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World champion Remco Evenepoel will be in the spotlight Saturday as the Giro d’Italia embarks from the Adriatic coast for a 21-day tussle across 3,489 kilometres of fearsome peaks and picture postcard panoramas.
The 23-year-old Belgian looks to be the man to beat, having followed up last year’s successes at the world championships and the Vuelta a Espana with a second consecutive win in the classic Liege–Bastogne–Liege.
But Evenepoel will need to outwit and overpower former Grand Tour winners Slovenian Primoz Roglic as well as Britons Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart, all of whom have ambitions of pulling on the winner’s pink jersey in Rome on May 28.
At the front of his mind is the imposing figure of Roglic.
“Last year, I still had some doubts about my ability to be at the same level as him in the mountains,” said Evenepoel at a pre-race press conference on Thursday.
“But those doubts went away in the last Tour of Catalunya where we were equal in the climbs.
“I hope to do the same here and be better than him in the time trials. That’s the recipe for beating him, even though he’s the (reigning) Olympic time trial champion. It won’t be easy.”
Roglic, whose best Giro performance was a third-place finish in 2019, believes that at the age of 33, the timing is right for him to claim the title for the first time.
“I’m like a fine wine,” said the former ski-jumper who edged Evenepoel in a thrilling Catalunya. “The older I get, the better I am.”
– Covid menace –
Roglic, however, will certainly feel the effects of Covid after the virus took out three of his Jumbo-Visma team.
On Thursday, Jos van Emden was forced to step down just 24 hours after being drafted in with Rohan Dennis to replace Robert Gesink and Tobias Foss. Van Emden was in turn replaced by Sam Oomen, a series of changes that is bound to affect Roglic’s chances.
Trek leader Giulio Ciccone has also been forced out by the virus, the Italian saying that missing the Giro was like “swallowing a bitter pill”.
British team Ineos last won the Giro in 2021 with Egan Bernal, who is keeping his powder dry for a tilt at a second Tour de France in July.
But the Grenadiers have two hopes in Italy in the 2020 winner Hart and veteran Welshman Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France winner.
The 28-year-old Londoner Hart is riding into form and is confident despite the heavy load of time-trials.
“This group has spent a lot of time together and we go into the race with great morale,” said the climb expert.
“We are definitely hoping to add another chapter to this great race, with its inspiring fans, landscapes and all the history,” he said this week.
An eye-catching feature of this year’s Giro are the seven summit finishes and, crucially, three individual time-trials, a rarity in Grand Tour racing.
The ‘Grande Partenza’ is an 19.6km time-trial along the Adriatic between Fossacesia Marina and Ortona, in the central Abruzzo region.
The first summit finish comes in stage seven with a two-part climb up the Gran Sasso d’Italia in the Apennines.
The race dips into Switzerland for a Crans Montana mountain finish on stage 13 which also features the highest peak at Col du Grand Saint-Bernard at 2489m altitude.
The riders will also face a tough stage 19 which features five climbs, three of them well above 2000m where the oxygen is rarefied and any slip of concentration can quickly be punished.
The 21st and final stage will be a 135km circuit around historic Rome, taking in some of the city’s most famous sites, including the Colosseum, Circus Maximus and the Spanish Steps. It promises to be a dazzling finale to an epic race.