The Giro d’Italia (October 3-25) starts this weekend, with some of the best Grand Tours riders in the WorldTour targeting the second Grand Tour of the rescheduled 2020 season.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) are the only Grand Tour winners on the start line but behind them are a raft of potential winners, podium contenders and talented young riders.
Cyclingnews have picked out a number of headline names as well as a sprinkling of Grand Tour debutants worth watching in the race.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 80th 2012
The former Tour de France winner was so off the pace at the Criterium du Dauphine that Dave Brailsford made the brave but correct decision to bench the Welshman and direct him towards the Giro d’Italia.
That decision might turn out to be a blessing in disguise because there was little point in Thomas traveling to the Tour de France only to falter under the pressure of Jumbo-Visma, while the Giro offers Thomas a genuine lifeline to establish himself as the team’s primary Grand Tour rider for 2021.
Those, such as Bradley Wiggins, who suggested that Thomas could have fought with Richie Porte for the podium at the Tour were either dreaming or watching the situation unfold with a huge degree of home-based bias.
Now, after a few weeks of extra training and focus, Thomas has shown that his form has dramatically improved, with second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and a fourth in the World Championships time trial.
While the Giro course, with so many time trial kilometres, gives the 34-year-old a clear advantage over almost off of his rivals, the flipside means Thomas starts the race with a target on his back. The pure climbers know that they’ll need to crack him early and often if they are to erase the deficits they’ll need to make up after the three time trials.
The team around Thomas is one of the strongest in the race too, with Eddie Dunbar, and Tao Geoghegan Hart among the climbing contingent, while Salvatore Puccio brings years of Giro experience. If Rohan Dennis can offer his support in the mountains on a regular basis then that’s a huge advantage too.
There are obvious questions over Thomas’ previous performances at the Giro but his recent record of first and second in Grand Tours demonstrates his pedigree.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 12th in 2016
The Danish rider’s Tirreno-Adriatico form was slightly behind what we’ve come to expect from the Astana leader but he nevertheless remains a main threat for the podium at the Giro d’Italia.
This is only his second showing at the race – the first coming in 2016 - and despite his improvements in recent years, in both the one-day and weeklong stage racing arenas, he still only has one top-ten Grand Tour finish to his name. That came back in 2013 and since then the record hasn’t exactly matched up to his undoubted talents. He was ninth when he crashed out of the Tour last year and still came back to win an individual stage and finish 13th at the Vuelta.
Whether or not he has the staying power to last three weeks remains a legitimate question – both because of his record and his age – but Astana line up with one of the best teams in the field and have more than enough firepower to carry Fuglsang’s GC hopes.
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 5th in 2016
The Polish rider probably won’t win the Giro d’Italia but if he stays healthy another top-10 should be well within his grasp.
His record in Grand Tours, to be fair, has been exceptionally consistent over the years, with six top-ten finishes since 2013. After a few fallow years between 2017 and 2018, he has finished sixth in his last two attempts.
He appears to have found a new level of motivation and you can envisage him plugging away in the mountains on a regular basis, never far from the front, but hardly ever attacking until there are just a handful of rivals left in the frame.
His form since racing resumed in August has been impressive, with fourth overall at the Tour de Pologne and third overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Best Giro d’Italia result: Making his Grand Tour debut
He’s 22 and never raced a Grand Tour but Almeida has been exceptional since racing resumed, with third in Burgos, seventh in the Tour de l’Ain, second in the Giro dell’Emilia and then third in Coppi e Bartali. James Knox might start in the role as Deceuninck-QuickStep’s protected GC rider but Almeida is worth watching all the same.
A couple of years ago he was second in the Baby Giro behind another rider on our list and seventh at the Tour de l’Avenir, so the GC caliber is certainly there.
His maiden Grand Tour is likely to focus on learning and soaking up as much experience as possible and if he fails to register a GC result there’s certainly no fault in that but the former Hagens Berman Axeon rider is certainly worth watching as the race develops.
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 8th in 2019; in 2018 he won three stages and lead the race for 13 days
The abundance of time trial kilometres is a clear issue but Yates and his team have been in a bullish mood ahead of the race, stating that they will look to be aggressive whenever the opportunity arises.
They will need to strike the right balance however with mountain stages peppering every week of the race and a summit finish as early as stage 3. No opportunity can be lost if Geraint Thomas is a contender but if the Welshman falters then Yates may be able to ease off the accelerator and wait for the final week before making his defining moves in the mountains.
Form wise, the 28-year-old is among the clear standout favourites with a stage win and the overall at Tirreno Adriatico following on the back of third place at the Tour of Poland. There’s plenty of experience around him within the squad with Hamilton, Howson and Haig all capable of providing cover in the mountains.
Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 4th in 2016
Like Geraint Thomas, the Dutch rider arrives at the race after missing the Tour de France, but unlike the Ineos leader, Kruijsijk missed out due to injury rather than a lack of form.
His condition until his Dauphine crash looked more than good enough for a super domestique role in the Tour. The crash on stage 4 in the final pre-Tour showdown has now provided the 33-year-old with the opportunity to lead a team in a race that helped establish his GC credentials.
It’s his recent record in Grand Tours, however, that mark Kruijsijk as a genuine contender for the maglia rosa with 9th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd at the 2019 Tour de France all attained before his unfortunate crash at the Vuelta last year.
Crashes, in fact, seem to have had a huge effect on the Dutchman’s career with the fall in the 2016 Giro – while he was leading the race no less – the main reason he lost a possible overall title.
The course this time really suits his talents, with enough time trial kilometres for him to distance the likes of Yates and Nibali and then a difficult second half in which his durability will probably come to the fore.
The Jumbo-Visma team built around him lacks the firepower that was so obviously on display at the Tour de France but Tolhoek and Bouwan are no slouch when it comes to climbing.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 1st in 2013 and 2016
The Sicilian’s form hasn’t exactly been stellar in recent weeks but only a brave soul would write off Nibali’s chances of at least making the podium at this Giro d’Italia.
Nibali has not finished lower than third at the Giro since 2010, with two wins, and two second places. That demonstrates his ability to stay the course, even over different routes and when form and fitness have varied. It’s an incredible record and while age is almost certainly a factor these days the Trek-Segafredo leader remains durable and determined – two major assets when it comes to winning a race as tough as the Giro.
He may struggle with the explosiveness of Yates but over three weeks of grueling terrain that edge might not be a deciding factor when it comes to longer climbs in the second half of the race. Team-wise, the entire Trek-Segafredo line up will operate around Nibali with the presence of Giulio Ciccone despite only recently recovering from COVID-19 will be vital for Nibali’s morale and performance in the mountains.
Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 7th in 2014
Team Sunweb are going into the Giro d’Italia with several spinning plates, with Oomen and Kelderman targeting the GC and Michael Matthews hunting stage wins.
All three goals are potentially achievable but Kelderman is the squad’s best hope of the overall standings. He has a more than solid time trail in his legs and his fourth-place at Tirreno-Adriatico demonstrated that his form is moving in the right direction.
When it comes to his GC hopes, everything depends on if the Dutchman can remain upright on the often technical and rough Italian roads.
His Grand Tour record isn’t too bad in that regard, with just two DNF’s from ten starts, but his career has too often been punctuated by crashes and injuries. If he stays on his bike then a top-ten is well within his grasp and if the race opens up for him then a top-five or even a career-best podium spot is within reach.
The route suits him, with a healthy dose of time trial kilometres to put minutes into several of his rivals, while his climbing is better than some give him credit for.
It’s been three years since Kelderman’s fourth place at the Vuelta and at 29 he should be looking to at least equal that result before his move to Bora-Hansgrohe next year.
Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana)
Best Giro d’Italia result: Making his Grand Tour debut
The former Baby Giro winner is set to make his Grand Tour debut, and while Fuglsang will hog most of the pre-race headlines – and rightly so – Vlasov looks like the future of Vinokourov’s team.
He’s 24 and already making waves in his first season at WorldTour level several standout performances in France either side of the COVID-19 lockdown plus a win on Mont Ventoux, third at Il Lombardia and then another victory in the testing Giro dell’Emilia.
He has since gone on to finish fifth in Tirreno-Adriatico and won the best young rider’s white jersey. His time trialing might let him down - although he’ll fare better than Miguel Angel Lopez in that regard – but his climbing should keep him close to Fuglsang on GC for at least a week. From there the young Russian will be racing into the unknown.
At this point, he’s not an outright GC candidate but like Almeida he’s certainly one to watch.
Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team)
Best Giro d’Italia result: 5th in 2017 or 10th and a stage win in 2019
Arriving at 10 riders on this list was a hard task as there were no standout candidates for the final place, so Ilnur Zakarin got our vote.
Sam Oomen has the potential; so too does James Knox; while there are plenty of super domestiques like Giulio Ciccone or Jack Haig who could step up.
There’s also always a rider who comes from leftfield at the Giro d’Italia – such as Fausto Masnada – who will surely attack and do well again.
However Zakarin gets the nod because of the sheer number of time trial kilometres and because he’s riding for his future. Results-wise, his best years are behind him and he’ll have virtually no support during the race as the majority of his teammates focus on hunting stage wins and saving their careers, but if the Russian can rekindle the form of 2017 when he was fifth in the Giro and then third in the Vuelta, who knows what he could achieve in the next three weeks.