U23 cycling expert Joseph Doherty (@U23CyclingZone) who runs the excellent U23 Cycling Zone blog, previews the 2020 edition of the U23 Giro d’Italia, with added analysis by British Conti of the British riders and teams.
In what has been a borderline catastrophic season for the U23 world, it feels terrific to finally be writing a preview for a large stage race specifically for U23s. And what a stage race we have: the U23 Giro d’Italia.
The race is a little shorter than in previous years, but we have a superb startlist with a very exciting GC battle on our hands, as well as some stages for riders who can get over hills, plus quite a few bunch sprints, which is very unique from previous seasons.
As of right now, Thursday night, we don’t have a full startlist available, so I’m guessing most of the rosters and trying to guess who will be attending. This is why the favourites list is a little longer than normal, to try and account for an inaccuracy.
After three very mountainous editions of the U23 Giro d’Italia, the 2020 route sees just seven stages and a lot fewer hills. Perhaps this is coronavirus related, perhaps there are other reasons. Either way, the terrain in Italy still suggest a very exciting race, one that will now form the highlight of the U23 season thanks to the cancellation of the Tour de l’Avenir and uncertainty hanging over the worlds.
Without any extra delay, here is the route analysis, with stage profiles provided by the good people at La Flamme Rouge.
Stage 1: Urbino-Urbino (150km)
Mostly a circuit around Urbino, this is a classic U23 Giro opener. But things will be even more hectic thanks to the prologue not happening this season, meaning the winner takes the Maglia Rosa, no questions asked. With less than 4000 ft (2000m) climbing, this stage is quite easy for the top riders and should not see too many gaps appear in the GC. The main obstacle on the course is the cat three slog up the Gualdi climb (7.1km at 2.5%). Per the profile, the climb is steeper at the start and much flatter at the top. This all suggests a large group, but whether any sprinters will be left after four climbs remains to be seen. The final few hundred metres are uphill, so that may catch anyone out who goes too early. Jake Stewart’s Limousin form suggests these sort of stages could be perfect for him.
Stage 2: Gradara-Riccione (125km)
Riccione was used in last year’s Giro as the prologue town, as well as the start town for stage one. Incidentally, Brit Ethan Hayter won both days. This stage is probably a bunch sprint, with one cat three climb with 55km to go, 5.6km at 5.6%. The final few kilometres are slightly down hill, so a high-speed sprint should realistically be today’s outcome.
Stage 3: Riccione-Murdano (151km)
This is a well-designed stage, which features very little climbing, just over 1000m per La Flamme Rouge, but there are two climbs in the latter part of the stage. Both ranked cat 3, the climb from Monticino (3.3km at 5.3%) summits with just under 40km to go and is swiftly followed by the Mazzolano climb (1.8km at 7.6%) with 26km to go. Those two climbs may just lose the sprinters, but give them enough time to chase back on if they can get the support. Having said that, I quite fancy Tom Pidcock for this stage, especially if he is targeting the GC, as bonus seconds are always a great help. The final run-in to the line is very much flat.
Stage 4: Bonferraro di Sorga – Bolca (161km)
Finally, a GC day. After a few potential banana skin stages for the climbers, they should get to show their legs off here. After a flat opening hour, the riders begin to climb the first cat one climb of the race, a 20km slog at just under 5% average. That climb tops out with 60km to go and the race never sees flat ground again.
The La Bettola cat three climb is next with 30km to go, and that’s 3.9km at 5.7%. After quite a long descent, the race’s first cat two climb arrives, La Collina (4.2km at 6.8%) and from the top there’s just 11.5km to go.
The final climb to the line is another cat two, 4.8km at 7.5%. The opening 2km average under 7%, but its 8% for the final 2.8km, meaning some decent gaps could be made in a pretty short distance. It’s the sort of climb the organisers haven’t really used in recent years here for summit finishes, often going for either longer mountain passes, or the shorter climbs like the one we saw Hayter win on last year, where it’s more of an uphill sprint than a true climb. Pidcock again could suit this stage, as should Giovanni Aleotti (CT Friuli).
