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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses 

Photo: Katusha Team




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. 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. 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 3-star riders who may be seen as outside bets for the overall win.


Ilnur Zakarin (***)

A little more than 12 months agom no one would have considered mentioning Ilnur Zakarin as a podium candidate for a grand tour. By all means, he has always been a big talent but he had not shown anything that suggested that more than a top 10 would be possible in a three-week race. After all, there is a massive difference between winning the Tour d’Azerbaijan and taking second in the Tour de Slovenie.


However, the 2015 Tour de Romandie turned everything on its head. After his great performance in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he was an outside bet for the podium but no one would have expected him to be in contention for the win in a race that had an impressive line-up spearheaded by Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali.


Nonetheless, it was the 25-year-old Russian who stood on the top step of the podium when the curtain fell on the Swiss race after the time trial in Lausanne. With a very impressive performance in both the queen stage and the TT, Zakarin had managed to beat his famous rivals in a dominant fashion that even allowed him to have a very untimely mechanical which even prevented him from beating Tony Martin in the final stage.


Of course Froome, Quintana and Nibali were clearly far from their Tour de France condition but they took a firm beating by Zakarin. Froome rode full gas behind the Russian in the queen stage but he was unable to catch him back and the Brit was not even close to matching his rival in the time trial.


The result suddenly elevated Zakarin to an outsider status for his Giro d’Italia but it soon became apparent that there was no miracle for the Russian. Poor positioning cost him time when Astana split the peloton to pieces in stage 4 and from there, he set his sights on stage wins. He proved his huge class by winning the hilly stage 11 from a breakaway and he delivered a heroic ride in the final mountain stage but he was far from the level he had shown just a few weeks earlier in Romandie.


He went on to have a very poor second half of the season. He should easily have won races like the Arctic Race of Norway and the Tour of Alberta but he was nowhere near his best. We openly admit that we were starting to wonder whether his spring results were a fluke and whether he would be able to back up his excellent performance in the difficult second season at the WorldTour level.


However, Zakarin has firmly silenced all his critics. His first big goal was Paris-Nice and he was back on fire when he lined up for the French race. He won the queen stage by beating Alberto Contador in a sprint and even though he lost his podium spot in the final stage, it proved that he was back on track. In the Volta a Catalunya, he was again one of the best climbers before he headed to a training camp to prepare for the Giro.


Since then, Zakarin has been unstoppable. He was probably the best rider in Liege-Bastogne-Liege where he surged clear on both Saint-Nicolas and the final climb to Ans. It was only his tiny stature that prevented him from joining the bigger and more powerful riders on the cobbled Rue Naniot but he proved his class by riding away from everybody on the final climb. One week later, he did what is almost impossible when he easily rejoined Nairo Quintana in the first mountain stage at the Tour de Romandie at a time when the Colombian had made what would usually have been the race-winning attack. He was relegated for irregular sprinting and so lost his stage win but on that day he was better than everybody in one of the most star-studded races of the season.


The performance made his odds for the Giro d’Italia drop considerably and he can head into his second grand tour with the realistic ambition of winning the race. However, the Tour de Romandie did reveal some chinks in his armour that may be amplified in a grand tour.


It may have been the cold conditions that cost him some strength but Zakarin was not at the same level in the queen stage where he was clearly on the defensive. He did a surprisingly poor time trial and it seemed that he was unable to maintain his top level. That raises some doubts as something similar happened in Paris-Nice and there is a legitimate reason to question Zakarin’s ability to recover.


Those doubts are of course crucial in a grand tour. If he fades at the end of a one-week race, it will be impossible to win a three-week race, especially one that has most of the key stages gathered in the final part of the race. After all, Zakarin has never gone for GC in a grand tour before so it is completely untested territory and no one knows how he will cope with three weeks of racing.


