Kittel heads to the Giro d’Italia as the top sprinter in the field
Marcel Kittel leads the field of sprinters at the Giro, which kicks off May 9. Will he rule the mass gallops on the Italian roads?
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The Giro d’Italia is always about mountains and suffering, but the sprinters have a deep and long history in the corsa rosa. With many races making stages harder and more demanding, the sprinters have become a modern-day afterthought, as race organizers search for the elusive “spectacle” to make their events captivating and alluring to TV audiences.
Thankfully, the long, flat, and boring stages that used to dominate the Giro and the Vuelta a España are largely a thing of the past. Organizers have gone to the other extreme, with the Vuelta, for example, including no less than 13 of its 21 stages (not counting time trials) featuring some sort of uphill finale.
For 2014, and especially for this year’s Giro, there seems to be a step back from that extreme, and the corsa rosa sees an equal balance between hard, decisive climbing stages, and punchy and exciting uphill finales, but with a few good old-fashioned sprint stages thrown in for good measure.
Several chances for the sprinters
With two time trials, one team time trial, three rest days, and plenty of hard climbing, it’s somewhat surprising there will still be plenty of opportunities for mass gallops in this year’s Giro.
Organizers have reeled back a bit on the hilltop finales, serving up a few more chances for sprint finishes. Nearly every stage features some sort of late-race obstacle to give the brave riders a chance to make it to the line, putting the pressure on the sprint teams to collaborate to set up their captains for the fast charge to the finish.
On paper, there should be at least five sprints, perhaps even six. There are two or three more transition stages with hilly profiles that favor breakaways, especially later in the race when the sprinters grow weary and riders start to abandon.
Sprints look likely in the opening two road stages across Ireland. Though the stage 2 will be open to the coastal winds that could produce echelons, everyone will be digging deep for a big sprint finale in Belfast. The coastal winds will also be a factor in stage 3 down to Dublin, but another sprint finish is likely.
Once back in Italy, the Giro’s shortest stage at 121 kilometers is also its easiest, and stage 4 is all but sure to go to the sprinters. Stages 6 and 7 could go either way, with challenging terrain that could see puncheurs and breakaways stay clear. Until the GC is more settled, however, teams usually keep breakaways on a short leash. Stages 8 and 9 are the first real climbs, with the sprinters seeing another good chance in stage 10 and perhaps in stage 11, if they can get over the short but steep Naso di Gato with 45km to go.
Stage 13 should see that last real chance for the sprinters until the finale in Trieste. The final week is packed with hard mountains, and with time trials in stages 12 and 19, the GC favorites will be hitting their collective stride, leaving the remaining sprinters to hide out in the gruppetto to wait for Trieste.
Stage 17 offers another perhaps chance for a sprint, but the hilly terrain and race-weary legs of the sprinters will likely give wings to a breakaway effort.
Trieste hosts the Giro finale, but a technical finishing circuit with a short, punchy climb on each lap could produce a surprise winner.
No Cav or Greipel
A few of the top names are steering clear of the Giro, namely Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who will not defend his points jersey, and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).
Greipel has not raced the Giro since 2010, the last year he and archrival Cavendish shared the same jersey at HTC-High Road. Since his move to the Lotto franchise in 2011, his sponsors have preferred that he race the Tour of Belgium, which overlaps with the Giro, where he’s won seven stages over the past three years.
Cavendish, meanwhile, is avoiding the punishment of the Giro in favor of the Amgen Tour of California, which he hasn’t raced since 2010. The Manxster has won 15 Giro stages in five starts, but after last year’s performance, when he won five stages en route to his first points jersey, giving him points jerseys in all three grand tours, Cavendish wants to arrive as fresh as possible for the Tour de France to battle Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
This year, Cavendish doesn’t want to risk arriving too tired and weary at the Tour in an ever-important season when his crown as the peloton’s top sprinter is under assault.
The absence of both Lotto’s and Omega Pharma’s setup trains will put pressure on Giant to fill the void, something the team should be able to handle. Kittel is starting the Giro for the first time, and he will be motivated to impose his will early, as it’s not a given he will ride all the way to Trieste.
Sagan is also skipping the Giro, racing the California tour. Others bypassing the Giro include French sprinter Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) and Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida).
Many other teams are also leaving their top sprinters at home, such as BMC Racing, which is riding to win the maglia rosa with Cadel Evans, and Belkin, which starts without Theo Bos or Moreno Hofland. Katusha is saving Alexander Kristoff for the Tour de France, with the team backing Joaquim Rodriguez’s push for the podium.
Kittel leading the way
Kittel will be standing head and shoulders above the field, quite literally, not only as the best starting sprinter, but also with one of the few teams completely dedicated to leading him out. Luka Mezgec also gives Giant-Shimano a second card to play in the hillier finales, so the weight of the sprints will be on Giant, especially in the first half of the Giro.
With Kittel making his Giro debut, the team will want to win early and often because it’s not confirmed that the big German will be trying to ride all the way to Trieste.
Others to watch include Cannondale’s Elia Viviani, with two seconds and one third last year, who will be looking to win his first career Giro stage. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) will also be looking for his first career grand tour stage win.
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), who won two stages in last year’s Vuelta, will surely be a major factor in the sprints. Orica will be riding to win stages and brings a team packed with opportunists and fast finishers.
Several other teams will be looking to ride off the coattails of Giant, with riders like Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma), Boy Van Poppel and Giamcomo Nizzoli (Trek Factory Racing), and Ben Swift (Sky) having the green light to sprint, but probably without seeing a lot of support to help set them up.
What to expect
Kittel should be the dominant player in the sprints, but the Giro is a funny race, and the sprints will be less-controlled and more wide-open than at the Tour.
The Tour is already on Kittel’s mind, so if he’s feeling tired or does not want to take unnecessary risks, he will pull back and save his legs for another day. That means the fight for the leftovers could be spectacular.
The Giro is also infamous for its dangerous and narrow finishing straights. Organizers have tried to listen to riders’ complaints, but with pressure to hold the stage finishes in the heart of Italy’s old historic centers, narrow finishes are here to stay.
Based on performances across the spring classics, Farrar and Petacchi, two sprinters who have not been at their best the past few years, could punch through for a morale-boosting win. Farrar hasn’t won a grand tour stage since the 2011 Tour, but he showed good form in the classics, riding to second at both Dwars door Vlaanderen and Scheldeprijs. Petacchi owns 25 Giro wins and will have the green light to sprint because Cavendish won’t be there. His victory at GP Cerami proves the 40-year-old can still win.
Bouhanni and Viviani are both doubly motivated to claim their first respective grand tour stage wins, so watch for them to be fighting to grab Kittel’s wheel in the final kilometers.
It’s hard to imagine anyone beating Kittel, at least in a head-to-head matchup. He blew away the field at Scheldeprijs and looks even stronger than last year. Italy’s narrow roads and technical finales could knock him out of his comfort zone, however, perhaps opening the door for a real dogfight in the trenches.