Stage 5: Marostica-Rosa (133km)
After yesterday’s excitement, this stage looks like another bunch sprint. There is a 50km stretch with 5 climbs, the cat two Crosara 45km in (6.5km at 5.5%) and four ascents of the cat three La Rosina (2.7km at 6.2%). But with the final 40km or so being flat, there should be some sort of sprint. Again, like on stage one, whether the sprinters can handle the climbs is another question, but the Dutch team were training David Dekker of SEG Racing Academy to get over the climbs, and he should cope with these if his legs are good.
Stage 6: Colico-Colico (158km)
This is one of the most interesting stages I’ve seen on this race in recent years. Why? There are no climbs on the course, yet there are also no flat roads. The trip around Lake Como is one of the clearest GC banana skin stages you’re likely to ever see. I’m hoping for aggressive racing, but at just 1500m of climbing, there is also the chance there’s a bunch sprint. It may be cliché to say this, but on this, the race’s sixth stage, anything really could happen.
Stage 7: Barzio-Montespluga (116.5km)
Whilst stage six offered an anything can happen scenario, stage seven offers on outcome, and it is crystal clear: a summit finish for the best climbers in the race to battle for the Maglia Rosa. The opening 100km is mostly flat apart from an uncategorized climb of 4km at 7% in the first 25km (not sure why that’s not categorized?). Then it’s purely flat to the base of the final climb.
This, at least in my memory of the last three U23 Giros, is the longest climb the race has ever used. 28.2km long and topping out at just over 1900m above sea level, the climb to Montespluga will detonate this race. Officially 28.2km at 5.7%, the opening 24km average over 6% before the final is a little easier, but not by much.
There are four separate kilometres averaging over 9% on the climb and many more at 7-8%. In short, this late in the race, this climb will leave no place to hide if you’re not at your best. It should also allow anyone who fell behind on the punchier stage four to recoup their time. I can’t wait for this stage. But the piece de resistance is still to come…
Stage 8: Aprica-Aprica (121km)
After last season’s double Mortirolo, we do a very similar stage, just a little less crazy. After an early descent from Aprica, the cat two Teglio climb is 7.7km long at just over 6%, and it’s followed by another cat two about 25km later, the harder Carona climb, almost 10km at 7%. The riders have another 25km or so to rest and try and recover, before the showpiece event arrives.
The mighty Mortirolo. Just under 12km at 11% average, with kilometres averaging almost 13%. Th climb is going to be savage, with casualties falling all over the road as the best riders inch closer to Aprica and the final Maglia Rosa. Following the top, there is still 32.5km to go, but a long descent to Edola brings the riders to the foot of the race’s final climb back up to Aprica. Only a cat three, it’s very different to the HC-rated Mortirolo. It’s long, at 14.5km, but averages just 3.3%. if you struggle on the Mortirolo, trying to power up this climb will be hellish. I envisage this climb being a launchpad to further distance riders who are dropped, rather than catch back on. It could also see a battle for the stage if there are contenders together at the head of the race. Either way, when its 9 miles is over, we will know who has won arguably this season’s showpiece race.
Winner Candidates: Maxim Van Gils (Lotto-Soudal U23), Alessandro Fancellu (Kometa-Xstra), Giovanni Aleotti (CT Friuli), Tom Pidcock (Trinity Racing)
Podium Contenders: Jesus David Pena (Colombia Tierra de Atletas), Filippo Conca, Kevin Colleoni (both Biesse Averdi), Viktor Verschaeve (Lotto-Soudal U23), Sean Quinn (Hagens Berman Axeon)
Outsiders: Sylvain Moniquet (Groupama-FDJ Conti), Mason Hollyman (Holdsworth-Zappi), Sergio Garcia (Kometa-Xstra)
Jokers: Marco Frigo (SEG Racing) , Josu Exteberria (Caja Rural U23), Daniel Arroyave (UAE-Colombia)
Heading into this race, Maxim Van Gils has been flying, with 3rd overall at the Tour du Savoie Mont Blanc showcasing his fantastic climbing ability. Van Gils hasn’t raced a Giro before, but has performed well in other hard races like Valle d’Aosta and Circuit des Ardennes. The route should suit him, with neither of the summit finishes being particularly bad matches for his skillset, and his finish isn’t too shabby either. I’d also expect him to handle the Mortirolo quite well too. Maxim must be considered a top contender for this race.
