Young Belgian rider Remco Evenepoel returns from injury with hopes high that he can challenge the likes Simon Yates and Egan Bernal in the Giro d’Italia, which gets underway on Saturday.
The 21-year-old, dubbed the heir to the legendary Eddy Merckx, fractured his pelvis after hitting a bridge wall and plunging into a ravine during the Tour of Lombardy in Italy last August.
Saturday’s opening stage is an 8.6km time trial along the River Po in Turin, and after covering 3,480km around the peninsula the Giro finishes back in the north in front of Milan’s Duomo on May 30.
Former Vuelta a Espana winner Yates, who was forced to retire from last year’s delayed Giro after testing positive for Covid-19, returns and warmed up with a win on the Tour of the Alps.
Colombian Bernal, the 2019 Tour de France champion, will compete for the first time in the race around Italy.
Evenepoel played down expectations ahead of his first Grand Tour, nine months after last competing.
“You can’t prepare for a race 100 percent without racing, but that’s the risk that we took,” said the Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider, the European junior champion in 2018.
Evenepoel burst into the limelight with success in all four stage races that he took part in last season, including the Tour of Poland, before his horror fall.
Bernal conceded Evenepoel was a bit of a dark horse.
“I haven’t come up against him often in groups, so I can’t say. He has certainly shown to have great talent,” said the Colombian.
The Belgian’s teammate Joao Almeida is also hopeful of a result having worn the ‘pink jersey’ for 15 consecutive days last year and finishing fourth overall.
French teammate Remi Cavagna will be among the favourites for the opening time trial along with Italian world champion Filippo Ganna of Ineos.
Favours the climbers
Victorious in two of the last three editions, Ineos have placed their trust in Bernal, one of the jewels of the most powerful teams in the peloton.
The Colombian conceded his ambitions will all depend how his back holds up, having not raced since mid-March, unlike Yates, who dominated the recent Tour of the Alps.
Australian Jai Hindley of Team DSM finished second overall last year, and also has high hopes, along with former two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
The race should suit the climbers with eight finishes at altitude.
But before attacking Monte Zoncolan on stage 14, and the great passes of the Dolomites, on stage 16, the race crosses the peninsula, even if it neglects the heel of Italy’s boot this time.
The final 30km time trial through Milan proved decisive last year for last year’s champion Tao Geoghegan Hart, who is absent this year.
“We are approaching the Giro with even more ambition after our unfortunate exclusion from 2020,” said Team Bike Exchange manager Brent Copeland, after being forced out of last year’s race because of coronavirus.
The last three editions, such as Briton Chris Froome’s spectacular stage 19 comeback in 2018 to snatch the overall lead which he never relinquished, prove that anything is possible.
Meanwhile this year, the ‘pink jersey’ race celebrates the 160th anniversary of Italian unification, with the start in Turin honouring the country’s first capital.