Barring major surprises, the sprinters will be fighting for the honour of wearing the first maglia rosa of the centenary Giro d'Italia on Friday afternoon in the Sardinian city of Olbia.
In total, the 2017 Giro covers 575 kilometres in Sardinia, and the first 206 kilometres on Friday between Alghero and Olbia, two coastal ports, run for much of the distance along the island's stunning northern seashore. The terrain is rolling rather than exceptionally hilly, with three minor categorised climbs.
But, as they pound along the Sardinia coast, the bunch will have no time to admire the views of the islands of Caprera, the final residence of the best-known founding father of modern Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and La Maddalena. When the race last visited Sardinia, back in 2007, the opening team time trial crossed the bridge between the two islands.
While temperatures are set to rise to a warm 25 degrees, the head and cross-winds that are forecast will probably not be harsh enough to split the peloton. Perhaps only the fourth category ascent of San Pantaleo, a short, punchy climb with segments of up to 12 percent and its summit 21 kilometres from the finish, could prevent the sprinters from enjoying a relatively rare opportunity to capture the pink jersey on day one of the Giro d'Italia.
The Giro's last opening-day bunch sprint came on the broad Lungomare Caracciolo in Naples in 2013, with Mark Cavendish winning on the seafront despite a late crash affecting the bunch and a mechanical incident affecting his lead-out man, Gert Steegmans.
While Cavendish is not present at the Giro d'Italia this year, riders like Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) will be looking to raise their arms in Olbia, scene of the Giro's Grande Partenza and first stage finish in 1991, won by Philippe Casado of France.
"I'm feeling pretty good, I hadn't raced for about a month leading up to the Tour de Yorkshire, so it was good to have my first hit-out there to see how I was going," Ewan, who led the British race for one day, told Cyclingnews on Friday.
Ewan has seen a video of the finish in Olbia and his directors have checked it out in person. The final seven kilometres are mostly on long, straight city avenues, broken most notably by a sharp 270-degree right hand bend that the sprinters will approach at speed just after the four-kilometres to go banner. The two main obstacles late on look set to be a short segment of stone-paved road two kilometres from the finish and a broad, sweeping left-hand bend with around 500 metres to go.
"The fourth-cat is close to the finish, but I don't think it's so close it'll change it from a bunch sprint to something else," said Ewan, who is racing his second Giro d'Italia. "The Giro sprints tend to be pretty hectic, and with so many teams with GC riders too, they haven't got so many lead-out riders and that makes it even more hectic."
Orica-Scott have had some very strong first weeks in the Giro d'Italia in the past, winning team time trials in Belfast in 2014 and Sanremo in 2015, and Ewan would be delighted to continue that tradition. "Personally, I'm in a good place this year in the sprints, I feel that I've stepped up another level and hopefully I'll be able to show that on Friday. It would be a dream come true to wear a leader's jersey. There's not many opportunities for sprinters to do that in a Grand Tour so I guess we'll all be going full gas."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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