It's an open Giro d'Italia in 2019, with only two former winners – Bahrain-Merida's Vincenzo Nibali and Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin – among the starters this year. Chris Froome (Team Ineos) won't be back to defend his title, preferring to concentrate on trying to win a fifth Tour de France, which leaves last year's runner-up, Dumoulin, as the best of the rest on paper.
Three time trials – two of them with uphill finishes – should suit the Dutchman, who won the race in 2017, while a packed third week of high-altitude climbing may be a bit less to his liking, and will suit last year's third-placed finisher, Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez, a little more, as well as two-time Giro winner Nibali, who skipped last year's Giro in favour of the Tour, but is back on home turf in a bid to win a third title.
Before his training crash at the start of May, with the resultant broken collarbone ruling him out of this year's Giro, Team Ineos's Egan Bernal would of course have been a shoo-in to be included on this list of riders to watch, and an almost certain podium contender – if not winner – of the race itself.
Ineos have now been left with the headache that comes with the possibility of having to field a three-pronged attack at the Tour as a result. Last July, Bernal was content to work for both Froome and Thomas; this year, providing he recovers in time, Bernal may well expect a more prominent role to make up for missing the Giro. It all means that Ineos – previously Team Sky – find themselves in the rare situation of not having a race favourite among their number for this year's Giro, which gives their young guns, like Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov, an opportunity to shine.
With a sprint battle royal also expected between the likes of Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), UAE Team Emirates' Fernando Gaviria and new Lotto Soudal signing Caleb Ewan – and look, too, for Groupama-FDJ's Arnaud Démare, Bora-Hansgrohe's Pascal Ackermann, and perhaps CCC Team's Jakub Mareczko – we can expect fireworks aplenty from the protagonists at this year's Giro, both on the flat stages and from the overall contenders up in the mountains. It's going to be a wild ride.
The overall winner at the 2017 Giro d'Italia, second there again last year, and second at the Tour de France two months later is an enviable record for any rider. Tom Dumoulin thought about skipping this year's Giro altogether in favour of putting all his eggs into the Tour basket – before he saw that the route of this year's Giro boasts three individual time trials.
However, the time trial specialist recently told Cyclingnews that his second place at the Giro last year was a true reflection of his capabilities.
"The first week, I wasn't good enough to follow Simon Yates, and in the last week I wasn't good enough to follow Chris Froome. I was never the best in the race," he admitted.
As for the time trials, the hilly nature of all three of them leads Dumoulin to think that they'll be less decisive than they otherwise might have been.
"I definitely don't think that I can take a lot of time in the time trials," he said. "They suit me well, and I like them, but in terms of gaining time, I probably won't take that much."
Nevertheless, they remain the 28-year-old's opportunity to make all the difference, even if it's only a handful of minutes or even seconds. It may be all he needs, while he'll be relying on the entirety of his Sunweb squad – and on young Australians Chris Hamilton, Jai Hindley and Robert Power, in particular – to help him through the high mountains.
Simon Yates had been in danger of only being remembered for his collapse on stage 19 of last year's Giro when, clad in the pink leader's jersey, he fell victim to Chris Froome's long-range, stage-winning – and Giro-winning – attack over the Colle delle Finestre, with Yates losing almost 40 minutes, and with it the race.
However, the British climber regrouped and returned to his best to win last year's Vuelta a España in September. He now starts this year's Giro a year older and a year wiser, with both the experience of having won a Grand Tour under his belt, and the positive memories of winning three stages at last year's Giro, and spending 12 days in the leader's jersey. That day on the Finestre, therefore, is now just a single-day blip on what has been an otherwise hugely successful past 12 months.
He has improved his abilities against the clock, too, and took a time trial stage win at Paris-Nice this season. Yates is likely to be a real danger man at this year's race, with the bit between his teeth to make further amends for last year's bad day. He'll also be able to enjoy the support of veteran climber Mikel Nieve and a resurgent Esteban Chaves, whose own problems began at the Giro last year, with the Colombian eventually being diagnosed with mononucleosis.
Primoz Roglic has dominated in the shorter stage races he's ridden so far this season, appearing to have reached the next level in what is only his fourth season at WorldTour level, and on the cusp of having become a bona fide Grand Tour contender. Overall wins at every race he's done this season – the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie, with four stage wins along the way – will make him a marked man on Italian roads over the next few weeks.
But while he deserves to be among the favourites, let's not forget that this is only the Slovenian's fourth Grand Tour. If the Giro was only a week long, you could hand Roglic the winner's trophy right now. Winning a three-week race, however, requires experience – and experience in how to recover day-to-day, and which battles to pick.
Let Roglic prove us wrong, by all means, but he may struggle – for now – to better his fourth overall at last year's Tour de France.
Rumours abound that the Spanish rider Mikel Landa is on his way to Bahrain-Merida for 2020, as part of yet another merry-go-round of riders, with current Bahrain leader Vincenzo Nibali possibly moving on to Trek-Segafredo for next year.
The 2020 season is a long way off yet, though, and Landa will have to knuckle down in his leadership role at this Giro for his current Movistar team, with much expected of the 29-year-old, who finished third overall at the 2015 Giro, and backed that result up with fourth and seventh at the 2017 and 2018 Tours de France, respectively.
Since his last Grand Tour, Landa had to come back first from a fractured vertebra and rib after crashing at the Clasica San Sebastian shortly after last year's Tour, and then another crash at the Trofeo Ses Salines-Campos-Porreres-Felanitx – part of the Challenge Mallorca – that left him with a broken collarbone. But bounce back he did, winning a stage at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in March.
