The battle between Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and Fabio Aru for the maglia rosa at the 101st Giro d'Italia is likely to take centre stage during the three weeks of racing, but as ever, there will be no shortage of sub-plots, break through performances and drama at the corsa rosa.
In this year’s route, there is a paucity of clear-cut opportunities for the sprinters, and as a result a relatively diminished sprint field, which could open the door to more breakaways and the finisseurs.
In this Giro d'Italia coundown feature, Cyclingnews looks beyond the maglia rosa contenders and examines the riders who will be in the hunt for stage wins - whether on the flat, the rolling terrain, or in the mountains - and also some of the lesser-known riders who are set to play a key role in determining the outcome of the overall title.
Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors)
With relatively little flat ground on the route of the 2018 Giro d'Italia, the field of sprinters is relatively shallow compared to recent years. The one name on the start lists who stands out above all others, both in terms of status and form, is Elia Viviani, who's riding his first Grand Tour for Quick-Step Floors.
What a difference a change of team makes. This time last year Viviani was licking his wounds after missing out on selection for Sky's squad for the Giro - the 100th Giro no less. Twelve months on and Viviani is not only here but here as leader, with actual lead-out men, not to mention with six wins already in his jersey pocket.
Viviani is not just the most successful sprinter of those on the Giro start list, but also arguably of the entire pro peloton. With five victories - six if you count the GC at the Dubai Tour - he is only matched by Dylan Groenewegen, and even if Jakub Mareczko (we'll get to him later) has more, Viviani's are certainly of higher calibre.
A win at the Tour Down Under was followed by two and the overall in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and then one at the Classics at the Three Days of De Panne. Despite a barren Paris-Nice and an agonising second place at Gent-Wevelgem, it was a near-perfect first part of the season for Olympic gold medalist. After a short break and a spot of training, Viviani returned at the Tour de Romandie last week, though it was hard to read anything into his pre-Giro form. Only the final stage culminated in a bunch sprint and by that point he was out of the race having finished outside the time limit set by Egan Bernal on the stage 3 mountain time trial.
Viviani will be supported on the flat stages by a strong support network, including his two main lead-out men, Michael Morkov and Fabio Sabatini, who will lead out in that order. Zdenek Stybar, Florian Senechal and Remi Cavagna ensure plenty of horsepower in the build-up to the final kilometre. Safe to say, it will be the strongest lead-out in the Giro and it will be a huge disappointment if Viviani fails to add to his sole Grand Tour stage win from the 2015 Giro.
Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates)
After turning his attentions to the Tour de France last year, Diego Ulissi returns to the Giro d'Italia, and should find plenty of fertile terrain for his puncheur/finisseur characteristics.
Stages 4 and 5, on the race's return to Italian soil, both look like golden opportunities, with undulating routes that culminate with stiff uphill kicks in the final kilometre. And then there's stage 7 to Praia a Mare on a similar finale where he took a solo victory in the 2016 Giro d'Italia.
More rolling stages pepper the second week, with stage 10 into Gualdo Tadino and stage 12 into Imola liable to end in reduced bunch sprints, and stage 13 into Osimo another leg-sapping day that packs steep ramps into the final kilometres.
Ulissi is yet to win this season but if he can discover his best form it could be a fruitful Giro d'Italia before Fabio Aru takes up the fight for the overall classification.
Wout Poels (Team Sky)
Wout Poels is not really a general classification contender for this Giro d'Italia, but he could be.
Chris Froome is Team Sky's undisputed leader but there's a degree of uncertainty over the four-time Tour de France champion, and that's not just due to his questionable form and Team Sky's miserable record in the Giro, there's also the anti-doping case hanging over him which, in theory, could see him banned at any moment.
Should anything happen to Team Sky's main man, Poels will be waiting in the shadows. He himself said as much this week in an interview with Dutch website Wielerflits, hitting all the right notes in saying he'd give his all to his leader, but leaving no doubt as to his own growing personal ambitions.
"I myself also hope to achieve a place in the top five, although that is one of my wildest dreams," he said. "That would be very cool. But I will not be dissatisfied if it does not work out."
Poels finished second at the Ruta del Sol and was leading Paris-Nice - after winning the time trial - when he was wiped out in a crash that left him with a broken collarbone. He returned with an underwhelming Ardennes campaign but is understood to have been training well in Tenerife. Poels finished sixth as Froome won last year's Vuelta, and a similar scenario would suit all parties.
At the very least Poels is set to be one of the key mountain domestiques in the final week - as he has in Froome's past three Grand Tour wins - but it'll be interesting to watch how Team Sky deploy the Dutchman, especially early in the race, and how things develop if push comes to shove.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Probably the rider most likely to threaten Viviani in the sprints. Last year was the Sam Bennett's debut at the Giro d'Italia and he finished in the podium places on no fewer than four occasions, though he never managed the top step as Fernando Gaviria ran wild.
Bennett beat himself up consistently after those near-misses and no doubt he'll have gained valuable experience from them. After last year's Giro d'Italia, he went on to pick up nine wins before the season was out.
This year his results have been nothing special, with illness affecting his start to the campaign. He finished no higher than 100th at the Tour Down Under, then abandoned the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Paris-Nice.
There were more encouraging signs to be found at his last outing, the Volta a Catalunya, where he finished second on the opening day and then won the bunch kick on stage 6, even if it was only for third place behind the two breakaway men.
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)
The relative lack of sprinters should open the door for more breakaway wins, and one rider you can always count on to go on the attack is Tim Wellens. The 26-year-old Belgian won the Ruta del Sol in February and finished fifth at Paris-Nice, but there's no indication at this stage that he has the inclination to target at the general classification of a Grand Tour.
