Cycling

Preview: Your guide to the 2021 Giro d’Italia contenders, sprinters and more

Less than seven months after the rescheduled 2020 edition ended, the 2021 edition of the Giro d’Italia will get underway on Saturday. With only a few days left to go, the startlist is nearly finalized, which means we can finally dive in for a bit of analysis without worrying too much about any dramatic changes to the list of potential contenders.

Not that that will make it much easier to predict how things will play out, of course.

This is the Giro, after all, and it’s always a tough race to predict. In fact, that seems to become increasingly true each year. With the blue-chip Grand Tour contenders generally targeting the Tour de France, the Giro is so often the race for riders whose ambitions come with question marks. The unproven youngsters, the perennial nearly men, the bounce-back candidates, the veterans looking for a change of pace.

In keeping with that tradition, this year’s race has plenty of big names – and plenty of question marks around many of them – who will be vying for the various prizes on offer. Those prizes include 21 individual stages and the four major jerseys: the pink jersey (maglia rosa) for the GC, the cyclamen jersey (maglia ciclamino) for the points classification, the blue jersey (maglia azzurra) for the mountains classification, and the white jersey (maglia bianca) for the young riders’ classification.

Let’s take a look at the riders who should make the race this month in Italy.

The big three in the overall battle

Even for the Giro, this year’s race looks pretty open from a GC perspective. The list of hopefuls is quite long, and if Tao Geoghegan Hart’s 2020 win over Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman is any indication, anything can happen over the course of a three-week event. That said, we see three names as the top favorites in the battle for the pink jersey: Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), Simon Yates (BikeExchange), and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep).

The Ineos Grenadiers are a decent bet to defend their Giro title even without actually having the defending champ. Now nearly two years removed from his brilliant Tour de France campaign, Egan Bernal is hoping to use the Giro d’Italia to show that he has returned to his best. Or at least close to it. The 24-year-old Colombian has been dealing with back issues since last year, but his podium performances at the Tour de la Provence, the Trofeo Laigueglia, Strade Bianche, and Tirreno-Adriatico would suggest that he has reclaimed some form.

Then again, the Ineos Grenadiers have said that Pavel Sivakov will be a “joint leader” alongside Bernal in Italy (more on that in a moment), so it remains to be seen just how much form Bernal has. Considering just how talented he is when he’s at his best, Bernal is a tentative favorite for this race – against this field – even if he’s not all the way there yet. When healthy, he is arguably the world’s best climber, and while his time trial is not elite, it’s not bad enough to be that big of an issue here. We’ll just have to see how close to 100% he is in two weeks.

Bernal has a Tour win to his name already. Can he win the Giro as well?

Hoping to challenge Bernal for the title of top favorite is Simon Yates, who has had some up-and-down experiences at the Giro. Back in 2018, he won three stages in the race and led the GC for 13 days, only to drop out of the top 20 in the final few stages. He did, however, go on to win that year’s Vuelta a España, proving that he is a bona fide Grand Tour contender. Yates can climb with the best, and he’s also proven capable of putting in an excellent time trial on occasion.

Yates looked ok at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya earlier this year, and then he cruised to the overall win at the Tour of the Alps, suggesting that he’s in great form already. That said, the field at the Tour of the Alps wasn’t the strongest, and the real question for Yates will be how well he can hold on into the latter stages of the Giro. It’s also fair to question whether his BikeExchange squad can provide the necessary support should he leverage that form towards taking an early lead.

Yates has unfinished business at the Giro after looking like a near certainty to win in 2018.

Coming into the race with even more question marks than Bernal or Yates is 21-year-old Belgian Remco Evenepoel, who has not raced since August of last year. In fact, he’s never made a Grand Tour start in his life. Nobody will be surprised if things don’t really go well for the youngster this year at the Giro. Then again, it wouldn’t really be all that surprising to see the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider win the whole thing either.

Prodigious talents like Evenepoel don’t come along very often. He was the sport’s most-hyped prospect when he debuted in 2019, and he won his first WorldTour one-day the same year at age 19. He won all four of the stage races he started in 2020 before crashing at Il Lombardia. He is the real deal. The question is whether he is sufficiently recovered to make a splash in his debut Grand Tour. If so, he should be in the mix for the win, relying on his versatility.

He will have a big edge on the rest of the top GC contenders in the time trial, and while we haven’t really seen him going up against top talent on Alpine climbs, few will be surprised if he can hang with the best. That said, Deceuninck-QuickStep also has a great second option just in case in the form of Joao Almeida (we’ll get to him in a moment).

