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Giro Rosa countdown: Five riders to watch

Defending champion Anna van der Breggen announced in June that she has decided to skip the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile and instead compete in her first mountain bike World Cup in Val di Sole, which leaves the 10-day stage race wide-open for a new champion.

Also known as the Giro Rosa, it is the 14th round of the Women's WorldTour, and is notorious for being the toughest, most unpredictable but prestigious event to win. Cyclingnews picks five riders to watch at this year's race held from July 6-15 in Northern Italy.

Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans)

Megan Guarnier had the best season of her career in 2016 when she won the Tour of California, Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, Philadelphia Cycling Classic and then an overall victory at the Giro Rosa.

Last year, however, her season was derailed by two significant crashes. Enduring a concussion at the start of the season, she recovered with enough time to train for and then salvage a strong Giro Rosa. She was part of the Boels Dolmans team that won the opening team time trail, and she won the stage 10 final, finishing fourth overall behind her title-winning teammate Anna van der Breggen. Just when she seemed to be on track for a stellar performance at the World Championships in Bergen, she crashed and sustained a broken jaw during the race.

After a restful off-season, Guarnier came into 2018 with a clean slate. She had a slower-than-usual start, but a 12th place at the rain-soaked Strade Bianche, a race she had won three years earlier, showed that she had built a good base. She was 10th in the Tour of Flanders and then bounced back to take third place at Flèche Wallonne, showing that she was ready to contend for victory again.

A win finally came in early May at the Tour de Yorkshire where she won the second of two stages to Ilkley and secured the overall title. She travelled to California to compete with the US national team at the Amgen Women's Race where she had hoped for a good results, but in the end, could only manage 20th.

Guarnier has shown glimmers of the winning condition she had two years ago, but whether she is strong enough to once again beat the world's best along the challenging 10-day route of the Giro Rosa remains to be seen.

Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott)

Annemiek Van Vleuten is the odds-on favourite to win the Giro Rosa. The current time trial world champion has a history of strong stage performances at the renowned Italian stage race. She has won five stages over the years; the prologue in Caserta and stage 3 into San Donato Val di Comino in 2014, the prologue in Ljubljana in 2015, and stage 2 into Mantereale Valcellina and the stage 5 time trial in Sant'elpidio a Mare last year. She went on to secure her best-ever overall placing where she finished third, 1:39 behind her compatriot and overall winner Van der Breggen.

Van Vleuten has indeed proven her worth in the time trials, but to win a race like the Giro Rosa, she will have to prove that she is also one of the best climbers in the world. Her victory atop the Izoard at La Course last year showed her potential as a pure climber, as did her strong performances at the Giro Rosa.

She had some ups and downs this spring, however, which have interrupted her aim for more victories. She was third at Tour of Flanders, after crashing and dislocated her shoulder mid-race, fourth at Flèche Wallonne, third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She showed her strength on the climbs with second at Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, and then second at Emakumeen Bira behind her teammate Amanda Spratt, while winning the stage 2 time trial.

She recently spent time training at an altitude training camp that coincided with the Dutch national team's visit to the 2018 UCI Road World Championships parcours in Austria. Since then, she has posted images of herself training in Tenerife and noting the extensive climbing efforts she's been doing. One can only imagine that she will be in the best climbing form of her career come the start of the Giro Rosa.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo Bigla)

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio has started the Giro Rosa seven times, and she has finished with a series of top 10s, showing her potential over the 10-day race.

Her best placing was fourth at the 2015 edition, but it's been two years since the South African all-rounder has finished the marquee event. She didn't start the 2016 edition, and she was forced to pull out of last year's Giro Rosa due to illness. It was a setback for her team that eventually went on to take a stage win with Lotta Lepistö and the overall youth classification with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.

This time around, Moolman-Pasio is healthy and stronger than she's ever been. She kicked off this year with a second overall at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, and went on to a series of top-10 performances during the Classics that included second at Flèche Wallonne, and fourth places at Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Her recent double victories at La Classique Morbihan and Grand Prix de Plumelec-Morbihan Dames, will no doubt add to her confidence ahead of the Giro Rosa.

Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)

Kasia Niewiadoma seems almost destined to one day win the Giro Rosa. The 23-year-old twice won the youth classification while also placing in the top-eight three times against her more experienced adversaries.

Niewiadoma started her professional career as a trainee for Marianne Vos' former Rabobank-Liv Giant (now Waowdeals Pro Cycling). She spent the first five seasons racing in the pro peloton under the tutelage of riders like Vos, a three-time Giro Rosa champion, and Anna van der Breggen, who has won the title twice.

In fact, she played a crucial role in the 2014 edition that Vos won, and Rabobank-Liv Woman swept the podium with Pauline Ferrand-Prévot in second and Van der Breggen third. As a newcomer, Niewiadoma finished 11th in what was her first Giro Rosa.

She has gone on to place fifth in 2015, seventh in 2016 and she was sixth last year, twice winning the youth classification. Although she has never won a stage, she has consistently placed near the top of the results on the decisive queen stages.

In an interview with Cyclingnews earlier this year, Niewiadoma said she was targeting the Ardennes Classics and the Giro Rosa. Her performance suffered somewhat during the Ardennes week, however, but she did win the one-day Trofeo Alfredo Binda, placed second at Strade Bianche and was ninth at Tour of Flanders. More recently, she finished third overall at the Amgen Women's Race and finished 20th at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, and so she comes into the Giro Rosa as somewhat of a question mark.

Niewiadoma said that she tries not to put too much pressure on herself, and that as a young rider, she still has years to grow. She certainly has a big future in professional bike racing, and so if she doesn't win the Giro Rosa this year, chances are pretty good that she will win it eventually.

Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5)

It's almost every Italian racer's dream to find success at the Giro Rosa, and for Elisa Longo Borghini winning the overall title would be a dream come true.

The Wiggle High5 rider came the closest she has ever been to winning the prestigious race last year when she finished second to overall champion Van der Breggen.

Longo Borghini's form has suffered this year, however, as she fell ill at the start of the season. She was disappointed with her third place at Strade Bianche, a race she won last year, and although she has played key roles in every race that she has started, she hasn't quite bounced back to her strongest self yet.

Most recently, she was second in a stage and fifth overall at Emakumeen Bira, and sixth overall at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, where she also won the mountain classification - results that bode well for her participation in the Giro Rosa.

At ten days, the Giro Rosa is the longest stage race that the women's peloton will contest. It is held along challenging terrain and it is notoriously unpredictable. In short, there is no telling what will happen in this year's race or who will take the overall title - and so Longo Borghini has as good a chance as any of the overall favourites.

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Kirsten Frattini

Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.