The route

Starting out in Belfast, the race has its first three stages in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. The opening team time trial in Belfast will set the general classification. The following three stages are all made for the sprinters and we shouldn’t see any additional gaps between the GC riders before taking on stage 5 and 6. The first real indication of who has a chance to win this race overall will come on stage 8 and 9. The pure climbers need to gain time here before the long individual time trial in Barolo on stage 12.

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Giro d’Italia 2014 pays homage to Marco Pantani. Stage 14 ends with the ascent to Oropa where the Italian icon made one of the most spectacular performances ever seen in modern cycling in 1999. The Pantani tribute continues the following day with the finish on Montecampione. This is where Il Pirata and Pavel Tonkov fought for the overall win in 1998. Hopefully, we will get to see another great fight between the top contenders for the general classification.

After a well-deserved rest day, the race continues with yet another day in the mountains. This is the stage including Passo Gavio, Stelvio and Val Martello, which the race organizers had to cancel last year due to snow. For most of the riders, this day is only about surviving. Stage 17 marks the penultimate chance for the sprinters. The following three days take place in the mountains. Stage 19 is the uphill time trial on Cima Grappa. Due to the length and steep gradients, we should see significant gaps between the riders. However, nothing is settled until the riders reach the top of Monte Zoncolan on stage 20. The 10 km towards the top of this feared climb have an average (!) gradient of 11.8 %. This year’s Giro d’Italia is one for pure climbers and this is their last chance for glory. We should be in for quite a show this Saturday. Don’t miss it!

On paper, the last stage of the race is made for the sprinters. The day finishes with eight laps in Trieste. However, a 1 km climb with an average gradient of 4.9 % just 3 km from the line, may give us a surprise winner on the final day.

The favorites

There are always surprises in Giro d’Italia. Still, I feel confident saying that this year, there are two riders a level above the rest. I’m sure a pure climber will win this race and the best pure climber in the world right now is Nairo Quintana. A few years ago, I said it wouldn’t take long before the Colombian would win his first Grand Tour. I think that time has come. Last year, he finished second in his debut Tour de France winning the final mountain stage, the KOM jersey and the white jersey. The steeper the climb, the better Quintana gets. The final week of the Giro is extremely hard and Quintana has already proved he can excel at the end of a three weeks stage race. Movistar sends a strong team to support him and thanks to the likes of Jonathan Castroviejo and Adriano Malori, Quintana won’t lose any time to the other GC riders in the team time trial. Actually, he will probably even gain time here. In the mountains, Quintana can count on Igor Antón. The Basque climber is a former winner on Monte Zoncolan. He used to have a free role on Euskaltel Euskadi but is now 100 % committed to helping Nairo Quintana win the Giro overall. I think, Antón will be in the front group on the climbs when there are only 10 riders left. None of the other GC riders has such a strong climber at their side this year.

Colombian Nairo Quintana is one of the top favourites.

Colombian Nairo Quintana is one of the top favourites.

The biggest threat to Nairo Quintana is Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. In 2012, Purito lost the overall win on the final day with just 16 seconds. The same year, he also lost out on what seemed to be a sure overall win in Vuelta a España. Purito put in a strong performance to finish third overall in the Tour de France last year, but he’s still missing that overall win in a Grand Tour. Now he wants to make it happen. He’s much more experienced than Quintana and he always does well in the final week. Furthermore, he will be able to gain a few bonus seconds thanks to his fast finish uphill. However, mano-a-mano, I can’t see Purito dropping Quintana on the long climbs. It’s true that he has a killer kick on the final few hundred meters, but to be honest, I think Quintana will already be ahead of him at that point. The time trials will be of huge importance between these two riders. None of them is good against the clock and it will be very interesting to see how they do. For the sake of the race, it would be fantastic if the time gaps were minimal before taking on Monte Zoncolan. This would make for a wonderful fight between two of the best climbers in the world, in the tribute edition to the best climber of all time.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez wore the maglia rosa in 2012 and lost it in the final stages to Ryder Hesjedal.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez wore the maglia rosa in 2012 and lost it in the final stages to Ryder Hesjedal.

Gunning for the podium

Without anything happening to Nairo Quintana and Purito Rodriguez, I think the rest of the field will only be fighting for the last spot on the podium. The way I see it, the most likely podium candidates are: Domenico Pozzovivo, Rigoberto Uran, Cadel Evans, Daniel Martin, Rafal Majka, Przemyslaw Niemiec and Ivan Basso.

I’ve been talking up Domenico Pozzovivo’s chances the whole season and I still believe he has what it takes to make podium in this race. Ag2r will lose valuable time in the opening team time trial but Pozzovivo has enough time to make up for it in the final week. The pint-sized Italian grows wings on steep gradients. Last year he finished 10th overall in the Giro and 6th overall in the Vuelta, showing off his newly-found excellent time trial abilities as well. These performances have made Pozzovivo raise his expectations for this season. So far, he has had a great year on the bike, making Top10 in all the races he has taken part in. Most recently, he finished 2nd overall in Giro del Trentino and went on to do a great show in Liège-Bastogne-Liège where he was caught on the final few hundred meters. If Domenico Pozzovivo can survive the first week without losing any significant time to the other GC riders, I think he will make a great result overall. To help him in the mountains, Pozzovivo has Alexis Vuillermoz by his side. To me, the Frenchman has been one of the biggest revelations this season so far, doing an incredible job for Carlos Betancur in Paris-Nice and finishing 8th overall in Criterium International. Look out for this lightweight duo when the roads start to kick up.

