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CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

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GIRO D'ITALIA

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05.05.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Giro d'Italia was once known as a predominantly affair but a clear strategy to internationalize the race has paid off. For the third year in a row, two of the biggest favourites for the Italian grand tour are international stars as Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde prepare themselves for a great battle against local hero Vincenzo Nibali. The start list may not be quite as star-studded as it was two years ago but with a great mix of some of the most exciting stage race talents ready to take on the three stars, the scene is set for three weeks of great racing in Italy. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.

 

When Michele Acquarone took over the reins from Angelo Zomegnan as race director of the Giro d'Italia, he had a firm objective. He wanted to internationalize what was by many seen as a mostly Italian race in an attempt to challenge the position of the Tour de France as the world's leading bike race and the first premise for success in that regard was the attraction of more international stars to the race's line-up.

 

The effort has clearly paid off as a more balanced route design with shorter transfers, no excessive climbing and more time trialing has convinced several international stars to make the Giro a big  target of the season. In the last few years, the race has been the big objective for riders like Bradley Wiggins, Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Richie Porte and this year it is the first big objective for Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde.

 

At the same time, the Italian fans will be celebrating the welcome return of Vincenzo Nibali who goes into the race with the firm ambition of returning to the top step after his 2013 victory. He will be joined by Domenico Pozzovivo and youngster Davide Formolo in carrying the Italian flag while the likes of Rigoberto Uran, Ilnur Zakarin, Esteban Chaves, Rafal Majka, Steven Kruijswijk, Ryder Hesjedal, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Tom Dumoulin add more international flavor. The line-up may not be quite as star-studded as it was in the memorable 2014 edition but the organizers have nothing to be ashamed of as they invite the cycling world to one of the most beautiful cycling festivals of the year.

 

CyclingQuotes.com has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to five of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the 4-star riders that may be seen as the main challengers to the race's biggest favourite.

 

Mikel Landa (****)

It rarely happens that a rider manages to finish on the podium of a grand tour without having been close to a top result in a three-week race in the past. Nonetheless, that’s what happened in this year’s Giro d’Italia when Mikel Landa – who had not even been in the top 10 in a WorldTour stage race before – finished a very surprising third in the race. In fact, more support from his team would maybe have allowed him to take the overall win when Alberto Contador suddenly showed signs of weakness on the Colle de Finestre in the penultimate stage.

 

Even though the achievement can be regarded as the surprise of the year, it didn’t come from nowhere. Since he finished fifth in the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir in 2010, it has been evident that Landa has been a very gifted climber. Unlike other riders, he has not had a meteoric rise in the pro ranks and instead his progression has been a lot steadier. On certain occasions, he has proved his huge potential but a lack of consistency has made it difficult for him to achieve success in stage races.

 

It is hard to forget how an unstoppable Landa suddenly came out of nowhere to win the Vuelta a Burgos queen stage in his debut year as a professional in 2011 when he wore the orange Euskaltel jersey. It was a perfect example of his inconsistency as it almost looked like a one-hit wonder. He showed signs of life on certain occasions in 2012 but during his first two years on the pro scene he only hit that excellent level once.

 

Things got better in 2013 when he finished 6th overall in Burgos and 2nd in the Vuelta a Asturias and for the first time ever he proved to be competitive at the WorldTour level too. He finished an excellent sixth in San Sebastian and delivered a few good rides in the mountains in his second Vuelta. However, again he was very inconsistent as he had both good and bad days in the three-week race.

 

Landa joined Astana for the 2014 season but it didn’t change his inconsistency. He took a remarkable stage win in the Giro del Trentino which suddenly marked him out as an outsider for the Giro. However, it was again an inconsistent ride in Italy as he delivered a few good performances – most notably in the epic stage to Val Martell – but was far from his best on other days. Later he did his best ever grand tour when he finished 28th in the Vuelta.