Alessandro Fancellu, who will be off to Trek-Segafredo next season, has been targeting this race all year. He had a quiet ride in Burgos and we’ve not seen him since, but looking at how he did on the summit finish in Antalya, the big summit finish stage should be right up his street. I know he has also reconned the Mortirolo too, so his confidence on the final stage will be relatively high. He has a very strong team here with him, but his form is a huge question mark. He has a few days to ride himself into the race before the first summit finish, and only then will we find out just how well he is doing.
Giovanni Aleotti, Bora-hansgrohe bound if you believe what you read, should be perfectly suited to this course. His Classics pedigree should see him thrive on the hillier stages and the first summit finish, and bonus seconds could very well be achievable. Furthermore, he showed at l’Avenir he can TT himself up a singular climb like what we see on the Montespluga stage, which is actually not as steep or as high as the climb up Col de la Loze was in l’Avenir. The big question is stage eight. Can he get over the Mortirolo with the leading contenders? I really do believe he can this year. Aleotti has to be a top favourite here for me.
Yep, Tom Pidcock is a winner candidate for this race in my opinion. Let me get the drawbacks out the way first: his road form is pretty unknown, as he has just one UCI road race in his legs all year. And he’s relatively unproven in stage races thus far. But after winning on Planche des Belles Filles last year at Tour Alsace, I think Pidcock, like Aleotti, will love this course. He has the speed to win a few stages here, and a good bonus second buffer may make him hard to full shift on the final two stages. He may blow up at some point, he may win the whole thing, but you can guarantee Pidcock will give his all to put on yet another scintillating performance.
There are not too many riders I can say this about, but I’m not too sure this race is hard enough for Jesus Pena. The Colombian was 7th overall last season in support of Camilo Ardila and Juan Diego Alba, but returns as the outright leader this time around. He was amazing on the Mortirolo last season, but I’m not too convinced that his form is great, with just one UCI race day since the racing returned, and very few tough summit finishes to wedge a big gap between the other riders. I’d not be shocked to see Pena climb the final podium in Aprica in Pink, but he has a few too many questions to answer before I call him a winner candidate.
Biesse Arvedi duo Filippo Conca and Kevin Colleoni lit this race up last year, with Conca 5th overall and Colleoni 3rd and 5th in the race’s two hardest stages. Both riders will join Androni full time from January, and both look like they are rounding into form nicely. Given there aren’t too many teams with multiple contenders, the duo should be comfortable working well together. I think both have a genuine shot at the podium.
Viktor Verschaeve won a summit finish at Savoie Mont Blanc, but so far he always seems to have a bad day that ruins his GC bid. But he knows this race well, after taking 9th last season, and with Van Gils he too is part of a deadly duo coming into the mountains. He was pretty good on last year’s Aprica stage and I don’t think the parcours will scare him. Lets see if he can piece together a strong GC ride before joining the Lotto-Soudal WorldTour team next season.
6th overall last season, this race was the breakthrough for Sean Quinn. The second-year U23 with Hagens Berman Axeon is coming back looking to do better, and the course helps him with that. A self-confessed diesel engine, the American gets stronger as the race goes on, and unlike last year, the hardest stages come in the final two days. With friend and teammate Kevin Vermaerke here, he will have support too. He’s going to need to gap riders there, but I could see Quinn finishing on the podium here.
8th in Savoie Mont Blanc, Sylvain Moniquet’s form is on the rise. The final year U23 is racing for a WorldTour contract, and the longer climbs should suit the Belgian. However, he suffered a blow when Lars Van Den Berg crashed in the Dutch Nationals and got injured, as he would be a valuable ally in the mountains. Moniquet has often worked for others in his time as a U23, but I think a top five here would be a great result given the company.