On the other hand, Zakarin is clearly one of the most talented riders in the peloton and when you can overshadow and in-form Quintana in a mountain stage, you can definitely get far. No one knows the full extent of Zakarin’s potential and that’s always creates the best foundation for an upset at a grand tour. Last year young riders like Mikel Landa and Tom Dumoulin proved that they have what it takes to be competitive over three weeks and Zakarin may have it as well. In any case, he has the climbing skills to beat everybody in this race.


Furthermore, Zakarin is a very good time triallist, especially on a rolling course like the one he will find in Chianti. In fact, he started his career as a TT specialist but as he lost weight and improved his climbing, he lost the edge in the TTs. However, in a race where none of the favourites are real TT specialists, the long time trial is a clear advantage for the Russian. After all, he would have beaten Martin in last year’s Romandie time trial if he had not had that untimely mechanical on the final climb.


On the other hand, he did a poor time trial in Romandie and as he is skinnier than ever, it is legitimate to ask whether he has lost some of his power for the TTs. The time trial is tailor-made for Nibali and Valverde and Zakarin has to be at his best to match those two riders in stage 9. If he can’t, he will have to ride aggressively in the mountains and the relatively easy course doesn’t suit him too well.


Furthermore, there’s the question of team support. Katusha don’t have many climbers in this race and if he suddenly finds himself in a winning position, Zakarin will be vulnerable. He will rely heavily on the very inconsistent Rein Taaramae and that could be really dangerous in the final week where he could be isolated early in the big mountain stages. That’s what happened to Tom Dumoulin at last year’s Vuelta, and Zakarin could easily find himself in a similar position.


However, if he can overcome that challenge and maintain his current level throughout all three weeks, there is no reason that Zakarin can’t win this race. He created a huge surprise in Romandie 12 months ago and even though this is a completely different challenge, a maiden Giro d’Italia win would be much less surprising than his performance in Switzerland 12 months ago.


Esteban Chaves (***)

When Esteban Chaves stormed to victory in the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir, it was evident that the next big Colombian climber was born. The full extent of his potential was revealed just one year later when the 22-year-old climber beat all the stars in the Vuelta a Burgos queen stage and finished on the podium next to Daniel Moreno and Sergio Henao whom he had both beaten on the climbs to Lagunas De Neila. A few days later, he won the Italian one-day race GP Camaiore. It was evident that the sky was the limit for the Colombian youngster.


However, it suddenly seemed like it was all over before it had even begun. On the 16th of February 2013, Chaves crashed badly at Trofeo Laigueglia and it looked like his injuries could already have put an end to his career before it had really started. A long rehabilitation process would reveal whether he would ever be able to return to the peloton and no one could provide any guarantees.


However, Chaves had a burning desire to achieve his life-long dream of winning the Tour de France and he did everything possible to get back on his bike. He defied all expectations by making a remarkable recovery to such an extent that Orica-GreenEDGE even dared to make the big gamble of signing him even though he hadn’t done a single race since his crash.


The injuries have slowed Chaves’ progress significantly and there is no doubt that he would have achieved much more and be at an even higher level now if he had never hit the deck three years ago. The 2014 season was all about getting back to his former level and again he improved much faster than anyone expected. He was fourth at the Tour de Langkawi and went on to win big mountain stages at the Tour of California and at the Tour de Suisse, his first ever WorldTour win. He still missed the consistency to be competitive in the GCs but the results underlined his huge climbing potential.


It was his maiden Vuelta that gave him the strength to become a stage race contender. After an excellent opening week where he climbed with the likes of Quintana and Froome he faded dramatically in the final part of the race but the fact that he reached the finish gave him the foundations for an excellent end to the year. A few weeks later he finished third in the Tour of Beijing which set him up for his big breakthrough in 2015.


Chaves had a surprisingly poor start to the season and was nowhere near his best at the Giro d’Italia, his first big goal of the year. That made people question whether he could be competitive over three weeks but he firmly silenced his critics at the Vuelta later in the year. The Colombian was probably the best rider in the first week where he won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey for several stages. He was unable to maintain the same level throughout the entire race but he still rode to a remarkable fifth place in the end. Again he proved that he has the ability to recover excellently from a grand tour as he rode to 8th in Il Lombardia where he looked like the strongest rider until he was hit by cramps and he ended the year by winning the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour.


