Action from the outset
Imagine a Tour of Britain Great Departure from Kilburn without Bradley Wiggins present, or a Tour de Yorkshire foreign Grand Depart from the Isle d'Homme sans Mark Cavendish. Well, it's not quite as bad as that for RCS and the Giro organisers – but it's not far off.
Still, even without the injured Sardinian star Fabio Aru at the race's Grande Partenza in Alghero on Friday, viewers should be in for a treat along the lines of the thrilling Corsica opening of the 2013 Tour.
Not only will the three opening stages be extremely photogenic – particularly Stage 1 which takes in the spectacular coves and beaches of north Sardinia – they should also see an intriguing fight for pink on the rolling second stage bookended by two stages that suit the sprinters, but with an edge: the opening stage has the late San Pantaleo climb as a test for those fastmen coveting the maglia rosa, while Stage 3 along the coast to Cagliari could be blown apart by crosswinds.
The action continues across the Tyrrhenian Sea after an early rest day when an explosive finale on Mount Etna – this time with local rider Vincenzo Nibali hopefully still in contention – and a bunch sprint in Messina. The 19km climb only boasts an average gradient of around 6% but it will force the big guns to come out and play early in the opening week.
Eighty per cent of Italy
Race director Mauro Vegni had intended for every one of Italy's 20 regions to be graced by the Giro on its 100th edition but he, us and the people of the Bel Paese will have to make do with *just* 16 regions. The race starts with forays across both Sardinia and Sicily before crossing the Strait and winding its way up Italy and its Apennine backbone ahead of a final flourish in the Dolomites and Alps before heading to Milan. Hardly any Italian stone is left unturned – and those four regions missing out are sure to get a star turn in the years to come.
The new old maglia ciclamino
After five years as red, the points classification reverts to the old traditional cyclamen (purple, to you and me) jersey. Awarded for his consistent finishes, home rider Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Segafredo) has won the points classification for the past two years despite not winning any stages (he finished second twice in both years).
But don't expect a sprinter to sport the maglia ciclamino in Milan in just over three weeks' time: although the points system is more heavily weighted towards the sprinters this year, the fact that the race concludes with a time trial following seven mountainous (or at the very least hilly) stages means many, if not all, of the fast men will have packed their bags before the third week even starts.
Reckless downhill riding averted?
The peloton, media and armchair critics alike went up in arms earlier this week when it emerged that RCS had introduced a new downhill prize aimed at rewarding the zippiest descenders – that's the organisers of a race on which a rider (Wouter Weylandt) was killed only six years ago on a descent. It gets worse: the announcement came one week after veteran Michele Scarponi was killed in a training accident and while a young American rider, Chad Young, lay in a hospital bed after a high-speed downhill crash (he later died, tragically).
The award, which was based on timed downhill segments on 10 of the race's biggest climbs, would have been worth up to 5,000 euros for the overall winner but, unsurprisingly, it was cancelled by RCS following universal outrage. Those 48 hairpin bends of the Stelvio just got that fraction bit safer.
Double ascent of the Stelvio
To celebrate the 100th edition of the Tour de France in 2013, ASO made the riders tackle Alpe d'Huez twice in a thrilling 172km stage that also featured a cluster of smaller Alpine climbs. Four years later, for the 100th Giro, RCS have mirrored this by using the iconic Passo dello Stelvio twice – and then trumped their predecessor by throwing in the small matter of the Mortirolo before.
But the question remains whether or not this is overkill? The Giro 100 version is 50km longer than its Tour 100 counterpart, and while Dutch Mountain is a testing climb, it has nothing on the Stelvio – the first, major ascent of which marks this year's Cima Coppi. The second climb back up the Stelvio goes via Switzerland and the never-used-before Umbrail Pass before a 20km downhill dash to the line.
On paper, it sounds fabulous. And yet even though the riders first tackle the gentler Monno side of the Mortirolo (for the first time since 1990), the prospect of three major back-to-back climbs on a 222km queen stage may prove too much; instead of fireworks from the outset we will probably see cagey racing until the final summit. At least the descent injects a bit of intrigue into what could otherwise be a letdown – and that's provided any late spring snowfall doesn't cause the same kind of logistical chaos on the Stelvio as it did in 2014.
An eight-man Astana team
Usually when Astana are down to eight men it's because one of their riders has been banned for doing something dodgy or their team leader has been ejected for holding onto the wing mirror of a car. This time, it's far more tragic. The sad passing of Michele Scarponi – the popular veteran who was to lead the team in the absence of Aru – has seen his team react by commemorating their man by refusing to replace him.
It's a wonderful gesture that should be applauded. And without any bona fide GC options, expect Astana to animate the race from the outset as they bid to honour the memory of Scarpa. Fellow Italian veteran Paolo Tiralongo will no doubt do his best to take an emotional stage win for his late close friend.
In recent years the race has held time trials in the regions known for producing some of Italy's most revered wines. And after Chianti, Prosecco and Barolo comes Sagrantino secco – a dry DOCG red wine produced from vines near Montefalco, the walled town visited for the first time at the conclusion of the opening time trial from Foligno. It's a hilly course that should suit the likes of Tom Dumoulin, Bob Jungels, Rohan Dennis and Geraint Thomas – who will all look to raise a glass at dinner on the first evening after the second rest day.
Birth towns aplenty
We've already mentioned Messina, the birth town of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, which hosts the Stage 5 finish. But it doesn't stop there. Stage 11 starts in Gino Bartali's birth place at Ponte a Ema near Florence while the big rival of Gino the Pious is also commemorated three days later with a start in Fausto Coppi's home village of Castellania.
One day earlier Stage 13 concludes in Tortona, the town where the Campionissimo lived most of his adult life – a stone's throw away from Novi Ligure, the home town of that other champion of champions, Costante Girardengo.
Memories of Pantani
Italian cycling has never been able to fill the void left by the controversial but much loved man known as Il Pirate. And the stage from Castellania finishes at the site of one of Marco Pantani's most famous victories – the Santuario di Oropa. It was here where Pantini, having dropped a chain at the bottom of the climb near Biella, fought back and passed all his rivals before winning Stage 15 in 1999.
Victory at the famous sanctuary was one of four stage scalps notched by Pantani that year before the pink Elefantino was spectacularly thrown off the race on the eve of the final day owing to a UCI blood test and a high haematocrit.
Oropa is not the only place that will rekindle the memory of Pantani: Stage 19 concludes on the summit of Piancavallo, a climb last visited in 1998 when Pantani cracked rival Alex Zuelle to lay the foundations of his overall victory. With the gradient approaching double digits over the first 5km of the climb, Pantani made his move early and never looked back. Will anyone match his audacity on the race's last summit finish?
A repeat of 2012
When Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win the Giro in 2012 he left it until the last day with a near 12th hour seizure of the maglia rosa from Joaquim Rodriguez, who started the day in pink but ended up trailing Hesjedal by 16 seconds in Milan. The reason for such dramatics? A final day time trial – keeping the suspense intense to the very last.
Fast forward five years and a 29km time trial from Monza to Milan on the final day means the 100th edition could end in similarly tense circumstances. The prospect of such a flat race against the clock will heap the pressure on Giro favourite Quintana, who will be aware of the need to build up a healthy cushion in the mountains or risk suffering the same fate as Rodriguez.
Predicted top 10: 1. Quintana, 2. Kruijswijk, 3. Pinot, 4. Nibali, 5. Thomas, 6. Zakarin, 7. Yates, 8. Mollema, 9. Dumoulin, 10. Jungels (or Amador)
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Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin' Saddles: 10 key things to look out for in the Giro 100