Giro d’Italia’s wacky downhill time trial adds intrigue to battle for first pink jersey

Steep descents and tight turns in opening TT could see record-breaking speeds and riders on disc brake bikes getting the advantage.

Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

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Don’t worry, the Giro d’Italia‘s opening stage time trial will be no snoozer.

With Saturday’s 15.1-kilometer test in central Palermo pointing mostly downhill and featuring some nerve-jangling tight switchbacks, super-high speeds and even heftier braking will be the order of the day in the battle for the race’s first pink jersey.

“It is a very special course,” said Belgian time trial specialist Victor Campenaerts (NTT Pro Cycling). “I’ve never done anything like this. It will be spectacular. Rik Verbrugghe’s speed record may well be broken.”

Way back in 2001, Verbrugghe blasted through a 7.6km prologue in Pescara with the wind at his back, averaging 59kph in his sub-eight minute ride.

Saturday’s short stage in Sicilian capital Palermo is far from a featureless highway out-and-back. Kicking off with a 1.1km ascent straight out of the gate, the route then tilts downhill for around 9 kilometers, hitting descending grades of up to 8 percent on the way. Just as riders hit speeds that experts are forecasting could hit up to 100kph, the route pings back and forth through two tight switchbacks before leveling out in the second half.

“The steepest section of that first downhill will see the top riders hitting some dramatic peak speeds, but they will occur before a pair of switchback turns, only 600m after that highest speed is reached,” said aerodynamics expert B Xavier Disley on Twitter. “The turns are tight and will be tricky.”

While newly-minted world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) is carrying the hopes of his nation as odds-on favorite for the stage, Campenaerts pointed out when speaking with Sporza that equipment choice and body mass could play a factor in determining who snatches the Giro’s first Maglia Rosa. While Ganna will be riding a disc-brake equipped BMC Time Machine, Ineos Grenadiers ride on Pinarello Bolides with rim brakes and so lower stopping power.

“Ganna is the absolute top favorite, but my advantage is that there are disc brakes on our time trial bikes,” Campernaerts said Friday. “That will be a big advantage if you are approaching a hairpin at 100 kilometers per hour.”

Weighing a fair few kilos lighter than the burly track specialist Ganna could also play into the Belgian’s favor, with the opening kilometer of climbing including short ramps of up to 18 percent gradient.

“I am a Fiat Panda, Ganna is a big truck,” Campenaerts explained, but also conceded that his chance of victory are around “10 percent” against the massive motor of the Italian.

Disley, founder of British aerodynamics specialists Aero Coach, argues that rider and bike weight will make little impact overall, but outright power and a tight TT position will be essential.

“An increase in mass of 1kg on this stage (uniquely) will not result in a performance loss,” he said. “There’s a case to be made for even a slight benefit but the switchbacks kill the speed on the steep downhill (no need to fill your water bottles with sand) & the first climb is steep.”

“Stage 1 favors big riders who can squeeze into a good aero position on the descents & crank out the watts on the flat. Pedaling even a tiny bit on the descents makes a discernible difference so those trying to coast to the finish won’t end up top of the leaderboard.”

Saturday’s sloping TT is likely to see some large time gaps through the peloton and will set the tone of the opening salvo of GC skirmishes. Time trial expert Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) will be licking his lips when he casts an eye over the roadbook Saturday morning. Lightweight climber Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is already braced for the worst.

“We start with the prologue, which I expect to lose some time. It’s all downhill, it’s the worst time trial I could imagine, so I will be on the back foot there,” he said Friday. “I will have to make up some time somewhere. Where? Your guess is good as mine.”


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