This year it has been a quiet start for Chaves who has been far from his best level. He hasn’t raced since Catalonia but there is no reason to be worried about his condition for the Giro which is first big goal of the year. Last year he had a similarly slow start to the year and then headed to Colombia to prepare for the Vuelta without doing any racing before the race. He has followed a similar formula this time around and most will remember how excellently that worked out in the first week of the Spanish race.


There is little doubt that Chaves has all the skills to win a grand tour in the future. The main question is whether it will be the 2016 Giro d’Italia that will be his first. The course doesn’t do him too many favours as it is the easiest for several years. There will only be five summit finishes and the first three are way too easy to make a real difference. The other mountain stages all have descents and flat finishes in the end and that’s a big disadvantage for Chaves who is clearly not as strong on the flats as the likes of Nibali and Valverde.


Furthermore, the key mountain stages all come towards the end of the race and that’s another disadvantage for Chaves. Last year’s Vuelta proved that he is still not able to maintain the same high level for three weeks and even though he didn’t crack like he did in 2014, he was on the defensive in the final two weeks. As he continues his progress, he is likely to improve his recovery significantly but this race probably comes too early for him to win on a course where the main challenges are gathered in the end.


Finally, there’s the question of the long time trial. The individual discipline has always been a huge chink in his armour and there is no doubt that he will lose time in Chienti. On the other hand, he showed massive progress in the long TT at last year’s Vuelta where he finished 20th on a much flatter course that suited him a lot less than the one he faces in Italy. However, he still lost 1.35 to Valverde over a similar distance and that’s way too much if he wants to win the Giro.


On the other hand, he is likely to have improved even further and nothing suggests that he won’t be climbing even better than ever too. Chaves has made remarkable progress and improved much faster than anyone expected and he is getting closer and closer to his big goal of a Tour de France victory. It won’t be easy for him to win a Giro that doesn’t suit him but Chaves has gone from surprise to surprise ever since he won the Tour de l’Avenir five years ago.


Rafal Majka (***)

With Alberto Contador having led Tinkoff in four of the last five grand tours, it is not easy for an ambitious grand tour contender to get the chance to test himself in the three-week races. However, retirement is looming for the Spaniard and Rafal Majka is patiently biding his time as he waits for the moment when he can take over the stage race leadership if the Russian team goes on. Having proved his potential in the 2013 and 2014 Giro, he had to wait until last year’s Vuelta to get another chance and he confirmed that he is ready for more responsibility by finishing on the podium in the Spanish race.


Majka didn't have an awful lot of results from his youth career and so it didn't attract a lot of attention when he was a late addition to the Saxo Bank roster in February 2011. However, the young Pole gradually proved that the Danish team had made a real coup. He didn't have a great first season but gave indications of his talents during the Vuelta and those performances earned him the chance to lead the team in the Giro.


He missed that race due to injury. Instead, he lined up as a domestique for Alberto Contador in the Vuelta and that was when the world finally got to see what this strong Pole is capable of. Taking some immense turns on the front at the end of the mountain stages, he was one of the riders that made the peloton explode and set up Alberto Contador's attacks.


He finally got his own chance in the 2013 Giro and he delivered on his promises. He was involved in a close battle for the white jersey with Carlos Betancur and despite coming away without the coveted tunic, his 7th place was a very good result. First of all it proved that he was climbing good enough to be up there with the best in the big mountains but more importantly it revealed that he has the ability to recover and consistently be in contention for three weeks of racing.


2014it was all about confirmation for Majka. In the 2013 Vuelta, he got another chance to lead his team in a grand tour as he lined up as part of a four-pronged Tinkoff-Saxo approach but he faded out of contention in the Andorran cold. Instead, he proved that his first Giro performance was no one-hit wonder as he rode even better in the 2014 edition to finish the race in 6th.


