This week, the buildup to the 100th Giro d’Italia was dominated by controversy over a putative prize for the fastest descender. The award based on timed sections off the toughest climbs was announced on Monday, drawing a welter of adverse comment – it came days after the death of an American rider, Chad Young, in a high-speed downhill crash in the Tour of the Gila. The award was withdrawn on Wednesday.
Put into the context of the previous 99 races, the controversy did not surprise. While the Tour de France is the more conservative elder brother, the Giro has always flirted with the bounds of the possible: starting on the other side of Europe – not just Belfast in 2014, but Belgium in 1973 – or running a time trial through Venice with ramps taking the riders over the canals, let alone using Alpine passes that are barely surfaced at a time when the weather at altitude is still uncertain. On occasion the innovations are a huge success, as in the case of the inclusion of the dirt roads of Tuscany in 2010.
The Giro’s controversies are not limited to the route, unfortunately. The organisers will certainly be hoping that there is a speedy resolution to the brace of positive drugs tests that marred the race’s presentation in Alghero; an out-of-competition test on two riders from the second-string Bardiani squad, Nicola Ruffoni and Stefano Pirazzi, found traces of growth hormone releasing peptides (GHRPs). The pair will not start but the affair could have implications for their team’s presence in the race as UCI rules dictate that a team with two positive tests faces suspension.
When the racing starts with Friday’s opening stage through Sardinia, attention will turn to Nairo Quintana, widely tipped to take his second Giro on a course which offers ample opportunity to exploit his climbing skills.
Tuesday’s stage up the volcanic slopes of Etna will offer the first chance to see who will challenge the Colombian, and that is followed by a second, tougher summit finish at Blockhaus in the Abruzzi. It is not until the final week through the Dolomites that the decisive moves will be made and the day when Quintana will be expected to make his move is the final Tuesday (23 May), when the race climbs over the massive Stelvio Pass, descends into Switzerland and then returns to Italy over another side of the Stelvio.
This is a spectacular, headline-grabbing stage, with historic resonances going back more than 60 years to the legendary Fausto Coppi, also celebrated with two stages in his Ligurian homeland. It is a classic gamble by the organisers: taking the race more than 2,500m above sea level in May means there is a chance snow will hit the stage. In 2014, when Quintana won his first Giro, there was – inevitably – controversy when a blizzard struck on the descent of the Stelvio as he attacked amid confusion over whether or not the race had been “neutralised” in dangerous conditions.
The Giro is a gamble for Quintana, who will tackle the Tour de France, too. Recent evidence suggests hitting both in top form has become unfeasible, given the last man to attempt it, Alberto Contador, soared at the first hurdle last year when he won the Giro, then flopped at the Tour.
Of the challengers, the double Giro champion and 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali has the best pedigree by far. The Dutch duo of Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk could well struggle in the mountains, while the most intriguing prospect is France’s Thibaut Pinot, who may fare better outside his homeland, with the pressure almost totally off his shoulders compared to the crucible of his native Tour.
Two Britons start the Giro with realistic hopes of a high placing. Adam Yates will look to build on his fourth place at last year’s Tour de France, while Geraint Thomas forms part of a two-pronged Team Sky attack with the Spaniard Mikel Landa.
Compared with their Tour triumphs, Sky have rarely flourished amid the less structured racing that is a hallmark of the Giro – memories of Sir Bradley Wiggins’s abortive bid in 2013 and Richie Porte’s crash and burn in 2015 are still raw – but Landa’s pure climbing ability could serve him well in the final week.
As for Thomas, the next few weeks will give an answer to the long debate over whether he can challenge for a major Tour – he missed out the spring Classics to give his sole attention to this race. His hope will be that he can gain enough time in the two relatively long time trials to cancel out any losses in the highest mountains.
For Yates, the focus is a little different. At the Tour last year he adopted a simple tactic, sticking with the best to see where his limits lay; in the Giro, on the other hand, he hopes to seize opportunities amid what he terms “the kind of carnage you don’t get when the racing is more controlled in the Tour”.
He added: “If there’s some kind of attack going in the Giro, it’s all kicking off and you can suddenly pound off down the road, then instead of fourth maybe I can finish higher.”