Evenepoel winning the Clasica San Sebastian as a 19-year-old.

The GC outsiders

Looking a bit further down the startlist we find quite a few names that could potentially be in the mix for the pink jersey in this very open field.

So often discussed among the Grand Tour favorites over the past few seasons, Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) has been remarkably consistent. Since 2017, he has finished inside the top seven, but off the overall podium, in five straight Grand Tours. We’re not really sure what that says about him. You’d think a rider who could finish fourth at the Tour on two separate occasions could potentially win a race like the Giro or the Vuelta, but he never seems to quite have it, regardless of the strength of the field in whatever race he’s in.

On his day, Landa can out-climb practically anyone, but more often than he’d like, it isn’t his day – particularly when it comes to TTs. Don’t write him off, but don’t be surprised if he finishes a distant fourth. Pello Bilbao, who has looked good so far this year, will be an intriguing alternative for Bahrain-Victorious.

Could this be Landa’s Giro?

A crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné derailed Emanuel Buchmann’s 2020 campaign, but his fourth-place overall finish at the 2019 Tour de France suggested the Bora-Hansgrohe rider could mix it up with the very best in the sport. He has had a quieter 2021 so far than expected but Buchmann is a well-rounded talent who could be in contention for the pink jersey this month. Felix Grossschartner, ninth at the 2020 Vuelta, can’t be discounted for Bora-Hansgrohe either.

Fresh off a podium performance at the Vuelta a España, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) has good reason to be optimistic about his chances for more Grand Tour success this year. He has looked solid enough in his racing appearances so far in 2021, finishing eighth at the Volta a Catalunya and fifth at the Tour of the Alps, and he has improved in the TT since his early years. Plus, if Tejay van Garderen is in good shape, Carthy will have a multi-time Grand Tour top-10 finisher helping him out on the EF Education-Nippo squad.

Carthy isn’t just a great climber; he’s also got one of the best pain faces in the peloton.

Considering how close he came to winning last year’s Giro, Jai Hindley (DSM) has reason to feel somewhat aggrieved that there isn’t all that much talk about him as a top favorite for this year’s race. Hindley is a great climber and a savvy racer. That said, the 24-year-old Australian pulled off his runner-up ride against a significantly reduced field, with Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk, and Simon Yates all having left last year’s race before things really heated up. What’s more, Hindley has not provided much evidence of strong form thus far in 2021. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on, for sure, but he’ll need to show some form to convince his rivals that he’s a top contender.

Should things not pan out for Hindley, DSM will have a strong alternative in Romain Bardet, who will be making his Giro debut. He joined DSM over the offseason after his last few seasons with AG2R La Mondiale didn’t quite go according to plan, but he’s a two-time Tour de France podium finisher and an expert climber. For the sake of an entertaining race, we hope DSM is planning for an aggressive Giro, and considering the fact that they’ll be at a disadvantage against some of the big names here in the time trial, it probably makes sense from a strategy standpoint too.

Hindley won a stage of last year’s Giro on his way to second overall.

Leading the charge for Astana, Alexander Vlasov may be the sport’s most underrated talent right now. He is currently ranked 13th in the world by ProCyclingStats points, which are a pretty solid indicator of all-around success, going back to this time last year. He rode to second at Paris-Nice earlier this season, and he just finished third at the Tour of the Alps. We haven’t really seen much from him in the Grand Tours yet – he pulled out of last year’s Giro with stomach issues and then rode to 11th at the Vuelta a España – but Vlasov is an excellent climber who is flying under the radar heading into this race.

Riding for Jumbo-Visma, George Bennett doesn’t get many opportunities to be the outright leader in a Grand Tour, but he’s getting his chance this month in Italy. A strong all-rounder with one Giro top 10 already on his palmares, Bennett should do well on this parcours if the form is there. That is, however, a bit of a question mark for the New Zealander, who rode for Primoz Roglic at Paris-Nice and then pulled out of the Volta a Catalunya due to illness.

What can Bennett do as his team’s GC leader?

The versatile Joao Almeida, who was fourth at the Giro last year, will be a viable contender for pink for Deceunink-QuickStep regardless of how the aforementioned Remco Evenepoel rides. Almeida is excellent against the clock and he can hold his own on the climbs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat what he did in 2020, spending much of the race at the top of the leaderboard after a strong showing in the early goings. We’ll see whether a more experienced Almeida fares better this time as things progress into the higher mountains later on in the race.

