A 21km team time trial which starts and finishes in Belfast on Friday seems a strange way to begin the 97th edition of the Giro d’Italia cycle race. However, in keeping with recent developments in its sister race the Tour de France, beginning the race in a different country is becoming a popular trait. Staging the first few days in Ireland does appear rather extreme as race organisers have needed to begin one day early to accommodate an extra rest day to coincide with the lengthy transfer from Ireland to Italy. And then the real action begins.
The Italian stages in this year’s Giro can definitely be described as rather difficult with five medium mountain stages, five days in the high mountains with four summit finishes and an individual time trial on stage 19 when incorporates climbing Cima Grappa.
There are flat stages for the sprinters but the rider winning the overall classification and wearer of the pink jersey will need to be able to climb some brutal ascents during the three week race. Stage 16 in particular is particularly arduous with Passo Gavia, Passo Dello Stelvio and the high altitude finish at Val Martello Martelltal all necessitating the cyclists to climb to heights well over 2,000 metres.
Even with the medium mountain stages in mid-race, two less demanding summit finishes have been included and with weather conditions usually unpredictable at this time of the year, winning or just finishing the race will demand much will-power and genuine battling skills.
Ante-post favourite for the race is Nairo Quintana who attracted much acclaim for his climbing prowess in the 2013 Tour de France but who at the same time displayed a degree of naivety. His main opponent will be the ultra-consistent Joaquim Rodriguez who will seek to expose any flaw in the young Colombian. An Italian contender may emerge from the peloton but the profile of the race appears to favour a pure climber.
Stage 12 may be the one day when Quintana will be at a disadvantage during a relatively flat 42km individual time trial with the emphasis on natural speed on the bike. For the more mountainous stages, it will be the Columbian’s opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes in the 2013 Tour and is capable of winning one of the Grand Tours.
Quintana will miss the 2014 Tour de France to concentrate on this race and so will avoid another clash with Chris Froome. Should both riders prevail in the Giro and French equivalent, a resumption of hostilities between the pair may not occur until 2015.
Until then, the 2014 Giro will determine whether Quintana can bridge that gap from being a great rider to a champion.