The 2017 season may not yet be underway but the line-up for the first Grand Tour of the year is already taking shape. A long line of general classification riders have put their hat in the ring for the Giro d'Italia, promising a hotly contested race for the maglia rosa and the 'never-ending trophy'.
Among those that plan to take on the corsa rosa are defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and 2014 winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Italy will also have Fabio Aru (Astana) in their arsenal as they attempt to keep the title at home, but they will face stiff competition from all sides.
Next year's Giro d'Italia is a special one - the 100th edition of the three-week race. In order to honour the achievement, the organisers have planned a true race around Italy, beginning in Sardinia before travelling over to Sicily and then traversing its way up the country to the finish in Milan. With just two short time trials, totalling 67km, and a litany of mountain stages, it is a good course for the purer climbers, and that is reflected in the list of riders heading to Sardinia for May 5.
The rare visits to their home regions made eschewing the Giro d'Italia a difficult task for Aru and Nibali, particularly for the latter as the reigning champion. Aru was likely more easily swayed to race at home, given his disappointing debut at the Tour de France earlier this year. The battle between these two will dominate the home newspapers, no doubt. The last time they competed at the Giro together was as teammates in 2013 when Nibali went on to take his first maglia rosa. They have since largely avoided each other in Grand Tours and the 2017 Giro will be the first opportunity to pit their wits against each other as opponents.
Another of their former teammates, Mikel Landa (Team Sky), has also announced his intentions to line-up in Alghero on May 5. Landa made his Grand Tour breakthrough at the Giro in 2015 while supporting Aru. After two stage wins, it looked like Landa might be Contador’s biggest threat until team orders appeared to get in the way. This year’s race was an opportunity show what he can do but it flopped, hard. With his contract up for renewal at the end of this season, Landa will have the pressure on his shoulders to perform or could be be out on his ear.
Landa could have some competition for the leadership within his own team, however, with both Wout Poels and Geraint Thomas hinting that they would like to have their own shot at Grand Tour leadership. Both are key to Chris Froome’s Tour de France bid and Team Sky would be loath to let them use up their efforts in Italy ahead of the big showdown in July.
Quintana is yet to confirm his presence, but in October he stated his interest in taking on the ever-challenging Giro-Tour double. Should he attempt what has thwarted many a GC rider - most recently Alberto Contador - it will be interesting to see how he plays it. Will the Colombian be prepared to dig deep into the reserves and potentially risk the Tour de France? In 2015, Contador gave so much to his first Grand Tour win of the year he could only manage fifth in the overall classification in July.
The abundance of summit finishes will stand Quintana in good stead, particularly in a final week where there's barely a flat stretch of road to worry about. The two time trials, after the first rest day on stage 10 and then on the final day in Milan, will be the biggest hurdles to the Movistar man.
The Giro d’Italia can both give and take away, sometimes in spectacular fashion. This year, Ilnur Zakarin seemed destined for a top-five finish until a dramatic crash on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello saw him leave the race. After the shock and concern of the crash had subsided, the disappointment of what might have been came through. Emboldened by his strong performance prior to the crash, Zakarin is returning to try and see it through.
Like Zakarin, Tom Dumoulin had a very mixed Giro d'Italia. After winning the opening stage and wearing the leader's jersey for most of the first week, saddle sores struck him down. Dumoulin hasn't confirmed outright his intention to race but has expressed heavy interest in doing so. This year, Dumoulin brushed aside the idea of the general classification but, with the Olympics out of the way, it will be interesting to see if he can back up his sixth at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana.
Newcomers looking for success
Next year's Giro d'Italia has proved attractive to some first timers, including Thibaut Pinot and Tejay van Garderen. As a French general classification rider, Pinot has endured heavy pressure at the Tour de France. The FDJ rider proved his talent with third in the 2014 Tour, but has been unable to replicate it since. A tilt at the Giro will be an opportunity to re-find the form that saw him step on the podium, but away from the glare of the Tour.
Van Garderen also heads to the Giro d'Italia following a couple of disappointing results at the Tour de France. His BMC team dropped him down to a support role for this year's Tour and, with Richie Porte due to lead the team outright next year the Giro has become the American's first major goal. Anything less than a top-five finish would be a disappointment for van Garderen.
It is for similar reasons that Bauke Mollema will line up for Trek-Segafredo. With Alberto Contador coming into the fold for 2017, it was the only logical option for the Dutchman if he wanted a chance to lead a Grand Tour for the team. Mollema's last appearance at the Giro came in 2010 when he finished 12th. He has been a consistent performer since then, scoring top-10 finishes at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana. He looked like he might make a breakthrough and reach the podium at this year's Tour but his ambitions were derailed by a crash on the penultimate mountain stage. What he can do at the Giro d'Italia will be interesting to watch.
Pierre Rolland is another that has made just one previous outing at the Giro d'Italia, and it came with plenty to write home about. After two weeks of racing at the 2014 Giro, Rolland mounted a comeback with a series of strong attacks and made up enough time to put him just over a minute off the podium. Rolland's aggressive style suits the Giro d'Italia, and this year he will go with the aim of taking out a stage win rather than challenging for the GC.
There are still five months until the beginning of the Giro d'Italia, but the list of contenders already looks strong. Some may change their mind or be forced to miss it but the race organisers have designed a route that many are finding it difficult to miss out on.