 

It was this kind of inconsistency that made us write him off as a GC contender for the Giro. He took a fantastic stage win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco – after another inconsistent performance – and looked extremely strong when he was second behind Porte in the Giro del Trentino which is the traditional warm-up race. However, for once there was not a single bad day for Landa during the three weeks in Italy and there is no doubt that he was the best climber in the race in the final two weeks.

 

Team Sky made a bit of a gamble by signing the Basque with the clear promise that he would be their leader for the Giro d’Italia. History is loaded with riders who have done one great grand tour and then have disappeared into complete anonymity. Given Landa’s inconsistent past, there were no gurantees that he would ever get back to his Giro level again.

 

Landa was looking for confirmation at last year’s Vuelta but it must have raised some concerns in the Sky camp that he was completely out of form at the start of the race. He rode poorly in Burgos a few weeks before the race and quickly dropped out of GC contention. However, he bounced back with a memorable solo win in the epic and brutal queen stage in Andorra and he was the key to Fabio Aru’s overall win in the final week of the race.

 

This year it is hard not to have a feeling of déjà vu. Just like in 2015, Landa has been set back by illness in the spring and he had to postpone his debut several times. Like it happened 12 months ago, he returned to competition in late March where he surprised his team by riding better than expected at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. However, just like last year, it was the Vuelta al Pais Vasco that proved that he was finally back on track. He went into the race with just one goal: to win the tough summit finish on stage 2 close to his home. Knowing that he was unable to compete with the best riders, he hit out early on the final climb and even though he greatly benefited from the tactical battle and a lack of support for the favourites, his win here showed that the form was getting better.

 

Like last year, Landa headed to Trentino and again he used the race to warn his rivals that he is ready to go for Giro glory. A dominant ride in the first mountain stage put him into the leader’s jersey and he seemed to be at ease whenever the road pointed upwards throughout the rest of the race. Poor team support meant that he was isolated in the finales of both the final two stages and it is testament to his huge strength that he managed to win the race overall despite being up against formidable teams from Astana and Ag2r who had strength in numbers and could benefit from the tactical games in the flat finales.

 

The results have silenced all the critics and there is no doubt that Landa will be fully ready when he rolls down the ramp in Apeldoorn. Last year he was even better than Alberto Contador on the climbs and even though the Spaniard was not at 100% in a year when he was aiming for the Giro-Tour double, it is testament to his strength. This year Landa seems to be even stronger and that’s a scary prospect for the riders.

 

However, Landa will probably wish that Angelo Zomegnan was still in charge of RCS Sports. If that had been the case, the race is likely to have been loaded with tough stages in the mountains where Landa could have made a difference. This year’s course is far more modest and it doesn’t do Landa many favours. In fact, there are only two really hard summit finishes and they both come in the Alps at the very end of the race. The first three uphill finishes are unlikely to make much of a difference and the rest of the mountain stages all have downhill finishes which suits more versatile riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde.

 

Instead, Landa’s key stage will be the mountain time trial. He may not be a time trial specialist but mountain time trials have nothing to do with a traditional time trial. They are usually dominated by the pure climbers – just recall how Quintana and Aru crushed the opposition two years ago – and so Landa should find Alpe di Siusi to his liking. These stages can create huge time differences and this is the day when Landa really has to make his mark.

 

On the other hand, Landa faces a stiff challenge in the long time trial in Chianti. Time trialling has always been his weak point and even though the course is definitely not flat, he can expect to lose a considerable amount of time. The course is very similar to the one that was used for last year’s long TT and back then he lost no less than 4 minutes to Contador. This year the stage is significantly shorter and Nibali and Valverde may not quite be at Contador’s level in the TTs but he could very well lose minutes in that stage. With fewer mountain stages, he will have fewer opportunities to take it back.

 

On the other hand, Landa may have improved a lot. In fact, nobody really knows as he hasn’t done this kind of time trial since last year’s Giro as he was not in GC contention at last year’s Vuelta and not in peak condition for the very strange time trial in Pais Vasco. Sky and Landa have worked a lot on his time trialling and it will be a surprise if he hasn’t made any kind of progress. He may be able to limit his losses a lot better but he can still expect to be set back significantly by the time he gets to the first rest day.

