A look at the contenders and pretenders for the 2023 Giro d’Italia. This year’s edition seems to open with two questions. Who will finish first between Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič, and who will finish third?
This the picture today and so often the Giro is an optical illusion that reveals a different form later. We’ll revisit and revise the contenders and their outlook on each of the rest days.
A reminder of the route. Three time trial stages totalling over 70km, the first two are flat and the last has a savage climb (pending news on any revision), it’s the most kilometres solo against the clock since 2013 although let’s not exaggerate as recent years have come close, this defining feature of the first two time trials is how they’re almost dragster courses to reward people who can turn a 58T chainring, local riders whose name rhymes with panna even. As ever the mountains build in intensity, there are summit finishes in the first week but it’s the third week that should prove decisive with the gigantic Alpine stages, weather permitting. You’ll find more detail on all the stages at inrng.com/giro. There are time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds for the road stages.
Never say Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quickstep) doesn’t know what he wants. It’s victory in all three grand tours, the world championship title and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Despite this prodigious challenge, he’s ticking off the bucket list with ease. He’s the form pick, having won again in Liège by riding the entire field off his wheel. When he won the Vuelta last year, he put 48 seconds into Roglič in the 30km time trial and 1-2 minutes into the other GC rivals. So this year with Stages 1 and 9 totalling 49km he’s got terrain to suit, even if Roglič was on the back foot back then. Plus unlike many who say they’ll take things “day by day”, he’s saying stronger than he was in the Vuelta and has made gains in the time trials too so he’s here to win. And yet… there are still questions. The team are solid and in brief glimpses in the Ardennes seem to have raised their game but they’re not fierce, they can defend but other teams will fancy their chances. Evenepoel’s Vuelta win was comprehensive but last year’s edition was unusually front-loaded, he built up a cushion early. Then on the longer climbs later on he proved beatable, now he’ll face far more climbing with even longer ascents later this month. He enjoyed Goldilocks weather, neither too hot nor too cold so the Alpine week could be a challenge if the weather turns grim. Plus he’s under pressure, if things fall apart he might find it hard to stay focussed, especially as there’s every chance there’s more Belgian media at the race than Italian. This may all sound like blogger culo-covering but they’re genuine tests for a rider still discovering plenty about himself, he ought to pass them, and has to if he wants a Tour win to complete the set but this Giro can also be about lessons and there’s more than a hint of hubris although he’s probably just confident.
Primož Roglič is form unknown and so the reputation pick, although team mate Sep Kuss says he’s in his best shape, but he would say that. Roglič showed up, then cleaned up in Tirreno-Adriatico and took the Volta a Catalunya too and it was hardly news, he’s a stage racing cyborg who has thrived in one week races. A three times Vuelta winner shows he can do the distance, yet the Giro and Tour have been his undoing. One thing in Roglič’s past is a tendency to fade in grand tours, his last tilt at the Giro came after he won the UAE Tour, Tirreno and Romandie, no wonder he was rinsed for the third week, ditto his Planche implosion followed winning the Tour de l’Ain and crashing out of the Dauphiné; which brings us to the more recent fashion as he’s abandoned three out of the last four grand tours. He’s had further bad luck before turning a pedal this time with lieutenants Wilco Kelderman injured, a flurry of Covid cases this week and hardly like-for-like replacements. Excellent in the time trials, Roglič’s trump card is his jump, he can sprint for uphill stage wins and harvest time bonuses and it’s where he’ll hope to gain time on Evenepoel and the rest; a corollary is that Jumbo-Visma are likely to mow down the breakaways to set up their leader although there aren’t that many spiky finishes he excels in. For all Roglič’s physiological attributes, there’s psychology too. Evenepoel may seem relaxed these days but Roglič was able to get under his skin in the Volta a Catalunya and the next three weeks allows plenty of time for the stoic Slovenian to make subcutaneous provocation.
Now for all the others. The quote often attributed to Napoleon of “never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake” comes to mind. The focus on two riders means the burden of the race falls implicitly on Soudal-Quickstep and Jumbo-Visma while other teams can sit back and toil for two weeks or more. Passive? Yes but the big prize is winning in Rome, not bossing the second week; plus it’s realistic given the performances of Evenepoel and Roglič; and the Giro does throw up surprises, see Richard Carapaz riding away on the Colle San Carlo while Vincenzo Nibali and Primož Roglič marked each other.