20th in his first year as an U23, there is no denying Mason Hollyman has improved over the winter and looks to be going very well coming into this race. The Holdsworth-Zappi man should really enjoy the climbing days, and his team will not be asked to do too much work given they are not as big as some of the other contender’s squads. I really think Hollyman has a good chance of delivering a top GC result in this race, he just has to get to the final stages in good GC position.
Sergio Garcia is another man with previous here, 18th last season. The Spaniard has been a revelation on Kometa-Xstra, with some very good pro results so far this year. The reason he’s so far down this list is simple: he has limited high mountain race days and will probably be asked to support Fancellu and sacrifice his own chances. Nonetheless we have seen good GC results from support riders before, so the man who was 11th in Circuito de Getxo should still be high on the GC.
Vuelta a Zamora winner Josu Etxeberria has just two UCI race days in the last season and a half, but he is a prodigious climbing talent that Caja Rural are hoping to hand some pro races to later this year when he stagiaires with the team. He cannot be counted out to make an impression here. Colombian U23 RR champ Daniel Arroyave has been heavily linked with Astana in recent weeks, but he also is low on UCI race days, none since the Colombian nationals. I’ll be tracking him closely throughout this race. Marco Frigo, Italian U23 RR champion, also has pretty limited mountain race days, but he climbed well on the SEG eRacing series and his form is looking good after 11th on the hardest Czech Tour stage and 14th overall, which was on a parcours I don’t think was hard enough for the second year U23. With the jersey on his back, I’ll be tracking how he gets on overall too.
The British Conti’s view: British teams and riders
As I said in our podcast preview show on the race, the Baby Giro has been a happy hunting ground for the Brits in recent years. Last year, the Great Britain Cycling Team won an incredible four stages thanks to Ethan Hayter (two stage wins), Matt Walls And Fred Wright, whilst Charlie Quarterman finished fourth in the prologue and followed that up with third on stage 7.
Unfortunately, the organisers of the Baby Giro decided to ban national teams from competing this year, which means a lot of top young Brits won’t be racing. Nevertheless, with two British teams competing, Holdsworth-Zappi and Trinity Racing, as well as Lewis Askey, Jake Stewart (both Groupama-FDJ Continental) and Harrison Wood (SEG Racing), there is still plenty of British interest.
Joseph has already highlighted Tom Pidcock and Mason Hollyman as potential GC prospects, analysis I agree with. I hear the Hollyman has had a bit of a cold in the run-up to the race, so hopefully, that doesn’t affect his form too much. He certainly looked good at the recent Tour of Bulgaria where he finished 9th overall. Pidcock has shown this week at the Euros that he’s not far from his top form.
Jake Stewart was in scintillating form at the Tour du Limousin and has been rewarded for his good season with a World Tour contract. Amazingly though, he’s yet to win a UCI road race. With the form he’s in, it feels like the Baby Giro could be where breaks his duck. His teammate Lewis Askey is one of the brightest prospects in British cycling and whilst as a first-year under-23 he might be mainly limited to team duties, he’s talented enough to get a result if the opportunity arises. In our podcast preview show, he picks out stage 3 as one that suits him.
Our other audio diarist, Harrison Wood, is a rider that is likely to have a big GC future. It might be too early in his career to really make a mark in this race, but he seems confident about his form, so look out for him in the mountains.
The Trinity Racing team isn’t all about Tom Pidcock. Irishman Ben Healy became the youngest ever Tour de l’Avenir stage winner last year, so don’t bet against him grabbing a stage win here (and watch out for a podcast interview with him, out soon). The rest of the team is super-talented too, although they may be disadvantaged by their lack of racing; newly formed this year, the team hasn’t yet competed in a road race. Thomas Gloag is an exciting Dan Martin-style climber, whilst Manxman Max Walker has a fast finish so could be handy if the opportunity arises.
We haven’t seen Holdsworth-Zappi’s line-up yet but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kiwi Paul Wright, fast man Reece Wood and Calum Johnston line up alongside Mason Hollyman. All looked in good shape in Bulgaria last month so I’d expect them to be active in this race too.
Featured photo: Giro d’Italia U23
Lewis Askey and Harrison Wood are keeping an audio diary of the race for an upcoming podcast episode. Check out our preview show with them here.