stage and one near the finale, making this stage suitable for breakaways. Stage 9 will host the showstopper - Monte Zoncolan. The peloton will race a total of 104.7km starting in Tricesimo. It is a rolling stage until the field hits the toughest side of the final climb via Ovaro. It is the queen stage and so likely where the overall classification will be sealed. The 10-day race will end with a circuit stage in Cividale del Friuli on Sunday, July 15.
Organisers have a contract with RAI to show the Giro Rosa, however, the event conflicts with the men's Tour de France. There will be select highlights shown on television during the Tour stages, with the full broadcast footage available 60 minutes after the end of the stage. Check back on Cyclingnews after each stage for the full results, reports, news and daily highlights and summary videos.
2018 Giro Rosa stages:
Stage 1: July 6 - Verbania - Verbania, 15.5km (team time trial)
Stage 2: July 7 - Ovada - Ovada, 120.3km
Stage 3: July 8 - Corbetta - Corbetta, 132km
Stage 4: July 9 - Piacenza - Piacenza, 109km
Stage 5: July 10 - Omegna - Omegna, 117.7km
Stage 6: July 11 - Sovico - Gerola Alta, 114.1km
Stage 7: July 12 - Lanzada - Diga di Campo Moro, 15km (mountain time trial)
Stage 8: July 13 - San Giorgio di Perlena (Fara Vicentino) - Breganze, 121.6km
Stage 9: July 14 - Tricesimo - Monte Zoncolan, 104.7km
Stage 10: July 15 - Cividale del Friuli - Cividale del Friuli, 120.3km