In the rejigged 2020 cycling season, Grand Tours have become like buses. You wait ages and then two or three turn up, each one right behind the others. On Saturday Simon Yates and Geraint Thomas start as joint favourites to win the Giro d’Italia, continuing a whirlwind two weeks of racing that has seen the Tour de France end in a dramatic victory for Tadej Pogacar, and a sumptuous world championship win for Julian Alaphilippe.
The proximity of the Giro to the Tour and the fact its final five days clash with the Vuelta a España – Spanish lockdowns permitting – mean the Italian race probably has the least daunting field of the three great Tours. Together with Yates and Thomas, winners of the 2018 Vuelta and Tour respectively, only one other competitor in the Giro field has won one of the big three, but that rider is a name to be reckoned with: Vincenzo Nibali, whose palmarès includes the 2014 Tour, the 2010 Vuelta and the Giro in 2013 and 2016.
Yates and Thomas finished first and second in the main buildup race, Tirreno-Adriatico, and start the Giro with a point to prove. Thomas was controversially left out of Ineos’s Tour de France squad; if he makes it on to the podium at the Giro, dropping him from the Tour will seem like a selection masterstroke by Sir Dave Brailsford. On paper the route favours the Welshman, with a time-trial opener in Sicily on Saturday, a longer contre-la-montre in the Valdobbiadene vineyards two weeks in and a concluding, brief time trial into Milan on 25 October.
The Giro d’Italia is celebrated as the most unpredictable of the Grand Tours, with few stages lacking a pitfall of some kind, but Ineos’ team look strong enough to steamroller their way past most opponents. Among their ranks are the recently crowned world time trial champion, Filippo Ganna – if he or Ineos’s 2019 world champion, Rohan Dennis, fail to take the maglia rosa on on Saturday that will be a surprise – and the promising young Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Thomas will be hoping for better fortune than in his last tilt at the Italian Tour, when his race was ended by a close encounter with a police motorbike nine days in. Yates has seen adversity in Italy too, having looked a certain winner of the 2018 race until a bad day in the final week coincided with Chris Froome relocating his mojo on the climb of the Colle delle Finestre. He bounced back by winning the Vuelta that year, returned to the Giro in 2019 as – in his own words – “the number one favourite” but disappointed with eighth overall.
At 28 he still seems youthful alongside Thomas, who is 34, and Nibali, who is now 35 and with physically his best days appearing to be behind him. The Italian starts with a hugely strong Trek-Segafredo squad behind him, and he will be hoping age and guile make up for his fading strength to give him one last Grand Tour win. Three other riders stand out on the start list: the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk, who would have raced the Tour de France if it had not been for a shoulder injury, the Danish all-rounder Jakob Fuglsang and his Colombian teammate at the Astana squad, Miguel Ángel “Superman” López.
As well as the usual wealth of hilly stages – which have attracted Peter Sagan – they face a plethora of mountains, beginning on Monday with a stage finish on Mount Etna, where Yates took the race lead in 2018. The climax is three massive mountain stages in the final week including the Passo del Stelvio, Colle dell’Agnello and Col d’Izoard, all well over 2,000m in altitude and vulnerable to early winter snowfall.
With the time trial on the final day, the organisers will be hoping for a cliff-hanging conclusion similar to that of 2017, when less than 60 seconds spanned the first four overall. Such a scenario could prove to be the highlight of “Super Sunday”, 25 October, when the Giro’s finale competes with Paris-Roubaix, the “Queen of the Classics” – depending on how French pandemic policy evolves in the next few weeks – and with a major mountain top finish in the Pyrenees at the Vuelta.