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Predicting the Fight for Pink

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Nibali in pink Luk Benies, AFP/Getty

It's the hundredth Giro, as you might have heard. Yes, that all means that race organisers have paid a group of designers what was probably an unreasonable amount of money to make a drawing of a bicycle represent something else, three times more prosecco than usual will be drunk during the opening stage and some Italians will either feel inspired to ride slightly more quickly than usual, or feel inspired to say that they have been. You know, all the usual stuff. As Chris pointed out however, it's not the Giro's 100th birthday, and nor is it the hundredth appearance of the race's most famous symbol: Lupo Wolfie The Maglia Rosa, which only turns eighty-two this year. And when it all comes down to it, no matter what stylised version of the number "100" is printed onto the pink fabric, no matter how many column inches are spent on how important the anniversary is, the big show for the next three weeks will be the fight for the right to wear pink in Milan. Let's take a look at who can do it.

No, wait, let's not for the minute. My plan is to work my way down from outsiders to big favourites, so let's dedicate a paragraph specifically to the people who can't do it. I kind of struggle to see the point of seriously mentioning people who can't realistically challenge for the podium — if I asked even the most hardcore of cycling fans what Steven Kruijswijk, Andrey Amador and Pierre Rolland had in common, I don't know how many would come up with the correct answer — they are the last three fourth place finishers in the corsa rosa. That said, if you're looking for some outsiders, take Bob Jungels, seventh last year. Maybe he'll mount a GC challenge again, or maybe he'll get dropped early on and focus on winning time-trials. Then there's the entire Cannondale team, like Michael Woods, Hugh Carthy, Davide Formolo, Joe Dombrowski and Pierre Rolland. All of those people are phenomenal climbers, but they aren't going to challenge for GC. Gazprom bring Sergey Firsanov and Alexander Foliforov, two people towards whom nobody has ever had any suspicious thoughts whatsoever. You could look also at Wilco Kelderman and Ruí Costa, people with GC pedigree — Kelderman for example finished seventh in the Giro three years ago. Even they, however, are extremely unlikely to be in sight of the pink jersey when it counts.

So, here we are. The ten most likely guys to win the Giro in reverse order, starting with...

10. Tejay van Garderen

What’s he done? Recently? Actually a little. He attacked a group full of decent climbers to ensure a high placing on the queen stage of the Tour de Romandie, and followed it up with a third position in the time-trial the following day. That was his first real glimmer of form all season, but it's enough to put his name into the conversation for the Giro, especially given his track record in the Tour de France. His two fifth places there, in addition to his phantom third of 2015, mean that he's a rider with all the skills to make an attempt at this Giro.

What's positive? The amount of time-trialling in the race is good for him. The rolling, forty kilometre crono of stage ten looks to suit his skills perfectly, and he'd look to pick up a place or two in the final day's test to Milan. Additionally, his team is very admirable — if he doesn't turn up for the GC, Rohan Dennis, Joey Rosskopf, Ben Hermans and Dylan Teuns would be a fearsome stagehunting foursome, but if he does they'll be equally good mountain domestiques.

What's negative? Van Garderen's never claimed to be the most reliable of GC challengers, and avoiding a day where he loses minutes will constitute a relief for him. In the 2014 Tour he went from challenging for the podium to ten minutes down in one stage, and that was the most tame of his capitulations. He lost almost twenty minutes on stage seventeen of last year's Tour. He disappeared on Ax 3 Domaines in 2013. He cannot be relied upon not to have one bad day that puts paid to all his hard work.

Has he a chance? For the win, maybe not, but his time-trialling skills mean that a top five position is not beyond his reach, even if the win is. However, a bad day does not just seem possible but likely, given the form sheet.

9. Ilnur Zakarin

What’s he done? He literally disappeared off the side of a mountain on stage nineteen of last year's race, but what gets forgotten is that he was fifth on GC and likely to maintain that position right up to the second that his bike started to slide. This year, a sixth place in Paris-Nice had him par for the course in Giro preparation before an injury sustained due to a crash in Catalunya set him back. An anonymous, if ever-present ride to fifteenth in Romandie shows that he's not too far off where he needs to be.

What's positive? There's little in the course you can say suits the Russian extremely — he's got a decent time-trial on him for somebody who looks such a pure climber, but he wouldn't be expected to challenge for the win in either test. He's a balanced rider for a balanced course?

What's negative? He's neither the best time-triallist nor the best climber, and he might just not be able to strike the right balance. His preparation was disrupted and he didn't quite have the legs to stick at the very front last year, so I just can't see him quite sticking out from the crowd in this Giro, even if he can challenge for a high position.

