The 2021 Giro d’Italia rolls out from Turin on Saturday with a 8.6km time trial in Turin but it’s not long before the focus turns to the sprinters in the race, with stage 2 to Novara and perhaps the hillier stage 3 to Canale providing the fastmen of the peloton with the chance of victory and even an opportunity to pull on the race leader's maglia rosa.
As you would expect, the caliber of the sprinters in the Giro d’Italia is relatively high with Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) the fastest rider on paper. The Australian is hoping to win stages in all three Grand Tours this year, and will be hoping to add to his win tally, which stands at just one victory this season.
Ewan will face-off against the likes of Dylan Groenegwegen (Jumbo-Visma) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), with both riders having a point to prove. The Colombian is coming back from injury and has been without his best form after being hit by COVID-19 twice in 2020, while Groenewegen returns to racing for the first time since his suspension after causing Fabio Jakobsen to crash in last year’s Tour de Pologne.
There are potentially seven stages that could end in a bunch sprint in the 2021 Giro d’Italia, and Cyclingnews have selected the fastest seven to analyze.
Giro d’Italia pedigree: Has never finished a Giro but has won stages in his last two starts and has three wins to his name.
The lowdown: Without a GC challenge, Lotto Soudal head into the Giro d’Italia targeting stage wins from breaks and sprints.
Thomas De Gendt – once a podium finisher in the race – will be on breakaway duties and is a solid dark horse for the mountains classification but the team’s most reliable source of exposure and podium time rests on the shoulders of Ewan.
He’s the fastest rider in the world, let alone the race, and in a straight line, he will smoke everyone on this list, with Dylan Groenewegen his closest challenger if the Jumbo-Visma rider can somehow find his sprinting legs after his ban and hiatus.
Ewan lands in Turin with his preferred leadout, and while we won’t see eight Lotto riders tearing into the final five kilometres, this is a solid team with Jasper De Buyst and Roger Kluge expected to drop off Ewan exactly where he wants to be, be it on the front or on a rival's wheel.
Ewan's form hasn't been exceptional so far this year but his results perhaps don't do him justice with second in Milan-San Remo and a stage of Tirreno to go with his single win in the UAE Tour.
The lack of a Deceuninck-QuickStep sprinter in the race is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It means Ewan has one less rider to worry about but Lotto Soudal will need to shoulder the majority of the break chasing, which could leave Ewan isolated and exposed in certain finishes.
Ewan has the ambition of winning stages in all three Grand Tours this year so his history and the challenges that await further down the line strongly indicate that he again won’t make it to Milan just to ride a time trial. Stage 2 and stage 5 look perfect for the Lotto Soudal rider.
Giro d’Italia pedigree: Won four stages on his debut in 2017 but has only picked up one win since then – a stage into Orbetello in 2019.
The lowdown: The Colombian hasn’t raced since we saw him standing by the side of the road in E3 clutching his wrist and with pain etched on his face. Now recovered from his fracture, the 26-year-old returns to the Grand Tour where he first made a name for himself with four stages in his debut back in 2017.
In the last couple of years, glimpses of his excellence have become infrequent and distant but suffering from COVID-19 twice in 2020 was a massive blow for a rider already short of confidence since a big-money move from Patrick Lefevere’s stable to UAE Team Emirates.
He has won twelve times since making the switch but injuries and a lack of form has kept him out of the Tour de France, while his early season form this year has been lukewarm, to say the least.
This is a contract year, however, and riders have a funny knack of rediscovering their best form just when they need it most. If Gaviria finds himself surplus to requirements at his current squad, there will be a line of teams queuing up for his services if he can pick off a stage in the first week and build some much-needed momentum.
Like Ewan, it’s hard to see Gaviria delving too far into the final week, especially with so few opportunities for the fast men, and like Ewan, the Colombian will only feature on the flatter days.
Max Richeze, his most trusted lead out man, has made the team and will at the very least give Gaviria optimism and support for the challenges ahead.
Giro d’Italia pedigree: The three-time world champion made his Giro debut in 2020, winning a memorable stage into Tortoreto and picking up four second places.
The lowdown: The days of Peter Sagan surfing through the peloton in California in the May sunshine before picking up a batch of stages are long gone but for the second year in a row the Giro welcomes a rider capable of winning on different terrains and a favourite for the cyclamen-coloured points jersey.
Sagan, while not as rapid as some on this list, can pick up intermediate sprint points and stage wins where his rivals cannot and unlike several riders on this list, the Slovak looks a better bet when it comes to surviving all the way to Milan.
