It somehow feels appropriate that after an unprecedentedly short time gap between two editions of the Giro d’Italia, when the curtain rises on the 2021 race this Saturday afternoon, the opening stage will provide only be the briefest of glimpses and possible insights into what could subsequently occur on Italy’s roads over the next three weeks.
Just 8.6 kilometres long, largely flat and held entirely on the streets of central Turin, Saturday’s individual time trial challenge essentially consists of a straightforward blast along one side of the River Po, across a bridge and back along the opposite bank to a finish in the shadow of the Gran Madre church. Although city courses nearly always have some unexpected obstacles, neither a single, short well-lit tunnel roughly half-way through the time trial, nor the briefest of uphill ramps and dowhill sections scattered along the course, should represent even minor challenges for the Giro field.
The contrast between this and the 2020 opening individual time trial could hardly be greater. For one thing, Sicily’s opening TT last October was twice as long. For another, the 2020 TT began with a punchy uphill section and was followed by a very long, straight descent into a strongly gusting, cross-headwind. The upshot of this combination were far bigger time gaps than initially expected, and also because of the wind, a second part of the course that was far more risky than could have been anticipated, either.
Perhaps intentionally, 2021’s opening TT seems much more simple in comparison, for all actual access to the course in the Giro countdown this week has been severely curtailed because of city centre traffic. However the top local favourite, last year’s winner Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) made a succinct description of the route on Thursday: “We won’t do the recon until the morning of the TT, but from what I’ve seen, it’s going to very fast.”
Despite the high speeds and high-tension prestage, the actual time gaps between the favourites when they flash across the line 10 minutes later are expected to be minimal. Exactly how small (or large) they will be is hard to predict, but one indicator, though, could be taken from comments made by the Vuelta a España route designer, Fernando Escartin, about the Vuelta's even shorter opening TT this September, an eight kilometre course in the city of Burgos. Escartin says he's expecting differences of 10 to 15 seconds at most between the favourites this autumn in Spain. So on Turin’s much flatter course, anything more than 20 seconds would be unusual.
For those insisting on a time reference from a Giro d’Italia chrono, the race's last opening ITT course of a similar length was the 9.7 kilometre effort in Jerusalem in 2018. However, the course in Israel was much more technical (Chris Froome’s bad crash on a descent while training underlined that fact) and considerably hillier, so comparisons of time gaps arguably have limited value than those predicted for Spain.
On Saturday, in any case, the pacing strategy on such a short, uncomplicated course as the one in Turin will be far more straightforward than either 2018 or 2020 in the Giro’s race opening TTs: over eight kilometres there’s little more to do than start fast and continue like that for as long as possible.
The course’s nature also means that the favourites for taking the first maglia rosa of the 2021 race will have no room for the slightest errors whatsoever. No matter how small the underlying factors affecting a rider’s performance, like a marginal off-day, they will be magnified beyond recognition on Saturday evening's results sheet.
Interestingly, perhaps the rider who could be affected the most by this is the overwhelming pre-race favourite, Ganna. Quite apart from being current world and national TT champion, as well as the winner of four stages including all three Giro time trials last year, and as a Piedmontese rider too, Ganna will have the home crowd’s support to spur him on from start to finish on Saturday.
However, in the last fortnight or so, things seem to have gone more than a little askew for Ganna, if his most recent results in the Tour of Romandie, placing ninth in the opening prologue and 10th in the final time trial, are anytihng to go by.
“If ten out of ten was his maximum, right now he’s at seven and a half. We’ll see,” was the somewhat gloomy analysis, Dario Cioni, his director at Ineos Grenadiers, gave to Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday.
In a TT as short as Saturday’s, Ganna’s apparent lack of top condition could make the difference between losing and winning. He may well be riding on a ’space age’ TT bike with a price tag worth €15,000, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, as well wearing a special state-of-the-art skinsuit woven together with different fabric types to minimize air impact in different parts of the body.
Regardless of the final result, Ganna’s current difficulties will raise pre-race expectations surrounding the different favourites, with no less than three riders in Deceuninck-QuickStep tipped as possible winners. Arguably the best-placed name among the Belgian team’s trio of contenders is Remi Cavagna, the French national champion whose impressive triumph in the final, very technical TT of the Tour de Romandie last week, as well as runners-up spots in the Volta a Catalunya and Paris-Nice, are all positive indicators of his chances of taking a first ever career victory on Italian soil.
That said, Cavagna’s teammates Remco Evenepoel and João Almeida have both the palmares, the possible GC ambitions, and, in Almeida’s case, the track record in the Giro in their favour. Evenepoel’s silver medal in the 2019 World Championships, ahead of Ganna, is the current high-water mark of his success against the clock to date. Almeida’s second place last year in Palermo in the Giro, coupled with his consistently strong performances in the subsequent TTs, make the Deceuninck-QuickStep duo the GC favourites most likely to reap the greatest benefits from Saturday’s race opener.
Apart from Ganna and Cavagna, a number of other specialists cannot be ruled out. Victor Campanaerts (Team Qhubeka Assos), second in the final TT in Milan last year and narrowly beaten by Tom Dumoulin in Jerusalem in 2018, may have swtiched his spring focus to the Classics, but he remains a serious contender. Another dark horse is Jan Tratnik (Bahrain Victorious) a former double Slovenian TT national champion and recently sixth in the opening prologue of Romandie, as well as 11th in the Giro’s first TT last year.
For the rest of the GC contenders, the over-riding aim will be damage limitation time-wise and taking as few risks as possible on the course’s 10 or so corners.
Psychologically, of course, for anybody aiming for pink in Milan, it would be a plus to finish ahead of rivals form the word go, but the reality is that any advantages gained or lost this opening weekend are so small they could easily be overturned in the briefest of efforts or time bonus battles in the days to come.
And after Turin’s curtain raiser, Tuesday’s short but very difficult ascent to Sestola could be just the place for anyone on the backfoot this weekend to set Saturday's record straight.
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