Has he a chance? Again, I'd be blown away were he to win in any circumstance. A podium position isn't absolutely out of the question.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Eighteen Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

8. Bauke Mollema

What’s he done? I have this guy over Zakarin and Van Garderen purely because of his performance last July at the Tour de France. He was climbing better than even Quintana in the first fifteen days of that race, so if he can come to this one with similar form he could scare the Colombian. This year he has been nowhere — well certainly not since Catalunya, where he did not finish the sixth stage and has not raced since.

What's positive? While Mollema is no longer the GC leader of Trek-Segafredo, he is approaching this Giro much as he would approach it if he were — he's been down to lead Trek for it since Contador signed on the dotted line, so if he does have any form, he's not going to be saving it for the Tour. If time-trialling itself is not his forte, he can often manage it a little way into a Grand Tour, a case in point being stage thirteen of last year's Tour, where he finished sixth, and that's just it. I can keep bringing up the Tour, and given how little he has raced recently, there's not much positive to bring up bar the fact that he faced down Froome in July and without a rainy descent would have come out unscathed. And that's all he needs to be one of the favourites for this race.

What's negative? We have absolutely no idea of his form, and will not until a couple of kilometres into Etna. I think I'm so far giving an optimistic view of him, but we have no guarantee that he hasn't been sick these last few weeks. Additionally, no matter how good he was for the first six-sevenths of last year's Tour, that doesn't change the fact that he slipped down the GC on stage nineteen.

Has he a chance? Definite podium contender. If he turns up, which is more in question than it is for most of the people mentioned in this piece.

7. Thibaut Pinot

What’s he done? Since finishing third in the 2014 Tour de France, Pinot has only gotten to the end of one Grand Tour, but the third place finish is still there and waiting to be improved upon. This is the race in which to do it. Unlike his three predecessors in this article, Pinot has had a tremendous year so far, beating Contador on a summit finish in the Ruta del Sol, getting third on GC. He repeated that GC result in Tirreno-Adriatico, before a remarkably consistent Tour of the Alps saw him take second place on GC and a stage win.

What's positive? Pinot, in the last couple of years, has turned into what should be rather the complete GC rider. He can climb, he can time-trial and he has enough tactical nous to do well from breakaways or in one-day races. However, it's never quite panned out for him in the Grand Tours, a DNF in last year's Tour causing quite some disappointment for expectant French cycling fans, as Bardet leapt to new heights, surpassing him as the (capitals intended) Next French Tour Winner. If he can employ those skills here, a high finish is very likely. His form seems to be peaking just nicely, the pressure of being in France is off him (just look at what that did to Rolland in 2014) and the idea of the tifosi chasing him with burning stakes should spur him to new heights.

What's negative? Did the 2014 Tour de France even happen? I mean, I don't think I'd be imaginative enough to put Jean-Christophe Péraud on the second step of the podium had I dreamed up the whole thing, but it all seems very unrealistic. More importantly, it was three years ago, and Pinot has given us nothing on the big stage since then. All the hints of form and rivals beaten in small Spanish or Italian races mean nothing if he can't hold the wheel on Etna, or his fear of descents shows up on the Stelvio.

Has he a chance? Again, i can't laugh off the chances of anybody on this list (wait, that's not true, wait a minute) and I don't want to with Pinot. It's time for him to make good on the hints.

6. Tom Dumoulin

What’s he done? Remember those nineteen stages of the Vuelta when Dumoulin looked every inch the Grand Tour winner? He'd certainly convinced me, so when Fabio Aru's raid on stage twenty paid off, knocking the Dutchman to sixth, it only seemed a matter of time before he improved his climbing legs and started winning these things, as time-triallists-come-Grand Tour specialists are wont to do. Dumoulin had his eyes on an Olympic medal last year, so put ambitions of a Grand Tour on the back burner until leaving Rio. Olympic medals are fickle things, and often are unwilling to go willingly to cyclists who crashed only weeks previously, so a medalless Dumoulin is heading to the Giro with a stated aim of the pink jersey. It's worth noting here that he came into the Giro last year fully admitting his inability to win it, even after taking the pink jersey.
Dumoulin's only amassed fourteen race days in prep for the Giro, including most notably a ride to sixth place in Tirreno.

What's positive? Dumoulin is capable of crushing the time-trials, and even if he’s three minutes behind Quintana going into stage twenty-one, a thirty kilometre crono will leave the Colombian in no way secure. If he rides the mountains as well as he did in the Vuelta of 2015, he will not come close to winning the Giro, but the amount of optimism he has let slip out makes me think he has improved his climbing to such a level that he could give himself a chance with some barnstorming time-trials.

