Giro d’Italia preview: No clear favorite in wide-open edition

From Budapest to Verona, here are the pink jersey favorites, the key stages, the traps and opportunities to open the 2022 grand tour racing season.

Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

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Pink jerseys, big mountains, bigger drama, the “big start” in Budapest, and late spring blizzards, what’s not to love about the Giro d’Italia?

The 2022 grand tour racing season opens in Budapest on May 6 and ends in Verona on May 29, a three-week odyssey that will push the peloton to its collective limits.

In between are two time trials, a few big transfers, a sprinkling of sprint stages, and plenty of mountains.

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With its trademark accent on a brutally harsh final week of climbing in northern Italy, the 105th edition of the corsa rosa promises to deliver as it always does with intense, sometimes unpredictable racing across 21 stages.

Defending champion Egan Bernal is sidelined with injuries, so who will step in to fill the void as the next winner of the famed pink jersey?

Here’s everything you need to know about the 2022 Giro d’Italia:

The course: 21 stages, two time trials, lots of climbing

This year’s Giro follows a familiar blueprint that’s worked well for the modern editions of the Italian grand tour.

Time trials bookend the race, with some early summit finishes to spice up the first half. The sprinters will see their chances for wins, but everything will come down to the Giro’s notoriously difficult closing week.

Race organizers RCS Sport have done a great job sprucing up the Giro over the past two decades. By the late 1990s and going into the early 2000s, the race caught a bit in a rut of having a string of endless sprint stages before a few key mountain stages crowned the winner. Look no further than fastman Alessandro Petacchi winning nine sprint stages in the 2004 edition.

The addition of Monte Zoncolan helped usher in a new era for the Giro, and its impact soon spread to other races across the peloton. Now every grand tour and stage race regularly includes “impossible” climbs with 20 percent and steeper grades.

The Giro also kept one foot in the past, and RCS continues to steer the race into the Dolomites and Italian Alps in the final week to produce what many consider the most grueling week in grand tour racing. The winner almost always comes out of the final stages in the mountains.

Such trademark climbs as the Zoncolan and the Mortirolo might not be on the menu this year, but the climbers will be happy with what they see on the profile.

‘Big Start:’ Three stages in Hungary

Hungary prepares to host the ‘big start’ to the 2022 Giro. (Photo: Csaba Domotor/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The Giro heads abroad again, with its COVID-delayed start in Hungary on the books. This year’s “big start” represents the 14th time that the Giro begins beyond Italian borders and the first since 2018 in Jerusalem.

The race opens Friday, in Budapest, with a tricky road stage to deliver the first pink jersey. The finish to Visegrád ends at 5.5km at 4.2 percent, meaning the purest of pure sprinters will have a tough time. Watch for Hungarian star Attila Valter to try to deliver pink on home roads.

Stage 2 features a technical, urban time trial ending at the Budapest Castle overlooking the Danube. At 9.2km, the distance isn’t so long that it will suck the life out of the GC for the pure climbers. Riders like Mikel Landa and Romain Bardet will be looking to limit their losses, while Tom Dumoulin is among the favorites for pink.

Stage 3, ending along Lake Balanton, looks to be the real first chance for the sprinters. There is a fourth-category climb with about 13km to go, but nothing to slow down a peloton packed with sprinters. Expect the first of many clashes between Caleb Ewan and Mark Cavendish.

Week 1: From Etna to Blockhaus

The first summit finish comes atop Sicily’s Mount Etna on stage 5. Photo: Tim De Waele

Week one is a doozy. Well, it’s actually six stages of racing, and by the time the Giro returns to Italy after a Monday transfer to Sicily, it will be non-stop action from Monte Etna in stage 4 to Blockhaus the next Sunday in stage 9.

The mission this week for the GC riders will be to solidify early gains and avoid crashes and other setbacks that could jeopardize their chances when it really counts in the final week.

Just as soon as the Giro entourage lands, the bunch heads up the steaming slopes of Mount Etna, one of Europe’s most active volcanoes for the Giro’s first summit finish. The stage ends well below the lava vents on the summit, but far enough up Etna’s slopes (22.9km at 6 percent) to cause some damage. The key here is to not lose too much time, and local hero Vincenzo Nibali will be riding on pride.

A second stage in Sicily ends in Nibali’s hometown of Messina in what’s could be another chance for the sprinters, if they can get over a steep second-category climb midway through the short stage.

After crossing the strait to reach Italy’s “toe,” the 192km sixth stage pushes north along the Italian coast from Palmi to Scalea in what is all but certain to be a mass gallop.

The 198km stage 7 from Diamante to Potenza is a wicked rollercoaster with four classified climbs on narrow roads, including a first-category climb midway through the day. Tension will be high for a circuit course in the hills in and around Naples the next day, on roads that will be laden with traffic furniture and possibly poor, urban road surfaces. The key will be to avoid losses on these two key days.

Stage 9 to the iconic Blockhaus closes out the first week with a decisive summit finale. Two challenging climbs will soften up the bunch ahead of the Cat. 1 summit at Blockhaus (13.7km at 8.5 percent) in what will see the first important GC selection. Riders like Richard Carapaz will be itching to move.

Week 2: From the Adriatico to the Alps

Two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali, shown here at his season debut at the Volta a Valenciana, could see his last chance for pink. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

After the second of three rest days, the bunch faces a week two that opens along Italy’s lovely Adriatic coast and pushes all the way across to the Italian Alps. The week is full of “traps” and will slowly but surely turn the screws on the GC fight.