However, Majka had been overshadowed in the Italian race by his peers Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru and his star was probably waning slightly until he lined up at the Tour de France to replace Roman Kreuziger. The late decision was much against his personal desire and he publicly expressed his frustration before retracting his comments. Today there is no doubt that he is extremely pleased with his participation as the race turned out to be his big breakthrough.


When Contador crashed out of the race, Majka suddenly had the chance to ride for himself and he delivered two outstanding climbing performances to come away with two stage wins and the mountains jersey. In the final mountain stage, he even proved that he could ride with the best as he was third behind Vincenzo Nibali and Thibaut Pinot in a direct battle. He carried his excellent form into the Tour de Pologne which he won after having won the two hardest stages and defending himself well in the final time trial.


With Contador going for the ambitious Giro-Tour double in 2015, all the best riders were needed for the Spaniard’s campaign and so Majka was selected as the key support rider for the Tour de France while he was promised to get his own chance in the Vuelta. Furthermore, he would be the leader in several one-week races in the first part of the year, meaning that he only had to sacrifice his own opportunities in the Tour.


However, nothing worked for Majka in the first part of the year. He failed to get any kind of success in the spring or the Tour de Suisse and even though he managed to win another stage at the Tour, he was far from the level he had shown one year earlier. Hence, there weren’t too big expectations for his Vuelta campaign but he silenced all his critics by delivering a consistent performance throughout the three weeks. In the final week, he was one of the best climbers in the race and a below-par time trial was the only disappointment in a great race for the Pole.


This year Majka will return to his 2014 schedule of being a Giro leader and riding in support of Contador at the Tour and that formula worked very well two years ago. However, the signs of the spring season have been mixed. He was solid in Ruta del Sol and then climbed at an excellent level at Paris-Nice where he was a key rider for Contador. Since then he has been training at altitude in Cyprus and he looked strong when he returned to competition at Liege-Bastogne-Liege until he was taken out by a crash


On the other hand, his Tour de Romandie was less promising. He was solid in the first mountain stage but rode poorly in the queen stage. Having suffered in the cold, he decided to skip the final stage and so the race never provided him with the confirmation that he was looking for.


However, it has never been a secret that Majka suffers in cold conditions. That’s what cost him his chances in the 2013 Vuelta and since then he has often had troubles when the weather has turned sour. Hence, the performance is not necessarily an indication of his true form and we have no reason to doubt that Majka won’t be ready for the Giro.


Unfortunately, this is not the course that allows Majka to realistically aim for the overall win. There are only two hard summit finishes and that is simply too little for a pure climber like Majka. The mountain time trial will provide him with an extra opportunity but it probably won’t be enough for the talented Pole.


At the same time, the time trial in Chianti could be a disadvantage for Majka even though it is very hard to say how he will do. He has sent very mixed signals in the TTs in recent years. He showed huge progress when he finished fourth in a very similar TT in the 2014 Giro and later that year he did a great time trial on a flat course at the Tour de Pologne. However, he did a poor time trial in last year’s Vuelta and he seems to be pretty inconsistent in his time trialling.


However, the course in Chianti should suit him pretty well and if he can repeat his performance from two years ago, he may even be one of the winners. If he can add another level to his climbing, he should be one of the very best in the highest mountains and in the mountain time trial. Furthermore, it will be a big advantage that the hardest part comes at the end as he just seems to be getting better and better throughout the race.


On the other hand, the weather could be a problem. Romandie again underlined his difficulties in tough conditions and the Giro is famously known for its brutal weather. If the race is again hit by snow, rain and cold, Majka will be vulnerable. As he needs everything to go right to win on this kind of course, the weather gods may be the ones to ultimately throw a spanner in the works.


That doesn’t mean that Majka can’t win the race. Few have had the same kind of natural progression and Majka is still improving. Last year he wasn’t far off the mark in the Vuelta and even though this race suits him less, another step up will provide him with the foundations for another great performance. The course may not be made for him but if he can again grow throughout the three weeks, he will be ready to strike by the time the race gets really hard and then he may finally confirm that he is ready to take over from the big leader in the Tinkoff team.



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