What's negative? All the claims that Dumoulin is capable of competing in the mountains cannot be proven until he actually does so — even in that Vuelta he tended to lose time on most summit finishes, so that will need to be improved no matter how competitive he is against the clock. Altitude might be a problem as well — climbing at the heights of the Stelvio will be new to Dumoulin no matter how well he's done on climbs closer to sea level.

Has he a chance? Personally, I don't think he's going to win. However, he's the most likely to spring a surprise. Expect him to wear pink at some point in the race.

2016 Giro d'Italia - Stage One Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

5. Geraint Landa

What’s he done? Okay, full disclosure, Sky haven't managed to meld their GC riders into one cycling machine for this race, but focusing on Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas separately seems like a waste of time — anybody who's seen Sky at the Giro knows that they never finish with the leader they had at the start (Landa to Nieve last year, Porte to König in 2015, Wiggins to Úran in 2013) so in bringing two leaders, they might get lucky and succeed with one. I don't expect both to finish in the top ten but either have the skills to surpass that. Landa is the one with most Grand Tour experience, seizing a podium in support of Fabio Aru two years ago, nabbing his current Sky contract on the understanding that he could repeat such a performance. He has not done so, abandoning last year as a result of a sudden illness. This year, he had an anonymous enough spring, finishing highly enough on mountains to look like he had some semblance of form, if not threatening to win the GC of any race. He and Thomas attacked together for victory in the queen stage of the Tour of the Alps, with Thomas taking the overall win. Prior to that, he was second only to Quintana on Monte Terminillo in Tirreno, so looks reasonably well-equipped for the Giro's climbs.

What's positive? The double threat surely must be a positive for Sky, who can't always manage to get a leader not named Froome to the end of a race. Landa, with wins on Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica has showed that he is capable of winning on the Giro's biggest mountains. If both live up to their potential however, I think Thomas is Sky's better card. If he can't stand up to Dumoulin in the time-trials, he won't lose time to anybody else and if Sky are giving him equal status with Landa, they must assume he'll be able to manage the climbs.

What's negative? Landa time-trials exactly how you would expect a Basque pure climber to — he lost four minutes to eventual winner Alberto Contador in the 2015 Giro's time-trial, going on to lose the race by three. Even in a ten kilometre opening day sprint, he lost forty seconds to Dumoulin, so the sixty kilometres against the watch he must undertake is a big ask, even if he can find the climbing form he hasn't shown in spades since his third place two years ago. Then there's the elephant in the room with Thomas, namely that he has never led a team for a race longer than Paris-Nice and that in every Grand Tour he has done, he has never had to be at the front on every stage. He's never been the leader, so we don't know how he's going to react, physically and mentally, in such a situation.

Has he a chance? Landa can't time-trial well enough to win this race. Thomas is less likely to be in the race at the end, but he's a rider perhaps better suited to challenging for it.

4. Vincenzo Nibali

What’s he done? Nibali is the defending champion after a superb Friday and Saturday at the end of last year's race, even if those came with quite some deal of good luck. He also grabbed a Giro in 2013 plus the 2010 Vuelta and the 2014 Tour, making his palmarés more padded than anybody in the race, even if none of those races were perhaps the best-attended. This season, he came into stage-racing season two kilogrammes overweight, which made it difficult to build form while simultaneously reaching race weight. He achieved no notable results until the Tour of Croatia, where some bonus seconds on the final stage helped him to a win over some frankly second-tier opposition. We don't know where he stands compared to the top climbers.

What's positive? Experience is certainly in his favour — he's the eldest rider on this list and certainly the one who's been at the highest level the longest. Last year's race shows that he knows how to peak at the right time and general knowledge of him shows that he knows how to take his opportunities. He's proven that he can win these races, on these climbs and he won't flounder in the time-trials.

What's negative? The fact that he won last year doesn't erase the fact that he was absolutely unable to compete with Kruijswijk until the Dutchman had gone into the side of the Colle delle'Agnello. There is absolutely no chance he could have won the Giro without that occurrence, and he's done nothing to show he can even compete since donning the maglia rosa in Turin. As for Nairo Quintana, Nibali hasn't beaten him in a stage race since 2012. If Kruijswijk had had a smooth descent of the Agnello last May, Nibali would never have won the Giro and would thus have had no results suggesting he was capable of doing so again since 2015.

Has he a chance? He absolutely cannot beat Quintana. I don't think he can beat Kruijswijk. He's not a top contender for this race.