A lumpy stage 10 could provide terrain for a breakaway, but a pancake-flat run across the Po Valley the next day will be another likely shot for the sprinters. The 186km stage 12 from Parma to Genova features a fast descending run from a second-category climb to the finish.

Stage 13 to Cuneo brings the bunch to the foot of the Italian Alps, and sprinter teams will be pushing to control the final because some of the fast men in the bunch might be making exit plans. Stage 14 to Torino looks like a shortened version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the profile is riddled with short and steep climbs.

The week closes out with a stage that drives deep into the Aosta Valley, featuring two first-category climbs as the route rises above the valley floor before its final approach to the Cat. 2 summit finish at Cogne (22.1km at 4.3 percent).

That’s not Giro-steep but it could present problems for anyone starting to feel two weeks of racing in their legs.

Week 3: Three big days and a TT to decide the winner

BALCON DE ALICANTE, SPAIN - AUGUST 20: Richard Carapaz of Ecuador and Team INEOS Grenadiers prepares for the race prior to the 76th Tour of Spain 2021, Stage 7 a 152km stage from Gandía to Balcón de Alicante / @lavuelta / #LaVuelta21 / on August 20, 2021 in Balcón de Alicante, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Richard Carapaz, shown here at the 2021 Vuelta a España, will be among the favorites. (Photo: Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

After a third and final rest day, the Giro lives up to its reputation of delivering a brutal final week.

The action comes fast and hard with two back-to-back hard days stacked up in northern Italy.

Stage 16 dips into the Dolomites, leaving behind the Lake District at Salò and tackling two first-category climbs before hitting Santa Cristina (12.7 at 8.1 percent) and a drop into Aprica. This will be several races within one, with breakaways going early, and the GC riders eyeing each other up.

The next day is also another potentially explosive stage, pushing south out of Ponte di Legno to Lavarone. Two first-category climbs spice up the final third of the stage. Like the previous stage, it’s not a true mountain summit, with some false flats and a short descent to the line. 

Nothing will be decided yet, and a rolling stage into Trevino in stage 18 could be one for the breakaway riders if the sprint trains are demoralized.

Two more hard days in the Dolomites should put everything in order.

Stage 19 heads from Marano Lagunare to Santuario di Castelmonte. With two rated climbs to soften up the legs, the finish line is waiting atop the second-category hilltop sanctuary. At 7.3km at 6 percent, the sometimes-shorter and explosive finales can often produce more GC impact.

The penultimate stage across the high-altitude heart of the Dolomites could be the “queen stage” of this year’s Giro.

At 178km, the stage will be a grinder, with climbs over the Cat. 1 Passo San Pellegrino (9.6km at 8.8 percent) and the HC Passo Pordoi (11.9km at 6.6 percent). The stage culminates on the Marmolada. The famed Passo Fedaia (12.9km at 7.8 percent) often features in the Giro, but this will only be the second time it’s hosted a stage finish. 

If there’s anything to tidy up in the GC, the final 17.1km individual time trial in and around Verona waits for the weary finishers.

The takeaway? This year, there are no gravel sectors, no team time trial, and no major new “impossible” climb to jazz things up.

With relatively limited kilometers against the clock and a steady stream of climbing stages, the Giro route is as traditional as it can get. A strong climber who can defend against the clock should be in with a real chance of winning.

The favorites: There’s plenty of space at the top

Simon Yates, shown here at Paris-Nice, has unfinished business with the Giro. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

With Egan Bernal nursing injuries, and Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič both focusing on the Tour de France, this year’s Giro will not feature one of the peloton’s major grand tour stars.

Instead, the bunch will be filled with experienced veterans and rising stars looking to fill the void.

If one rider stands out, it would be Richard Carapaz. The Ineos Grenadiers star won the Giro in 2019, and returns to Italy intent on targeting the overall. Backed by a deep squad, the Ecuadorian will start as the pre-race favorite.

Behind him will be the likes of last year’s third-place finisher Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), a rider with some unfinished business at the Giro. Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) is another former winner, but it’s his teammate Tobias Foss who could emerge as the team leader.

Vincenzo Nibali and Miguel Ángel López headline a stacked Astana-Qazaqstan team in what will be their best chance for a grand tour in 2022. Bora-Hansgrohe brings former podium finishers Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman, while Bauke Mollema and Giulio Ciccione lead Trek-Segafredo.

Romain Bardet (Team DSM), João Almeida (UAE Emirates), Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Mikel Landa and Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) fill out what’s an exceptionally deep GC field.

Anyone who finds their legs could ride away with this thing, but it could be a real dogfight well into the third week.

Peter Sagan won’t be back, but the Giro is attracting Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) as the Dutch superstar makes his Giro debut. He vows to ride to the end and challenge for the pink jersey in the early stages.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), third in 2016, will be back as part of his season-long farewell but said he won’t be racing for the GC. Iván Sosa will leadership duties, while Valverde will be hunting for stages, and could well be in the running for the pink jersey in the opening stages.

Top sprinters include Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Mark Cavendish (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-Premier Tech), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), and Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix). With at least six or seven chances in the first two weeks, the sprints will be thrilling all the way to the line.

Though official start lists are not yet finalized, it appears only one U.S. or Canadian riders look to be racing. Joe Dombrowski (Astana-Qazaqstan) is North America’s sole representative according to early start lists.

Caleb Ewan wins opening stage of the Saudi Tour
Caleb Ewan will be among the leading sprinters. (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

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