This will be his fifth three-week race, after two participations apiece at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Perhaps because he's held onto the peak of form from the Ardennes Classics, he has fared better in Italy, twice finishing second from the break in 2014 and then winning a stage at the Roccaraso summit finish in 2016.
Lotto Soudal come into the race with no general classification leader and no Andre Greipel, so Wellens will certainly enjoy plenty of freedom. He certainly has the form and the class to leave his mark.
Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo)
After such a subdued 2017, it's not easy to remember how good Jarlinson Pantano was in 2016. He won a stage at the Tour de Suisse and then lit up the Tour de France with a stage win and two runner-up spots from further escapades in the mountains.
The 2017 season saw the spark fade, but now, after sinus surgery over the winter, a solid start to the season, and a WorldTour-level stage win in Catalunya, the Colombian seems ready to build on the palmares that looked certain to grow after the 2016 Tour.
Pantano was placed at the disposal of Alberto Contador in last year's Tour de France and Vuelta a España but, now in his second season with Trek-Segafredo, he has the freedom he craves to hunt Grand Tour stage wins.
"Going after stages in the Grand Tours, that's what fills me with motivation," he told Cyclingnews earlier this year. "The Giro, the Tour, they're races I dream about. That stage win in the Tour changed my life and I want to do that again this year. I'd love to win stages in all three Grand Tours."
Pantano lines up alongside Gianluca Brambilla in a Trek-Segafredo line-up full of riders with freedom to go for stage wins. Expect to see him up the road whenever the race heads into the mountains.
Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb)
Sam Oomen is one of the brightest young talents in the sport at the moment and this Giro d'Italia could mark an important step in his development as a future Grand Tour contender. Such was the promise he showed in the under 23 ranks, Sunweb signed him up for three years in 2016 and then added another two last winter. So far, he has hardly put a foot wrong in his start to life as a pro, impressing on a consistent basis.
Oomen made his Grand Tour debut at last year's Vuelta, where he rode in support of Wilco Kelderman and was placed 13th on GC before having to abandon ahead of the final week. He will be riding in a support role for 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin at the Giro and looks set to be his compatriot's closest domestique. With Dumoulin now having the status of proven Grand Tour winner and defending Giro champion, the race will to a certain extent revolve around him, so Oomen could play a prominent role in the drama over the next month.
Oomen said last year he was happy with his development but needed a couple of big performances to really feel like he belonged with the world's best. A 12th place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège a couple of weeks ago was another step in the right direction, but being with Dumoulin on a consistent basis in the key moments of one of the biggest races would surely satisfy that itch.
Of course, there's the possibility of moving up the GC by virtue of supporting Dumoulin deep into the key stages, but at the very least it will be a valuable learning experience.
Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina)
We mentioned the young Poland-born Italian earlier and sure enough Jakub Mareczko is the sprinter with the most victories in 2018. He beat Bryan Coquard twice at the Sharjah Tour, though it has to be said his strike rate is made to look unduly glamorous by a six-stage haul at the Tour du Maroc against a far weaker field than he'll find at the Giro d'Italia.
That tells the story of Mareczko's career so far. Talked about as a top talent for what seems like an age now, the 24-year-old has indeed taken 35 wins in his first three seasons as a pro, but only one of them has come in Europe. At the end of last year he won five stages at both the Tour of Taihu Lake and the Tour of Hainan in a heady end-of-season spell.
Yet, Mareczko has shown he can mix it against quality opposition. At the Giro last year he might have had a breakthrough win but for the dominance of Gaviria. He finished behind the Colombian on two occasions, getting the better of Bennett, Caleb Ewan, and Andre Greipel in the process.
While some have doubted Mareczko's application, few have doubted his talent. Could this be the year he lands a big one?
Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data)
Louis Meintjes is set to lead Dimension Data in his first Grand Tour back with the South African team, but then again that was the case at the Tour of the Alps, and we all ended up talking about Ben O'Connor. Meintjes should rediscover some of that characteristic consistency that has deserted him so far this season, but it will be interesting to keep an eye on how O'Connor fares in his first Grand Tour.
The 22-year-old Australian came to cycling relatively late but has enjoyed a quick rise to WorldTour level, and now he's starting to make waves at the highest level. At the Volta a Catalunya earlier this month he finished 11th overall against a quality field - he finished above David Gaudu, Hugh Carthy, and Warren Barguil. He then won a stage and finished seventh overall at the Tour of the Alps, among most of the Giro d'Italia favourites. He lost time on the opening day but finished with the big guns on every other stage, escaping on the run-in to Merano to take a solo victory - the second of his career. It was perhaps a week in which he realised how good he is.
There can be no pressure whatsoever on a 22-year-old making his Grand Tour debut, but there is now certainly a little excitement surrounding him.
Ben Hermans (Israel Cycling Academy)
The Israel Cycling Academy team will attract plenty of attention at the 101st Giro d'Italia given the race will start in the country in what is the first-ever Grande Partenza outside Europe. Much controversy will, naturally, accompany the opening three stages, but the team will not want to waste their moment in the limelight, on home soil and beyond in their debut Grand Tour.
While Guy Niv and Guy Sagiv make history by becoming the first Israeli cyclists to ride the Giro d'Italia, Kristijan Sbaragli leads the line in the sprints, and Krists Neilands makes his Grand Tour debut, Ben Hermans is the team's main man and best hope for a final GC placing in Rome.
The Belgian all-rounder, who spent four years apiece at RadioShack and BMC, has the experience and now, for the first real time, true leadership responsibilities. As for what his aims will be at the Giro, he insisted recently it's all about stage wins. Yet he finished 14th at the 2016 Vuelta a España and was 13th at the Giro last year before he had to abandon in the final week, so a top-10 overall isn't beyond the realms of possibility. He has even suggested he'd like to improve on that Vuelta result at some point.
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