Giro d’Italia set for sprint battle royal

From Dylan Groenewegen's return to Caleb Ewan's ambition for a grand tour sweep, Peter Cossins previews the Giro's sprint field.

Photo: James Startt

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Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.  

Most of the talk in the last few days running up to the start of the Giro d’Italia has, naturally, focused on the battle for the maglia rosa. Yet this is a race that has always had a special affinity with sprinters.

Mario Cipollini holds the record for the number of stage wins with a staggering total of 42, Alessandro Petacchi bagged an impressive 22, while Mark Cavendish is the leading performer among the current crop of sprinters with 15 to his credit. Each of these three riders dominated the corsa rosa’s sprints when they were in their pomp, and last year Frenchman Arnaud Démare followed their high-speed trajectory, wrapping up four stage wins and with them the points title.

Assessing this year’s sprint contenders throws up all kinds of intriguing angles: Caleb Ewan has set his sights on winning a stage in each of this year’s grand tours; Peter Sagan has returned to the Giro after a winning debut last year; Fernando Gaviria is hoping to get back on track after struggling in the aftermath of a coronavirus infection; Elia Viviani is still looking for his first grand tour success following his big-money move to Cofidis at the start of last season; Giacomo Nizzolo looks a good shout for an elusive grand tour stage win; Alpecin-Fenix’s Tim Merlier, meanwhile, is the wild card, the most successful of the sprinters in the field this year with three wins to his credit.

Also read: Sagan on Groenewegen’s Giro return: He made a mistake, it’s good he is back

And, then of course, the Giro sees the return to race action of Jumbo-Visma’s Dylan Groenewegen after the completion of his nine-month ban for the dangerous maneuver that sent sprint rival Fabio Jakobsen into the barriers on the opening day of last year’s Tour of Poland. The Dutchman will ease back into the fray with an early start in Saturday’s short time trial in Turin, but will be the subject of much closer focus on the two stages that follow into Novara and Canale, which are both likely to finish with bunch gallops.

Groenewegen will be in the spotlight in his racing return. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Groenewegen’s return would have been more low-key if it hadn’t been for a Twitter thread posted by Jakobsen on Thursday evening in which the Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider criticized his compatriot for revealing details of a meeting the two Dutchmen had last month, their first face-to-face encounter since the Poland crash.

It had been arranged, stated Jakobsen, “to try to reach a common understanding relating to the accident in Poland last August,” and he added that it had been agreed that its content should remain confidential.

Jakobsen then wrote: “I would like to set the record straight, though: Dylan has not offered a personal apology and he has not shown willingness to take any responsibility for his actions. I still would like to reach an understanding with Dylan, but it takes two to tango.”

Also read: Jakobsen on Groenewegen: ‘Dylan has not offered a personal apology’

Evidently, the legal process that’s ongoing in the aftermath of the horrific crash in Poland limits what all of the parties involved in it – including the race organizers and the UCI, no doubt – from saying anything that could be taken as an admission of guilt. That said, Jakobsen’s posts, prompted it should be re-emphasized by his compatriot’s opening up to the media, paint Groenewegen as unfeeling and callous.

This depiction contrasts with a more nuanced portrait of the Jumbo-Visma sprinter that emerges during a 10-page interview in L’Équipe’s weekly magazine that was published on the Giro’s opening day. In it, Groenewegen says that he thinks about the Jakobsen’s accident every day and that he didn’t even consider appealing against the nine-month ban that the UCI handed out to him, the longest ever given to a rider for a non-doping offense. “All that counted in my eyes was that Fabio got better,” he says.

He talks too about the premature birth of his son, Mayson, last January and the severe health complications that initially affected the baby, about the threats that he and his family received, which included someone leaving a noose in his mailbox and led to them needing police protection. He also lost his grandfather, Ko Zieleman, a renowned frame-builder and bike shop owner who introduced Groenewegen to the sport and died recently.

He acknowledges, too, that he changed his line in the sprint in Poland and wishes that he hadn’t, adding that his change of trajectory was “involuntary”. Yet, he also stresses that he’s served his time and that, ultimately, the location of the finish and the barriers used to line it were responsible for Jakobsen’s substantial injuries.

Looking ahead to the Giro’s sprints, my own feeling about Groenewegen is that I’d prefer not to see him win while Jakobsen is trying to regain his position as one of the peloton’s leading sprinters, and especially at a race as prestigious as this one.

Caleb Ewen sprinted to victory at the 2020 Scheldeprijs.
Will Caleb Ewan come out fastest in Italy? Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Turning to the half-dozen fliers I initially highlighted, Ewan is perhaps the pick of them at the moment.

The Lotto-Soudal sprinter beat a very classy line-up in the final stage of the UAE Tour in February, producing a blinding performance at Milan-Sanremo, where he crossed the Poggio with the best although he was ultimately thwarted by Jasper Stuyven, and is supported by a very strong support crew that includes German powerhouse Roger Kluge, the indefatigable Thomas De Gendt and, crucially, Jasper De Buyst, perhaps the most underrated lead-out in the bunch.

Earlier this week, Ewan revealed his goal for this season is to emulate Miguel Poblet (1956), Pierino Baffi (1958) and Alessandro Petacchi (2003), the only riders who have hitherto won a stage in each of the grand tours in one season.

Also read: Ewan eyes grand tour stage sweep in 2021

Having peaked for Sanremo, the Australian says that he’s coming into the Giro a little below his best, hoping that he’ll reach that level during the corsa rosa and be able to carry that form into the Tour de France, which gets underway at the end of next month. If he can emulate his achievement of 2019 by winning at these two races, he will then attempt to peak a third time in the year for the Vuelta at the end of August.

Winner of the opening stage of the Tour de Romandie last week, Sagan is also in good form at the moment, while it will be interesting too to see how Alpecin-Fenix’s Merlier fares on his and his team’s grand tour debut having ridden very well during the spring campaign. As for Viviani and Gaviria, it’s now two years since either of them claimed a stage win at a three-week tour. The Giro’s opening should give them at least four opportunities to end that drought.

Looking beyond the first week, the question will be whether any of these sprinters can emulate Démare’s feat in taking the points jersey, bearing in mind the Giro’s almost unrelenting focus on the high mountains during the final week. Second to the Frenchman last year, Sagan looks the best equipped to do so and add the points title to the seven he’s won at the Tour.

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