Vincenzo Nibali was heads and tails better than anyone else in the 2013 Giro d’Italia

Vincenzo Nibali was heads and tails better than anyone else in the 2013 Giro d’Italia

Last year, Vincenzo Nibali was in a league of his own in Giro d’Italia. Rigoberto Uran and Cadel Evans proved to be the best of the rest, finishing 2nd and 3rd overall. Both are aiming big at the Giro this year, but the competition is a lot tougher this time. Ever since finishing 3rd overall in Tour of Oman, Uran hasn’t shown much to justify naming him one of the favorites for this race. However, on the final day of Tour de Romandie, the Colombian excelled. In a difficult time trial, Uran finished 4th, just 14 seconds behind the triple world champion Tony Martin. Somehow, Uran seems to have timed his condition perfectly after all. Remember, you shouldn’t start out this race at 100 %. It’s important to gradually grow during the Giro, hitting peak condition in the final week.

In Giro del Trentino, Cadel Evans proved to be the strongest uphill. He even managed to drop Pozzovivo on a 14 %-part on stage 3. I admit I have a tendency to underestimate Evans. My gut tells me that Evans won’t be able to repeat last year’s podium place but given his recent performances in Trentino, anything is possible. BMC will most likely start out strong in the team time trial which will give Evans a good early advantage on his rivals.

To me, Daniel Martin, Rafal Majka and Przemyslaw Niemiec all have an equal chance of a good result overall. The three riders share a lot of the same abilities. They are all very strong on the climbs, while none of them is very good against the clock. Daniel Martin will be extra motivated having the race starting out in Ireland. However, instead of the general classification, Martin recently said his primary target was to win a stage. A stage win in the Giro means, the Irishman will join the club of stage winner of all three Gran Tours – a club Samuel Sanchez also hopes to join during the next three weeks.

The way I see it, Rafal Majka is the best climber of the three riders and I think he has the best chance of making podium. Last year, he proved to be very strong in the final week and I think he’s even stronger this year. I’m sure Przemyslaw Niemiec will set his mark on the race as well. The Polish climber knows these climbs well and he too seems to have timed his shape very well. Niemiec shouldn’t have problems making Top10 again this year. Maybe even Top5.

Ivan Basso not in his usual form this year.

Ivan Basso not in his usual form this year.

Ivan Basso is a bit of a question mark. Usually, Basso always manages to time his form perfectly. That’s why you never really lift an eyebrow when he doesn’t perform well before the Giro. However, this year, Basso has been doing worse than usual. In Tour de Romandie, Basso even said that he was a bit worried about his current form – something you rarely hear the Italian say. However, as mentioned earlier, as long as you are in great shape in the final week, your chances are still good. Basso won’t win Giro d’Italia 2014, he might not even reach the podium but I’m sure he will produce a solid effort, making Top10 overall once again.

The outsiders

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Fabio Aru can do in this race. Last year, he was riding in support of Vincenzo Nibali in his first Grand Tour. Aru put in a good performance and he turned out to be surprisingly fresh in the final week, finishing 5th on the last big mountain stage. Aru is the big Italian hope for the future. This year, he will be free to ride his own race. On paper, Michele Scarponi is co-captain of Astana. Still, I’m sure Aru will make the better overall result of the two riders. One important factor is that Scarponi is set to ride the Tour de France in support of Nibali this year. The last week of the Giro is extremely hard, meaning that Scarponi can’t afford to dig too deep if he wants to be fresh enough for the Tour. Astana is putting everything on winning the Tour de France with Nibali and to finish 8th overall with Michele Scarponi is worth nothing to them.

Another very interesting rider for the general classification is Fabio Duarte. The Colombian climber is aiming big at the Giro d’Italia this year. He finished the race in a very strong way last year. According to Duarte, he has never felt stronger on the bike than he does right now. Team Colombia desperately wants to win a stage in the race. They came close in 2013 and I think they will make it this time. I know of at least a couple of stages Duarte has set his eyes on (more on that in the stage previews when time).

Talking about Colombians, pay attention to Julian Arredondo as well. In my preview of Flèche Wallone, I talked about Trek’s climbing comet and his skills on the steep gradients. Arredondo has big plans for this Giro d’Italia. I doubt he will make a good overall result in his first ever stage race over 10 days, but I’m confident he will show his talent on numerous occasions. His idol is Purito Rodriguez and the two riders have a lot of similarities. Look out for Julian Arredondo on the steep gradients!