 

Furthermore, Landa will have some concerns when it comes to the team. A very similar team rode poorly in Trentino and the loss of Sergio Henao is huge. Mikel Nieve has been brought in as replacement but it’s a late change to his schedule and he didn’t seem to be on fire in Romandie. Nicolas Roche is another addition compared to Trentino and he showed great form in Yorkshire. However, he has never been climbing really well in the spring and as he is aiming to do a grand tour treble this year we doubt that he will be at 100%.

 

A lack of team support is a setback for Landa who may have to go from afar in some of the stages with downhill finishes. To win the race, he has to be the best on the climbs and he needs to make the race as hard as possible. On paper, Nibali will have a better team at his disposal and this will make it easier for the Italian to control things after he has gained time in the time trial.

 

Finally, there are still uncertainties about Landa’s consistency. He didn’t have a single bad day in last year’s Giro but he has still only been riding for GC in one grand tour. In the past, he was one of the most inconsistent riders in the peloton and he is still at a step in his career where it is all about confirming his potential. Will he again be able to ride consistently well throughout three weeks? Valverde and Nibali have done so several times but Landa has only done so once.

 

Nonetheless, Landa has a very big chance to win the Giro. Last year’s course probably suited him even worse and back then he faced an even stronger opponent. Nonetheless, he was climbing so well that committed team support would probably have allowed him to win the race overall. This year he seems to be even stronger and nobody knows the full extent of his potential. To lead a team in a grand tour is untested territory for him but it seems to only be a matter of time before he wins a grand tour. The victory could come already on May 29 in Turin.

 

Alejandro Valverde (****)

He’s won the Vuelta a Espana, he’s been on the podium at the Tour de France, he’s won seven Ardennes classics and two editions of Clasica San Sebastian, he’s been on the podium at the World Championships more than anybody else, he’s won numerous WorldTour stage races and he has amassed a total of 78 professional victories. Alejandro Valverde has done almost everything within his capabilities and is arguably the most successful rider of his generation.

 

However, there’s one thing that the Spaniard has never done. At the age of 36, he has not done a single Giro d’Italia which is almost impossible to believe as Valverde seems to have been around forever. However, the Italian race has never been a key goal for his Movistar team and with his status as the big leader, Valverde has always focused on the Tour-Vuelta double. It hasn’t required any kind of persuasion as his desperate search of that elusive Tour de France podium has never made the Giro a viable option.

 

However, Valverde’s status in the Movistar team has changed. While he is still one of the big leaders in the team, he is no longer number one in the grand tour hierarchy. With the emergence of Nairo Quintana, Movistar can now realistically target overall victory in the Tour de France, something that has never really been within Valverde’s reach.

 

In fact, it has required quite a bit of work from manager Eusebio Unzue to give Valverde the chance to still target the elusive podium spot and he had to convince the sponsors to keep Quintana away from the Tour in 2014. Valverde failed in what was his final chance to be the sole leader of his team in France and it looked like he would never reached the biggest goal of his career. However, sometimes the goals are achieved when you least expect it and things suddenly came together for Valverde in 2015 when he finished third in La Grande Boucle despite having gone into the race with the clear goal of supporting Quintana.

 

With the monkey off the back, Valverde is now free to seek new goals and he has not complained about giving full leadership to Quintana for the Tour. Instead, he initially set his sights on another big goal, the Olympics in Rio, and he designed a 2016 schedule that was loaded with one-day races that would allow him to prepare for the big event in Brazil. A Giro d’Italia debut was also on the menu but the main goal was a podium finish as it was all about Rio.

 

However, things changed for Valverde in the early part of the year. A dominant ride in the Ruta del Sol mountains where he bounced back from a poor time trial to win the race with an impressive solo ride at a time when his condition was far from 100%, and a relatively mediocre field for the Giro made him believe that he could realistically have bigger goals for the first grand tour of the year. Suddenly, he realized that he had a formidable chance to add a second grand tour win to his palmares and that made him change his plans. He decided to skip his experiment at the cobbled classics and instead he did an altitude training camp to focus fully on the Giro.

