The Giro d'Italia is a race we mostly associate with spectacular mountainstages but every now and again it is also a major sprint fest. Most commonly we see those editions coincide, by pure chance, with the existence of a dominant Italian sprinter. This year with a a very balanced course there are plenty of opportunities for the sprinters and as a consequence the teams are also sending their best. There may not be room for 10-11 sprint victories as it was at peak-sprintiness but plenty of opportunities for sure. Lets go through the stages and at the same time look at the protagonists for this year, there are plenty of interesting angles.
The Dutch Connection
Much like every Swiss stage race must pass Aigle there is a firm rule that some Grand Tour must start in the Netherlands at least every second year. No one knows why this is. Some say it has to do with the UCI being in the pockets of the infamous Dutch Illumijnatij ever since they invested foolishly in the seventeenth century tulip mania, some blame disc brakes. All we know is that as a result we shall now head to Apeldoorn and the Gelderland province for this years Giro Grande Partenza.
The second and third stages in the Netherlands will both be opportunities for, or perhaps given, sprints. We are a long way from the coast and roadfurniture will pose a more likely threat than the crosswinds that we sometimes see in one of the many GT stages here.
Of course the giant elephant in the room when it comes to sprinting this year is the big German. When he is on there really isn't much point discussing other sprinters because they will mainly be fighting for scraps. The problem nowadays seems to be knowing which Kittel shows up. In the years of Cav-dominance we knew that when he showed up at the Giro and TdF he would likely be winning 3-4 stages. As Kittel took over the top dog role in 2014 he looked like he would continue in the same vein. 2015 was a weird intermezzo when everything went wrong but the early season races for Etixx indicated the triumph wagon was securely back on track and I for one felt sure much of the excitement would be killed in the big sprint stages his year. Since then though we have seen a Kittel who is more hit and miss than Cav ever was. Granted it hasn't been for the big objectives yet but still. If we see the Kittel who looked lean and hungry in Romandie then the rest of this list may be a bit pointless, if it's the molehill challenged Kittel we've seen in a lot of other races then we are in for some more open sprinter battles.
Stage three to Arnhem looks every bit as straight-forward as the day before. Both of them finish on city circuits that look decidedly un-Girolike in their uncomplicatedness. Probably there are some random traffic-islands inconveniently placed to create some danger at least but these days look like easy sprint setups for the teams.
If anyone should benefit from "uncomplicated" and "straight-forward" it's André and Lotto. More than any of the other top sprinter Greipel has the tendency to get himself lost in the hustle and bustle, even when he's on form. So an easy start should be welcome for a Lotto team that really don't have a lot of options in this race beyond setting up Greipel. I tend to lean more toward Lotto not really giving a rat's derriere about the Giro deep down, there's no other way to really understand their team lineup. But even a mildly interested Greips could snag at least a win and that saves the three weeks after all.
Back in Italy, suddenly more complicated
Once the peloton are done complaining about a restday and long transfer already after three days they need to tackle a more tricky stage. Stage four down near the toes of the Italy boot is one of those days that could end up any way. It offers plenty of chances for attacks but the last little climb is short and 8 kms from the finish so there is definitely a chance that dedicated sprint teams can make it a day for their fast men.
The most interesting start among the sprinters, without any doubt, is the Giro debut of Orica's tiny rocket man. His Vuelta was a success and a great gentle introduction but here we get to see him do GT sprints against the very best. Finding out what his real level is under circumstances like this will likely determine much of how Orica will be building their team in the coming years. With Matthews a different type of sprinter and someone who is moving in the direction of aiming for bigger one day races Orica could be very well set with "franchise" riders to build around if Ewan is as good as we think. His warm up in Yorkshire was promising so like Kittel he looks to have timed his form just right. Following up Matthews solid Giro years will be no easy feat though if that is the expectations that Orica have on him.
The opportunities come thick and fast early in this Giro. The losers in this year's course raffle looks to be the puncheurs (or should we say scattistas here in Italy?) who don't have their normal allotment of chances in this Giro. Instead we have stages like this which will prove a challenge of the will and determination of the sprinter's teams. Controlling breakaways on a course like this is not easy but they could be rewarded with a bunch finish. If it happens it will be a "timing" sprint with the final km on a 3,5% slope that will favor the power guys.
The Team Sky sprinter has been a great asset so far and the Giro is his main road target this year before he turns his attention to Rio and the track (Omnium). Able to provide sprint results with a minimum amount of team backup fits perfectly in the Sky strategy. No need to compromise their GC focus and they can still get "cheap" wins to take the pressure off. Viviani is easily one of Sky's better signings despite looking curious when it happened. With his finishing speed he is also one of the few that can rival all the bigs even on their good days when he gets the timing just right. The way Kittel looks right now, that may come in handy.