Speaking of second options, there’s also Pavel Sivakov. We’ve already seen Sivakov ride to a Giro top 10 (back in 2019) so there’s little doubt that he can be in the mix in a Grand Tour. He also looked to be in solid form at the Tour of the Alps. How things play out for him at the Giro could be determined more by Egan Bernal’s health than anything else. If Bernal looks great early, Sivakov could end up playing the role of lieutenant. If Bernal struggles, Sivakov could very well do exactly what Tao Geoghegan Hart did last year and step in for his former Tour winner teammate and deliver big time.

Pavel Sivakov in action at the 2019 Giro.

And what about the only actual Giro winner (and also the only two-time winner) on the startlist? Considering his track record, Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) deserves a section in this write-up so we’re giving him one – but there’s no denying that this looks like an uphill battle for Vincenzo Nibali. The 36-year-old Italian broke his wrist in a training crash less than three weeks ago, and to be blunt, it wasn’t as if his 2020 campaign or the early goings of 2021 were going as well as hoped anyway. That said, last year was nothing if not unconventional, and Nibali did take second at the Giro and win a Tour stage in 2019, so there’s still reason to be optimistic.

Trek-Segafredo will also have options in Giulio Ciccone and Bauke Mollema.

The list of GC hopefuls meriting a mention also includes Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Marc Soler (Movistar), Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates), and Domenico Pozzovivo (Qhubeka-Assos).

The sprinters

This year’s Giro features a relatively strong field of speedsters who will battle for sprint stages.

Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) headlines the Giro sprint field. The 26-year-old Australian is a three-time Giro stage winner who should be the fastest man in the Giro peloton, and who can climb better than other sprinters to boot. Then again, the Lotto-Soudal speedster has only nabbed one victory thus far in 2021. He’ll be looking to stamp his authority on this race early, and he’ll have all the more reason to do that considering he may not end up sticking through the whole race, as he is planning to race the Tour de France and the Vuelta this year as well.

Ewan won two stages at his last Giro visit, in 2019.

Ewan will have competition from a handful of other fast finishers. One of those riders will be Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) in his first start since he was suspended for his role in causing a crash at last year’s Tour of Poland. At his best, Groenewegen is one of the world’s fastest finishers, but since we haven’t seen him racing in so long, it’s hard to say what to expect from the Dutchman.

There’s also Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who is so much more than a traditional sprinter, but who can beat even the pure speedsters on a good day. Plus, he’s won stages in back-to-back stage races now (the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie), so the form looks good. Against this field, expect Sagan to be in the mix even on the flattest of stages.

Sagan took a remarkable solo stage win at last year’s Giro.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a healthy, in-form Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates), but it wasn’t long ago that the Colombian was being talked about as one of the sport’s best sprinters, and he’s still only 26, so don’t be surprised if he bounces back big time at this year’s Giro for UAE-Team Emirates.

Speaking of bouncing back, Elia Viviani had a disappointing 2020 campaign, but he is a five-time Giro stage winner and he’ll be motivated on home roads to give Cofidis something to celebrate. So too will be two-time Giro points winner Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), who has remarkably never won a Giro stage despite finishing inside the top three on more stages than we can count. Also keep an eye on Tim Merlier, who has done a fantastic job over the past two years proving that Alpecin-Fenix is about more than Mathieu van der Poel.

Merlier winning Le Samyn earlier this season.

Others to watch

While the sprinters will have their opportunities at this year’s Giro and the GC hopefuls will always be a subject of conversation, the race will have plenty of stages for riders who don’t fall into either category.

On the hillier days where the pure speedsters find themselves shelled out the back, keep an eye out for Diego Ulissi (UAE-Team Emirates), who has racked up eight Giro stage wins over the course of his career. On the breakaway-friendly days, expect Thomas De Gendt to do Thomas De Gendt things for Lotto-Soudal. Gorka Izagirre (Astana) and Alessandro De Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) are others who could be in the hunt for stage wins on those tougher days that don’t go to the pink jersey hopefuls.

And on the time trial stages, expect Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) to shine on home roads just like he did in his brilliant Giro debut in 2020. The reigning world time trial champion won all three TTs at least year’s race and took a breakaway stage win to boot, and he seems like a good bet to continue to thrive this time around.

Who’s your pick to win the 2021 Giro d’Italia? And what other storylines are you looking forward to following?

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