Ineos start with four riders who could each lead other teams and arguably the strongest squad in the race. Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart lead the team and Thymen Arensman and Pavel Sivakov give them two more options. Thomas makes his third bid to win after being thwarted by two crashes, otherwise he is dependable although his steady ride to the podium in last summer’s Tour de France came after victory in the Tour de Suisse weeks before, his level today less reassuring as he’s been chasing form and nowhere near to winning but he’ll hope he can bide his time until the third week, think Aesop’s Tortoise. Geoghegan Hart has been victorious, winning the Tour of the Alps and doing this by climbing well and sprinting for stage wins; but as we saw in Tirreno, whatever he could do, Roglič could do better. But again he’ll pounce if the Big Two flounce. Arensman is still a work-in-progress while Sivakov could – and perhaps will – lead for another team but is more likely to be a mountain sherpa. It’s worth mentioning a fifth rider, Filippo Ganna as he could win the opening stage but on other days he’s a circus strongman capable of bending the race to his will. Collectively the team could tear the race apart, or try, but they have a tendency to defend, riding in train formation as we saw in the Tour of the Alps recently. But if there’s nothing to defend in the third week, none of them are in the top-three, then things could get lively.
UAE bring an interesting team with talents who get to shine when Pogačar isn’t racing. João Almeida made a name for himself in the Giro with a long spell in the maglia rosa back in 2020 when he seemed a punchy rider perhaps limited in the high mountains. Now he’s almost the opposite, a diesel who might be dropped on a climb if the pace is too high at the start but winches his way back into contention. This is commendably consistent but it’s unlikely to win the Giro, he’ll need to recover the old punch and he keeps improving and is a formidable challenger. Talking of improvement Jay Vine is the one of the most interesting riders in the race because his rise up the ranks hasn’t finished. A Zwift competition winner, a Vuelta stage last year after just riding away from Evenepoel et al and since, a Tour Down Under win and the Aussie TT title. January’s antipodean antics might not seem big but it quietly signalled a lot: time trial gains, leadership, managing the media and Vine flourished although since he’s been dogged by injury but won’t be starting if this isn’t resolved, he too could be a revelation. Brandon McNulty gives the team a third option, he’s good in time trials but would surely sign today for a top-5.
Bora-hansgrohe come with two leaders in Aleksandr Vlasov and Lennard Kämna. Do you remember Vlasov’s performance in the Tour de France last summer? Fifth, impressive but he was rarely a protagonist and so many might have been scratching their head trying to recall the answer. He’s a steady rider, also fourth in the 2021 Giro, and good in time trials so it’s easy to see him in the top-5 again, but how to win? If Jai Hindley won the Giro last year, Kämna’s role was instrumental, easing up from the breakaway on the Marmolada to give Hindley a tow as Richard Carapaz cracked. This year Kämna is aiming for GC rather than breakaways and stages and he’s a versatile rider, a former junior world champ in the TT, punchy on the climbs and good on the long ascents too. A recent documentary on German TV featured Kämna talking about pressure and expectation but he’s growing into the role and now wants to make the breakthrough as a consistent GC contender. He could be the surprise of this race.
Bahrain come with a strong team. Santiago Buitrago had a great third week last year, including a stage win but he’s a climber and even if the form looks improved on last year he’ll lose mucho time. Jack Haig and Damiano Caruso are solid riders but not spectacular with few wins between them, they’ll be riding steady like tightrope artists hoping they don’t slip off the overall classification. With Haig set on GC, Caruso might be tempted to chase a stage win.
Among other outsiders, Hugh Carthy leads EF Education and such is his honest, self-deprecating style he’d probably be the first to say he’s unlikely to win but he is consistent and durable while Ben Healy starts his first grand tour and will be interesting to watch, he looks like a pure climber but is very able in time trials, this course could help him beat other contenders to a high position but it’s his first grand tour the question is keeping fresh after a busy season already, while Rigo Uran was a Giro contender but it’s probably his last season and he’s less consistent. Another retiree is Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) who has said he wants a high GC finish and in his peak moments he’s been excellent against the clock but look closely and they’ve been on hilly courses, this route doesn’t suit with so many flat time trials, he’ll be on the back foot and perhaps he’d settle for a stage win, albeit one by attacking the lead group one day in the mountains and cashing in those TT loses for space to move but he’ll wait for the third week and if the weather’s grim he’ll be rubbing his hands… and not just to warm them.