Classic Giro stage. You can sprint but you have to get over a bit of hills first. "Also we put in some brutal twists and turns in the final kilometer to keep you on your toes" This is the kind of day where the Gorilla gets hopelessly lost somewhere along the way as some kamikaze Italians surgically remove him from his leadout train.
Say hi to the great Italian hope on the great Italian team Lampre *snicker*. Anyone bold enough to predict Modolo's performances nowadays has more stones than me. The guy is usually good for at least one good stage in a GT but whether it is due to himself or the support he is getting there isn't much consistency.
Aaaaand speaking of consistency, who do we have here if not the great pillar of the IAM team Matteo "Longshot" Pelucchi. The guy most likely to win the Chicchi-award for extremely rare super-sprints. Apparently IAM came very close to picking up Kittel last year but now they are stuck hoping for Pelucchi to suddenly fire on all cylinders. It is not something that keeps the DSs off the blood pressure medicines that's for sure.
Profiles like these just seem cruel. 200 kilometers of absolutely nothing and then a mess in the final 20 kms. It is an absolutely ace finale for those sprinters who have a little versatility and like a hectic finale. But who is going to make sure the sprinters are still in play once they get there?
Besides Cancellara's pursuit of a pink jersey on his very last attempt, Nizzolo is really Trek's only dependable hope of a race saving result in this Giro. As the defending Points jersey winner he isn't a bad one either. It's just that it is a bit hard to really get excited about Nizzolo. He's always there or thereabout but he is just a bit of an anonymous, un-engaging rider. Definitely under rated in light of his actual results but he is just so......forgettable.
Sbaragli getting his chance here isn't undeserved, he has gotten MTN/Dimension Data some solid results, but it is also a sign that DDD are placing the focus on other things. Sprint wise thaey are all in for Cav and the Tour and in the Giro they are more here for the mountains with Anton, Kudus and Fraile. It seems a reasonable use of resources and I wouldn't count Sbaragli out from salvaging a decent result even under these circumstances.
Are you noticing how the opportunities are fewer and further between the longer we go? Uh huh, so are the sprinters. In this case the organizers have come up with a race profile for stage 12 that sends one clear and simple message to the sprinters and that message is: "Please please please please please stay another day before you go home". And the sprinters reply will most likely be "OK then, but just one more day then we're going home, you hear?"
What Démare is doing here I'm not entirely sure of. Is it maybe an Italian victory lap to show off the Milano-Sanremo winner on stage presentations every morning? Or is it to find and hone form for the TdF? Or even more likely, to give him something to do so that he is out of the way come July when FDJ want to be all about the GC for Pinot? Either way I don't see that much for him here in the Giro to be frank. I hope he proves me wrong.
Oh, I thought of a fourth alternative. Maybe Démare is here to give JJ Rojas a run for his money when it comes to accumulating the most fifth places?
I'm not overly impressed with the Bardiani lineup bot Colbrelli is solid-ish enough to salvage their Giro with a stage win somewhere, perhaps even on a stage like this when some of the biggest names have gone home and the field is more open?
He could also be a guy who could go for the points jersey which the sprinters should be in with a very good chance to bring home this year. Nizzolo took it last year simply by accumulating six top 10 stage placings and finishing the race. That isn't an impossible feat for any of the guys mentioned in this preview especially as there isn't a dominant GC rider who will clean up in the hard and semi-hard stages. A versatile guy like Colbrelli could do worse than targeting the Maglia Rossa seeing as he will struggle to beat the likes of Kittel and Ewan in individual sprints.
This is what we have left of the once proud sprinting juggernaut that was Giant-Alpecin, a shell-shocked looking Nikias Arndt. Not as many results to his name as people may have hoped once he got to ride for himself but at least he had a very promising dress rehearsal in Yorkshire. The talent and potential has been there but he looks to be missing some part of the puzzle to step up as a sprint contender. Granted, everyone on Giant have ben having a tough spring and maybe this will be where he comes into his own?
One last hurrah for whatever sprinters are still crazy enough to stick around. Last day of the Giro is always a more anticlimactic day than Champs Elysée. Probably because the Giro has never been able to establish a finale in as an iconic a setting as the Tour has. Either way, the day may prove decisive for the points competition and it is 100% sure to end in a sprint to reward the non-quitters.
For Southeast it is lucky that they have developed a sprinter as exciting as Mareczko because otherwise they would be counting on Pippo to bring home the bacon. Mareczko may be inexperienced at this level but with his finishing speed and building confidence he is not a bad ace for Luca Scinto's miserable men in grey.
He's the big LottoNL-Jumbo hope in this race. No, really.
They are just so lucky Cuddles the Cobble isn't sober enough to do Grand Tour commentary.