For other strong outsiders, aiming at Top10 overall, look to: Ryder Hesjedal Robert Kiserlovski, Franco Pellizotti, Pierre Rolland, Ivan Santaromita, Nicolas Roche and the Belkin duo Wilco Kelderman and Steven Kruijswijk. Team Sky starts the race without a sole team leader, something very atypical for them. On paper, Dario Cataldo or Kanstantsin Siutsou could play a role in the general classification. However, I think the team will focus only on stage wins. Sebastian Henao (Sergio Henao’s cousin) is very strong on the climbs. Despite this being his first Grand Tour, the young Colombian seems very relaxed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he won a stage in the mountains.

If you are looking for a super joker, Stefano Pirazzi is your man. Pirazzi is usually attacking from afar, gunning for stage wins or the KOM jersey (as he won last year). However, his focus has changed in 2014. He now wants to test his abilities in the GC. As a strong climber and good against the clock, Pirazzi should be able to make Top10 overall. If he can resist his trademark kamikaze attacks and wait for the final kilometers, I think Pirazzi will make a great result in this race. Bardiani also has the two young climbing talents, Manuel Bongiorno and Edoardo Zardini, in the race. There is no doubt the Italian wild card team will be visible during the race.

In the mountains, don’t forget to look out for Diego Rosa and Mikel Landa. As a neo-pro Rosa finished 23rd overall in the Giro last year. In the future, he will definitely be a rider for Top10. He hasn’t shown much so far this season but team manager Gianni Savio has assured me that Diego Rosa is doing very well and that he will aim for a stage win and a good overall result.

Mikel Landa took a beautiful stage win in Giro del Trentino. After having worked hard for his teammates, Landa still had enough left in his legs to attack and win the stage. His posture on the bike while attacking actually reminded me a bit of Pantani’s. Landa is here to work for the team, which means he will probably lose a lot of time before the last week. I think we will see a couple of morning breakaways make it in the mountains, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mikel Landa – out of the GC – won a stage from an early break.

The sprinters

There are no less than eight categorized stages for the sprinters in this year’s Giro d’Italia. The race organizers have changed the point system for the sprint jersey, in order to make sure that it is in fact a sprinter who wins it. This means there are now 50 points to winner of stage 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 13, 17 and 21. On paper, Marcel Kittel is one level above the rest. The German is the best sprinter in the world right now, and with a strong leadout train, it will be a surprise not see him win a handful of stages. However, I’m not quite sure that Kittel will finish the race. Therefore, we may have to look elsewhere for the winner of the sprint jersey.

Marcel Kittel is one of the only sprinters with a dedicated team supporting him in the sprints this Giro.

Marcel Kittel is one of the only sprinters with a dedicated team supporting him in the sprints this Giro.

My pick is Elia Viviani. The Italian gets stronger every year and seems to have timed his shaped perfectly for the Giro. He won two stages in Tour of Turkey last week, outsprinting Mark Cavendish in a phenomenal way on stage 7. For Viviani, the first 10 days of the Giro is the most important days of the whole season. There are five stages up for grabs and I think Viviani will win one of them.

Just last week Elia Viviani beat the likes of Mark Cavendish in two sprint finishes at the Tour of Turkey.

Just last week Elia Viviani beat the likes of Mark Cavendish in two sprint finishes at the Tour of Turkey.

Another strong candidate for the sprint jersey is Giacomo Nizzolo. Like Viviani, Nizzolo has a track background and that really helps him in bunch sprints. Right now, Nizzolo seems stronger than ever and after missing out in Tour of Turkey, the Italian sprinter will be very eager to get it right in the Giro.

For other very fast sprinters, look to Nacer Bouhanni, Michael Matthews, Ben Swift and Fran Ventoso. Not to forget the home favorites Roberto Ferrari, Manuel Belletti, Enrico Battaglin and the two veterans Francesco Chicchi and Alessandro Petacchi. After winning two stages in his debut Grand Tour (Vuelta España 2013), it will be very interesting to see if Michael Matthews can continue his strong start to the season in the Giro. There are many sprint stages and I think it’s highly likely that the young Australian will wear Maglia Rosa at some point during the first week.

Personally, I’m very eager to see what Edwin Avila can do. I mentioned him as a super joker in the sprints last year. Since then, Avila has become world champion on the track. He hasn’t shown much in the sprints on the road yet, but I’m sure we will see him fighting for a good result in the Giro. Also, pay attention to Jetse Bol. Despite having riders like Moreno Hofland, Barry Markus and Theo Bos, Belkin has decided to give Bol a chance to shine in sprints. The young Dutchman is still gunning for his first pro victory and it might be too much to ask for it to come in his first ever Grand Tour. However, don’t forget that Jetse Bol already has beaten guys like John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel and Taylor Phinney in his early years for Rabobank’s continental team.

For live coverage of this Giro d’Italia 2014, go to steephill.tv. Viewers in Australia can see every stage of the Giro on Eurosport and SBS. Join the conversation on Twitter by using the official hashtag #GIRO.

You can follow daily stage previews of the Giro d’Italia on Mikkel’s blog C-Cycling.com. The INRNG also has very good reports and previews each day, so don’t forget to head over there as well.