It's a bit of a strange choice to start the Giro d'Italia in Belfast. When you think the last time a Grand Tour visited Ireland, the infamous 1998 Tour de France, the only memorable thing was the Festina affair and everyone suspicious or frightened about going home before the end. Then there's the Titanic Centre as the first stage focal point, that wasn't exactly a successful venture either.
Maybe the organisers are thinking outside the box, maybe it's third time lucky or maybe I'm just being miserable. It just seems a strange choice, but then the Giro d'Italia people quite often make decisions like that. Like the team time trial to open affairs; a debatable way to start a race if ever there was one. It makes things ordered but I'm not sure it brings any excitement to the opening stages. And though foreign starts are well and good for promotional use, the race won't really get under way until it is back in Italy.
Most of the riders will be hoping to get through the opening three stages without falling off, losing too much time or getting wet in the rain. Good luck with that last hope.
The riders and the favourites
I think Colombian climber Nairo Quintana will start as the main favourite and Movistar as the team that will be deciding the tactics. If they win the opening team time trial it'll be interesting to see if they try and control the race from the outset but I very much doubt that'll be part of their race plan. With the third week containing most of the mountains, they'll want to sit in second or third place and watch what happens.
Behind Quintana there's a cluster of talent waiting for a weakness to appear: Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Cadel Evans (BMC) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are all riders you would expect to have an influence on the fight for the pink jersey.
Then on the next level down you've got the Irish cousins Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and Michele Scarponi (Astana) with maybe a surprise coming from Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing).
Urán finished second overall behind Vincenzo Nibali last year with little support at Team Sky but his move to Omega Pharma-QuickStep won't really improve the Colombian's situation. Historically the Belgian team hasn't cared enough about the Grand Tours to put together a real challenge and I can't see that changing. Luckily Urán is a solid rider and is able to survive on his own merits. He's also good at positioning himself in the peloton, which is rare for a Colombian. However his big weakness is that he usually has one bad day in a Grand Tour.
Rodríguez has been knocking on the door of Grand Tour win for several years but his time trialling is only average and there are almost 70km to be ridden alone in this year's race. His form is also a bit of an unknown as sickness and accidents have taken him out of the last few races. He'll no doubt be hoping to stay upright and ride into form.
Evans is reliable, strong, tactically good, holds his position in the peloton well and has a solid team structure. He also handles bad weather pretty well. His time trialling hasn't been great in the last few years and his climbing ability has become less explosive with age, so that limits his ambitions, but you can't give him too much leeway.
Pozzovivo has been in great form recently. He was the strongest rider at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and will surely be a factor in the last week of the Giro d'Italia if he can remain in touch of the other favourites. He certainly won't be afraid of the mountain finishes but again his time trialling is woeful and his positioning isn't great. His Ag2r-La Mondiale teammates will have their work cut out to keep him protected and up at the front.
Martin and Roche fly the flag for Ireland
Of the hopefuls, Dan Martin is good for a stage win and maybe a top ten GC placing if he climbs better than usual, but those mountains are long and steep in the final week. Teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter is just as likely to be Garmin's GC rider.
Martin's cousin Nicolas Roche is another rider that always promises much but has always has one poor day. He also hasn't shown much form so far this season. Basso and Scarponi are getting past their sell by dates though I can see Scarponi being good one day in the mountains. The problem will be the next day, when he's not so good and loses precious seconds. His time trialling is poor too.
Of the hopefuls I'd say that Arredondo looks the best bet to surprise everyone, not to win overall but up there knocking on the door for a top five. His time trialling is a bit of an unknown but I suspect his climbing will make up for that weakness.
There's nothing like a Giro d'Italia sprint
The main interest for the first two weeks of racing will be the sprinters battle, which despite the absence of Mark Cavendish is still top class. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Francesco Chicchi (Neri Sottoli), Ben Swift (Team Sky) and Boy Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing) ought to be crossing swords and swapping insults on the flatter days. Their respective teams will also be looking to control affairs to ensure that happens, making hard for breakaways to enjoy a day of success. There's nothing like a Giro d'Italia mass sprint for speed, desperate moves and massive crashes. Surprisingly none of that puts them off.
Before this year's race starts, I'd like to spare a moment of reflection for the winner of the Giro d'Italia 25 years ago and the last Frenchman to win it: Laurent Fignon.
Everyone seems to remember his being beaten by Greg LeMond at that year's Tour de France but Fignon won both Milan-San Remo and the Giro d'Italia in 1989. A great rider, who is sadly missed.
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Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey.
Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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