His consistency should naturally elevate him into contention for the point classification but that’s no guarantee of claiming the jersey if crashes or if one of the faster sprinters repeats Arnaud Démare's scintillating record from last year.
Bora has the added thrust of riding for Emanuel Buchmann in the overall standings but even with one or two men for the sprint, Sagan can more or less handle himself in bunch sprints and breaks just fine. Recent bunch sprint wins in the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie demonstrate that even though Sagan is one of the leading riders of his aging generation, he is as hungry as ever.
Stage 3 to Canale, with a series of short climbs in the final 70 kilometres looks ideal for Sagan to try and put the pure sprinters into trouble but the same could be said of stage 10 which is up and down all day.
Giro pedigree: The Belgian is set to make his Grand Tour debut.
The lowdown: Somewhat of a late bloomer, Merlier has come of age as a fully-fledged sprinter capable of taking WorldTour level wins and he showed his speed at Tirreno-Adriatico last season when he beat Magnus Cort and Pascal Ackermann to a stage.
It’s not just his finishing that has caught the eye but also his ability to read a race and finale as he did to edge out Mark Cavendish in Grote prijs Jean-Pierre Monseré in March.
Some of the punchier finishes with technical sections look like a match made in heaven for his characteristics and he heads into the Giro with very little pressure on his or his team’s shoulders.
With no Matthieu van der Poel in the team, Alpecin-Fenix can pick and choose the days they want to focus on while their rivals worry about making the race and taking on responsibilities.
Whisper it quietly but Merlier arguably has one of the best and well-drilled lead-out trains in the entire race.
Giro pedigree: The Dutchman was meant to take part in 2020 and make his debut. However the world ground to a halt due to COVID-19, the Giro was shunted to the Autumn and the Tour de Pologne incident happened.
The lowdown: This will mark both Groenewegen’s Giro d’Italia debut and his return since he received a nine-month ban for crashing Fabio Jakobsen into the barriers at the 2020 Tour de Pologne.
Since then Groenewegen has kept a relatively low profile, conducting rare interviews here and there but generally allowing the passage of time to ease the ferocious backlash that came his way in the wake of what happened.
The plan was for the Dutchman to ease back into racing at the Tour of Slovenia but with Chris Harper out of contention, Groenewegen has the chance to suit up for a Giro and only hindsight will determine if it came too soon. his nine-month bans ends the day before the Giro starts.
All eyes will be on him during the opening sprint when every decision he makes at 70kph will be over-analysed and replayed again and again. Show indecision and he will be described as too hesitant after Poland – understandably to be honest – but show too much aggression and we know exactly where the social media bandwagon will be headed.
It’s such a fine line and while sympathy for his position doesn’t sit right at this point in time, it’s only fair that Groenewegen is given the chance to implant himself back without any additional pressure.
A fully firing version of the Jumbo-Visma rider would be Ewan’s closest rival on paper but the absence from racing, and the unknowns over his confidence and sharpness, will be factors in the opening skirmishes.
Giro pedigree: The Italian has lined up at his home Grand Tour seven times, taking his first stage in 2015 and delivering a haul of four victories in 2018 while in 2019 he was runner up three times.
The lowdown: Like Gaviria, the Italian has struggled for form and results since leaving QuickStep, but Viviani’s decline has been far more dramatic, with just a solitary win in almost 18-months since joining Cofidis at the start of 2020.
Shorn of confidence and pace, the 32-year-old looks destined for another change of team at the end of the season but in order to convince potential suitors of his credentials he desperately needs a result.
Multiple stage wins might seem like a mirage at this point but his track record in finishing Grand Tours, and his overall ability to survive shallower climbs could see him challenging for a second points title to add to the one he picked up in 2018.
With a more than adequate lead out, Viviani has the chance to remind everyone of his class after what has been a hugely difficult period in his career.
Giro Pedigree: The Italian claimed the points classification back in 2015 and 2016 but has never won a stage in the race
The lowdown: To highlight how much Qhubeka Assos relies on Nizzolo one only needs to look at their win column. This year they’ve taken one win, and you can guess who provided it, while in 2020 the Italian won three from eight of the team’s victories.
If Nizzolo performs then the team thrives, and such is his importance when it comes to the Giro with the Italian and European champion desperate to win his maiden Grand Tour stage.
He’s fast but he can handle smaller climbs and he’s one of those sprinters who thrives in a harder race. There are some lingering questions over his durability – he’s finished just one Grand Tour from his last five starts – but he’s easily good enough to win one or two stages once the race rolls out from Turin on May 8. Stage 10 and stage 15 look great for Nizzolo.
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