Giro d’Italia 2021: Simon Yates favourite but road to victory far from smooth

Being the favourite for any race does not come easily to Simon Yates, let alone being odds-on to win a three-week Grand Tour such as the Giro d’Italia, which starts in Turin on Saturday. Like it or not, however, the 28-year-old from Bury will carry that tag until events prove otherwise, or until he is crowned the winner in Milan on Sunday 30 May.

As Yates acknowledged this week, the Giro is unpredictable, and it has done him few favours in the past, most notably in 2018 when he led for much of the race but collapsed three days from the finish. “I’m hoping for a clear run this year. Two years ago I made some mistakes in training beforehand, and I did too much too early in 2018. A guy can come from nowhere and win [it] as I know from personal experience.”

Given recent history as well, Yates’s reticence when it came to talking up his own chances did make some kind of sense. Last October, as World Tour cycling staged a completely revamped season, the Giro endured one bizarre twist after another, including Yates’s withdrawal when he tested positive for Covid-19 in the second week.

The winner, London’s Tao Geogheghan-Hart, stepped in after his leader at Team Ineos, Geraint Thomas, pulled out after a crash caused by a stray drinks bottle. Covid saw off another frontrunner, Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands, and to top that, the runner-up and third placed rider, Jai Hindley of Australia and the Dutchman Wilco Kelderman, were complete outsiders.

Yates is, however, the only rider in the Giro field who has both won a Grand Tour – in his case the Vuelta a España in 2018 – and who has recently been showing winning form, having looked unstoppable on the climbs en route to victory at the recent Tour of the Alps. “It went very well but I’m not going to read too much into it, I’m happy with my condition, but the Giro is a very different race.”

Only two other starters have won a Grand Tour; the 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal of Colombia is still getting over the back injury that put him out of last year’s Tour, and he has not been seen with a number on his back since March. He does, however, lead a spectacularly strong Ineos team with a potential outside chance in the young Pavel Sivakov. The double Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali returns to excite the passionate home crowds, but the “Shark of Messina” now has less of Jaws about him; think Bruce, the shark from Finding Nemo who has lost his bite.

On paper, the biggest danger may be the Portuguese João Almeida, who led for much of the 2020 race, and fought hard for an eventual fourth place. Only 22, he is a young man in a hurry, but not as much of one as his Belgian teammate at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad Remco Evenepoel, a year younger, and tipped to be the next Eddy Merckx.

Most good young Belgian cyclists are touted as the next “Cannibal”, but in Evenepoel’s case the comparison is far from fanciful. He won all the four stage races he rode in 2020, and would have started as a favourite for last year’s Giro had it not been for a heavy crash in August. He has not raced since then, but even so, such is his ability that he has a realistic chance of taking the pink jersey in Saturday’s time trial prologue.

The route is typically mountainous, with a final week featuring ascents such as the super steep Zoncolan, and the monumental Giau – early summer snows permitting – and that will favour pure climbers such as Preston’s Hugh Carthy, who finished third in last year’s Tour of Spain, the near-veteran Irishman Dan Martin, or Spain’s perennial nearly man Mikel Landa.

The time trial on the final day puts pressure on the climbers to gain time, while there is one stage in particular that holds risks for all the riders: stage 11 to Montalcino, with several sections of the dirt roads known as strade bianche. The first time these were included in the Giro, in 2011, bad weather, mud, punctures and crashes blew the race apart.

In the face of all this, Yates at least has a plan. “I will have to be careful, calm and cautious.” In the least predictable Grand Tour of them all, that’s a fine aspiration, but at some point, he will have to throw caution to the wind like everyone else.