The weirdo Giro. Froome, Jerusalem, lack of rivals.

Dumoulin. will the 2018 Giro prove as sexy?

I must admit to an unsettled feeling about the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

While I have a preference for grand tours over classics, I’m struggling a bit with this year’s battle for the magnolia rosa. I want to be excited about the epic battles in the mountains and the crazy unpredictability of the Giro but there are a few factors that have dampened my usual enthusiasm.

First, the three days in Jerusalem bother me a lot. I think it’s a dumb idea and a needlessly dangerous one on top of that. Israel soldiers gunning down unarmed protestors is not the kind of drama you’re looking for in a bike race. I’m not calling that pageantry.

Recent stories in the news have pointed to a surge in violence, besides the existing protests against the race coming to Israel. I’m all for bold thinking and exploring new places outside Italy but this is a head-scratcher of a choice. That’s unless I’m counting the huge appearance fee paid to Froome that supposedly came from Israel in return for their three days of blazing media attention for something other than political conflict.

I’m also struggling with the participation of Team Sky’s Chris Froome, who will be contesting the race despite his twice-the-limit overdose of the asthma medication salbutamol. There have been sport-wide appeals to Froome that he recluse himself until his legal case is resolved. Froome claims innocence and insists on riding.

Froome (and Team Sky) have chosen to ignore the negative repercussions for the sport as it tries to shed its never-ending doping controversies. The harsh and bright spotlights of the Giro will once again put the doping story out there for all to see, whether Froome is ultimately found guilt or innocent.

On a strictly legal view, Froome is free to ride but on every other measure, especially ethical, his participation is no cause for celebration. I make absolutely no judgement on whether Froome is guilt or not or what extenuating circumstances will factor into his ruling. However, there’s no question in my mind that he should not be racing.

That brings me to my final struggle for pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for the 2018 Giro. I’m pessimistic about the level of competition –read, anyone who can beat Froome to the final pink lycra jersey. While Froome hasn’t shown his usual dominance, his track record and team strength make him the overwhelming favorite.

I would like to think that last year’s winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) will be a worthy challenger. His results so far this season are neither good not bad and that’s not good enough to beat Froome. He claims he’s at the same level as when he won last year but then again, he wasn’t racing the best stage racer of this generation.

Fabio Aru is such an unpredictable character that I can’t put any serious money on that wager. Yes, he won the Giro a few year back but my most immediate and powerful memory is a helpless Aru trailing behind Froome in the 2017 Tour and Vuelta a Espana — won by Froome, who was also on his way to a failed test for salbutamol in that race. We love Aru’s passion but watching his instantly fruitless attacks against the Briton bordered on sad.

Thibaut Pinot is another wildcard and here, at least, we have a strong case that the man is dialed in and ready to rock. He just won the climb-infested Tour of the Alps and is motivated and confident. It’s just, well, we’re talking about Pinot. He seems to blow hot or cold and his most predictable trait is that jours sans.

Granted it’s usually been in the Tour de France, which partly explains his switch to the Giro — along with his desire to perhaps avoid the insane pressure of a Frenchman in the French grand Tour. We’re pulling big time for Pinot and few things would make us as happy as Pinot beating Puff Daddy in a three week tour. The drawback to that fantasy is just that — ain’t going to happen.

I can barely even bother to make a case for Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida). Is there anyone credible in the world of cycling that would honestly make the claim that the Italian will blow Froome off the top step of the podium? It seems like at least two, if not three years, that we’ve been told he’s ready for a breakthrough but I don’t see anything on his meager palmares that argues for anything higher than third. And that’s if he rides a perfect race from start to finish.

Miguel Angel Lopez — now here is an assassin that creates some intrigue. On personality alone, you have the sense — more than Aru — that he could shake up the race and create chaos. He did that in last year’s Vuelta a Espana, winning two stages and riding his way onto two other podiums and finishing 8th overall. He has a bit of the personality of Astana team boss Alexander Vinokourov — not the racing buying but the “attack or die trying” attitude. Still, unless he somehow does a Contador surprise attack and opens a two minute gap, I’m not expecting Froome to worry too much.

The irrepressible and always-smiling Esteban Chaves is certainly a rider that everyone could root for. What a nice, humble, harding working professional. He broke through with a fifth overall in the 2015 Vuelta and an excellent 2nd overall in the 2016 Giro. It’s been a rocky ride since. He and Simon Yates make a nice one-two punch for Mitchelton-Scott but we suspect Yates will be the first option.

Yates seems to be on a steady trajectory and his 7th place overall last year in his very first Tour de France marks him as a serious talent. I just think it’s a big ask for Yates to come out on top against a canny, experienced champion like Froome who has a strong team behind him.

Last but not least and perhaps most interesting is the duo of George Bennett (Lotto-NL Jumbo) and Michael Woods (EF-Drapac). Bennett is emotionally and mentally suited to the Giro because of his attacking style and improv skills. He’s the kind of rider who might benefit if weather conditions suddenly created some additional chaos. He’d be willing to roll the dice and go big. But again, can he keep things together, riding at the front, for three solid weeks or will he end up like Contador at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana — brilliant and bold attacks but generally few time gains.

Michael Woods in still in discovery mode, figuring out how fast and how high he can go. So far, the answers have been impressive for a guy who used to race on foot, not on a bicycle. A 7th overall in last year’s Vuelta a Espana was a flat out revelation. Then this year he impressed and surprised everyone again with a second place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He is without question, on form.

However, in the Vuelta he flew under the radar until the last week, a dark horse benefiting from a low profile. That won’t be the case in the Giro and he’ll also be discovering how to be a team leader in a grand tour. That’s a big ask for the Canadian. In truth, a top five would have to be considered an excellent performance. A podium would be mind-blowing.

For me, this race is a Froome-Dumoulin fight with everyone else hoping for the third step of the podium. Those contenders will pray for an off-day from Froome or nasty weather that shakes up the race, an illness or crash to move up the standings.

If you were to remove Froome from the start list, this would suddenly become a wide-open, crazy free-for-all Giro that would keep everyone on the edge of their seats for three weeks. However, Froome is riding, salbutamol be damned, and a strong Team Sky makes him the overwhelming favorite.

We’re not that thrilled he’s riding and we’re not that happy the race begins in Jerusalem. Let’s hope the other serious contenders rise to the occasion. Otherwise this could be a really weird Giro.

 

 

 

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