He recently took second place to teammate Richard Carapaz at the Vuelta Asturias, too, after the pair broke away from the rest of the field, and it's Carapaz who could be both a powerful ally or a potential thorn in Landa's side at the Giro, with the Ecuadorian having taken a stage win, fourth overall and second in the youth classification at last year's race.
Ding-dong battles between Miguel Angel Lopez and Movistar's Richard Carapaz for the white best young rider's jersey were a welcome sideshow at last year's Giro before the main act, Chris Froome, made an appearance and blew the rest of the field away on the stage over the Colle delle Finestre.
Lopez eventually came out on top of the youth classification, by the way, and he naturally leads the Astana team once more, and will again rely on strong support from teammate Pello Bilbao, who finished sixth overall last year.
Overall wins this season at the Tour Colombia 2.1 and the Volta a Catalunya demonstrate that Lopez is well on track to repeat, and possibly better, his third place overall at last year's Giro. He demonstrated that maturity and consistency through to the end of last season when he also took the third step on the podium at the Vuelta a España.
Some would say that the 25-year-old Colombian will be one to watch when it comes to the top step of the podium at Grand Tours of the future. Others would say that he's already here, and with both the Giro and Vuelta on his programme again this year, a Grand Tour victory could already be within his grasp this season.
Vincenzo Nibali may be the elder statesman of this year's Giro contenders, but the two-time champion – in 2013 and 2016 – still believes that he's got what it takes to bring home the bacon in his home Grand Tour and join the illustrious three-time winners' club, which includes Bernard Hinault, Gino Bartali and Felice Gimondi (while Alfredo Binda, Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx have all won the Giro five times; no one's won it only four times).
As part of our Giro countdown, Nibali recently told Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview that, at 34, he didn't feel old, and that he was ready to take on the younger competition over three weeks at the Giro.
"I think everyone knows that I'm always at my best for the big goals, and that I'm always competitive and can finish on the final podium in a Grand Tour," he said.
He had to settle for third place overall at the recent Tour of the Alps behind 21-year-old Pavel Sivakov and 24-year-old Tao Geoghagen Hart – both of Team Ineos, and who'll both line up again for the Giro – but being competitive across the entirety of a Grand Tour is a whole different matter, and, as Nibali well knows, the Giro is something very special, and all the more so when you're an Italian.
"I didn't ride the Giro last year, and I missed the affection and support of the tifosi," said Nibali, "so it's great to be back and going for the maglia rosa."
Now arguably the best sprinter of the current generation, Elia Viviani is nevertheless going to be hard-pressed to repeat the success he achieved a last year's Giro – especially with the presence this year of Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan (see below).
Viviani sewed up the points classification competition after winning four stages. Then, after sitting out the Tour de France, he went on to win another three stages at the Vuelta a Espana. The big difference this year, however, is that Gaviria was a teammate at QuickStep, and so the two sprinters shared the Grand-Tour-sprinting responsibilities – and spoils. Now, they'll go head-to-head at this year's Giro, and the battle is going to be fascinating to watch.
However, Viviani isn't trying to hide his pride at riding this year's Giro clad in the tricolore jersey of Italian road race champion, having won it in June last year, after his outstanding Giro performance. It doesn't get much better than winning stages in the green, white and red on home turf.
Caleb Ewan, surely, is finally going to get to ride his first Tour de France this July, and going for sprint wins at this year's Giro should warm the Australian up for his Grande Boucle debut nicely.
Still only 24, Ewan has already ridden three Grand Tours, and will have no fears about whether he's up to the job this year. He rode the Vuelta a España back in 2015 as a 21-year-old, and came away with a stage win, having beaten John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan. He then rode the following year's Giro, and rode it again in 2017, taking a sprint win ahead of Fernando Gaviria, Sam Bennett and André Greipel.
He then appeared to fall out of favour with his Mitchelton-Scott team, who seemingly preferred to promote the Yates brothers, Simon and Adam, for the general classification at Grand Tours, and Ewan made the move to Lotto Soudal for 2019, effectively replacing Greipel as the team's main sprinter.
He already has wins in the bag from the UAE Tour and the Tour of Turkey; expect the wins to keep coming this year – at both the Giro and the Tour.
If Fernando Gaviria's only other two previous Grand Tours are anything the go by, the Colombian sprinter can expect a few flower bouquets and Prosecco-bottle pops to come his way at this year's Giro. Four stage wins and the points classification at the 2017 Giro and two stage wins at last year's Tour – as well as stints in the leaders' jerseys at both races – will be hard to match, but the 24-year-old's certainly got the ability to do it.
Unlike the podium Prosecco, he just seems to be getting better with age, and will be able to count on a dedicated squad of UAE Team Emirates teammates to deliver him to the line in the best possible position.
Somewhat of a wildcard, this. With Egan Bernal having had to pull out of Team Ineos's Giro squad at the 11th hour due to a training crash, Ineos are going to start the Giro with no clear GC leader, and no real hope of making the podium, or perhaps even the top 10.
What we may see, however, are the kind of fireworks that only young GC riders of the future are capable of producing, and we saw Tao Geoghagen Hart and Pavel Sivakov provide the gun powder at the recent Tour of the Alps, running rings around the likes of elder statesman Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), and coming away with two stage wins and second overall for Geoghagen Hart and one stage win and the overall win for Sivakov.
At this point last year, Geoghegan Hart was about to turn himself inside out riding in the service of Bernal at the Tour of California, which he did with aplomb, and then went on to ride his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta a Espana, finishing a very credible 62nd overall. He's one for the future, then, and may get an opportunity to shine in the mountains at this Giro, although it would be unfair for anyone to expect too much yet from the 24-year-old third-year pro from London.
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