3. Adam Yates

What’s he done? More than anybody ever seems to remember. He was fourth in last year's Tour, remember, finishing only twenty seconds behind Quintana. If he faded slightly in the final week - he did start it on the podium - it was only seconds he ever ended up losing. He could compete in July, he can compete in May.
Yates started his spring with a win in the GP Larciano and continued in an optimistic vein, snatching third place on the mountain stage of Tirreno before succumbing to illness the very next day. A decent ride to fifth on the queen stage in Catalunya is made more impressive by the fact that everyone finishing in front of him will not be setting off from Alghero on Friday. His last race was an eighth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, just to show that there's some form there.

What's positive? What isn't? Never yet in all my time browsing cycling journalism have I ever seen Adam Yates be overestimated. He climbed as well as Quintana where it counted in the Tour. He's got more experience in not cracking during the final week of a Grand Tour than many on this list. I fully expect to see him clad in the white jersey on the final mountain stages, duking it out for pink.

What's negative? Yeah, he matched Quintana at the Tour but that wasn't the Don Nairo we've seen before (not that the Don Nairo we've seen before turned up to the Giro in 2014, but we'll get back to that) and yes, his legs didn't disappear from under him in the Tour, but he's not the best time-triallist and he's never done anything but follow wheels in the high mountains. That combination doesn't lend itself to a victory, or anything near it.

Has he a chance? A win is stretching it. Absolutely good for the podium.

2. Steven Kruijswijk

What’s he done? Remember last year? I'll be more specific. Remember the contents of Kruijswijk’s wardrobe for five days of last May? Pink jersey after pink jersey, because he was quite simply the strongest rider in last year's Giro. He’s not a bad descender and he's not tactically inept either, he was just struck by enough bad luck to relegate him to fourth place. He was attacking from far out on one stage before being only a Foliforov away from winning a mountain time-trial the next. Then he started padding his lead even in medium mountain stages. This guy is not to be messed with, and I think there's a shocking amount of forgetfulness going on not to have him in the top echelon of favourites.
While he has not set the world alight so far this season, such is his style. Before lining up in Apeldoorn last year, he had no big results to his name in 2016 so it's a slight improvement to see a top ten in the Volta a Catalunya. He didn't compete between the end of that race and the Tour de Yorkshire (in which he crashed, not starting the final stage out of precaution, not necessity) due to undertaking a three-week-long training camp on Mt. Teide.

What's positive? Kruijswijk is the defending champion. That's what I would be saying if one corner of one descent had gone even slightly differently. He can absolutely win a Giro — he's no slouch against the watch, able to taper form and can show off general awesomeness on the climbs — so I don't see what's the attraction in forgetting that that’s true.

What's negative? There's a myth circulating that the field for this Giro is much stronger than the last, and that will unseat Kruijswijk. That seems fishy now, so when half the people I've mentioned here drop out before the second week, it ought to get more so. However, the presence of Quintana might drive climbing speeds up a notch, which might just get at Kruijswijk.

Has he a chance? He's the second-most likely guy to win, by quite a margin.

Kruijswijk disappointment Luk Benies, AFP/Getty

1. Nairo Quintana

What’s he done? Quintana's reputation precedes him, by this point. A Giro win is already in the bag from three years ago. And if having to sneak away on a descent to beat Rigoberto Úran wasn't enough for his critics, he followed it up with a Vuelta last year. Wins in Valencia and Tirreno, in which he was dominant only through the ease it took to win them narrowly, formed most of his preparation for the Giro, alongside training in Colombia. Novelly, he rode to second in the Vuelta Asturias, even winning on the summit finish.

What's positive? The main positive thing about this field for Quintana is that it doesn't contain Chris Froome. Kruijswijk, Nibali and Dumoulin are riders he can deal with on their top form. Froome, as history has proven, is not. Thus, and I could phrase this in numerous ways that wouldn't add much to this already unreasonably long preview, he simply starts the race as the strongest, most experienced and all-around best Grand Tour rider. Which is all the positivity he really needs.

What's negative? Quintana's Movistar team is full of rouleurs for the Giro — the climbing squad is all headed to the Tour where...oh yes. I'd quite forgotten. Quintana is attempting the unthinkable, the Giro-Tour double. He's incapable of doing it, anybody is incapable of doing it and if the races stay in their current positions on the calendar, it's my belief that it will never be achieved again. If Quintana pulls out of this race to focus on the Tour, or even starts it a distance from the top of his peaking curve, I think that would be a mistake. I also don't think either will happen.

Has he a chance? He's very probably going to win. The time-trials will be an issue but he's a good enough climber to get away with it. The pink jersey is headed to Colombia.