Cycling's Giro 'a message of hope' in strange times for Italy

Palermo (Italy) (AFP) –

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A mouthwatering Giro d'Italia bursts into life with a time-trial around Palermo on Saturday marking the start of 3497km of racing across the valleys and mountains, from the south of the country to the north, culminating in front of the Duomo cathedral in Milan on October 25.

Originally scheduled to start in Budapest in May but rescheduled due to the pandemic, the Sicilian start provides a tantalising appetiser for the 102nd edition of the three week bike race. It takes in the first four stages and includes a volcanic finish on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Twenty-two teams of eight riders each are due to set off on what race organiser and director Mauro Vegni described as "a message of hope across Italy", the nation that buckled into Europe's first lockdown when hit hard by the first wave of Covid-19.

Chief among the contenders is Geraint Thomas of Ineos, a team looking to bounce back from a rare disappointment in the Tour de France, a race the Welshman won in 2018.

"Racing in Italy is always special be it in May or October," Ineos principal Dave Brailsford said on Thursday.

"It's going to go down to the wire in that gruelling final week," he predicted of a race marked by three individual time trials and five summit finishes.

Thomas was bundled out of the Tour de France line up and appears to have something to prove in Italy.

"I've lived here, I've raced for an Italian team, and I had some rough luck the last time I came to the Giro. I'm determined to right that wrong this time around," the 34-year-old said this week.

Also on the Ineos roster is Australian time-trial specialist Rohan Dennis who could grab the leader's pink jersey on the opening stage. With two other time trials on the schedule he could be a contender.

Dutch team Jumbo Visma are also seeking redemption after a painful Tour de France where, after wearing the yellow jersey for so long, Primoz Roglic had a gut wrenching meltdown on the final time trial.

Their veteran climber Steven Kruijswijk may have the edge on Thomas on the high summits.

- High altitude racing -

The dark horse would be Englishman Simon Yates, who won the recent coast-to-coast race, the Tirreno Adriatico.

The slender climber has been surrounded by powerful rollers and will hope to make the difference in the mountains.

"I'm proud of winning the Adriatico, but my chief target is the Giro," said the man who blew a big lead here to Chris Froome in 2018.

Whoever wins will have to deliver or survive a tough third week of climbing, taking in some high altitude racing above the clouds on the infamous Stelvio at 2758m and Agnello at 2745m.

A man adept at that is home hope Vincenzo Nibali, who has won the Giro twice and is the wiliest tactician in the sport.

"It's a strange year with a strange season with all these unknowns," says the Trek-Segafredo rider, a master a sowing doubt in his rivals' minds.

Astana's Jakob Fuglsang is a strong all-rounder and has the back up of Colombian climber Miguel Angel Lopez.

There are also six sprints in this Giro with three-time world champion Peter Sagan eager to add to his roll of honour as he takes part in his first ever Giro.