 

It’s a big change of plans for Valverde who was aiming for a slow start to the season to be ready for a heavy second part with the Tour, the Olympics and maybe the Vuelta. Now it is all about the Giro and his motivation is evident. When he headed to the Ardennes, he spoke more about his preparations for the Italian race than his desire to win the classics and when bad weather was on the horizon for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he said that he would abandon the race if he felt that it would have any kind of negative impact on his chances in Italy.

 

Due to his initial plans, Valverde has had a much slower start to the season than usual. He has done less racing and has less wins but it is testament to his huge class that he managed to win the highly competitive Ruta del Sol at a time when his form was far from its best. After his training camp, he returned to competition at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon where he rode to a dominant victory in the final two stages and in the overall.

 

That race had a pretty poor field but if anyone still doubted whether Valverde is ready for the Giro, they were firmly silenced at Fleche Wallonne. The Spaniard put in another dominant display of strength to conquer the race for a record fourth time and afterwards he admitted that he had even felt better than ever in the build-up to the race. That’s a scary prospect for his rivals and even though the cold got the better of him at Liege, there is no doubt that Valverde is on fire.

 

At the same time, Valverde could probably not have designed a better course. The Movistar captain has always come up short against the best climbers in the big mountain stages but this year there are only two hard summit finishes at the very end of the race. The first three summit finishes are very easy and in fact they could very well come down to uphill sprints, thus offering Valverde a formidable chance to pick up some bonus seconds. The first hard stages all have flat finishes and that’s a great prospect for Valverde who is a great descender and can benefit from his great sprint to pick up a significant amount of bonus seconds.

 

Furthermore, Valverde will find the long time trial to his liking. He has never been a TT specialist but he has always been one of the best on hilly courses. He has based a Dauphiné victory on a dominant ride in a very similar TT to the one that he will find in Chianti later this month and he has won time trials at the Vuelta and at his national championships. In recent years, he even seems to have improved in the individual discipline and he maybe did his best ever flat time trial at last year’s Vuelta at a time when he was clearly fatigued and far from his best level. The rolling course in Chianti is tailor-made for him and even though it suits Nibali equally well, he could very well emerge as a big winner at the end of the first week.

 

Valverde is unlikely to match the likes of Nibali and Landa in the high mountains in the final week but he is a master in gauging his efforts and no one can limit his losses like Valverde. The time trial and the bonus seconds are his greatest assets as the first two weeks are loaded with opportunities for stage wins. However, there are some doubts regarding the team. As always, Movistar have gathered a solid block of climbers but the team may not be quite as strong as it has been in past grand tours. Much will depend on whether Carlos Betancur can return to his best level. At the moment, it seems that he is on the right track but if he fails, Valverde will hope that Andrey Amador’s ride in last year’s Giro was not a fluke and that Giovanni Visconti and Jose Herrada can reach their very best level. It may not be enough to control the many stages that Valverde could potentially win and he can’t allow himself to miss out on too many bonus seconds if he wants to win overall.

 

Finally, there’s the question of consistency. In the early part of his career, Valverde always had a bad day in the grand tours. Nowadays, he is a lot more consistent and he is great at limiting his losses when he suffers. However, he always seems to fade in the third week of a grand tour and that’s a dangerous prospect in a race when the most important stages are gathered near the end. Valverde will go into the race in red-hot condition but with the first two weeks being a bit of a waiting game he may not be able to profit fully from his form. Furthermore, he has always suffered in cold conditions and the Giro is famously known for its bad weather.

 

That can’t change the fact that Valverde has his best chance to win a grand tour since his return from suspension. With Nibali showing signs of weakness and Landa having fewer opportunities to make a difference, the odds could not have been much better for the versatile Spaniard. The course is tailor-made for him and his form is excellent as he heads to Apeldoorn for the start. Few would have expected that Valverde would ever win a grand tour again but his dreams could very well come true in Turian on May 29.

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