Previews Races

2021 Giro Ciclistico d’Italia: race preview

U23 cycling expert Joseph Doherty previews the 2021 edition of the U23 Giro d’Italia

Here we are: after a 2020 and, if we’re honest, a 2021 that has been borderline disastrous for the U23 peloton again, we arrive at the U23 Giro. When all other races failed last season (except the rearranged Ronde de l’Isard), this race held fast and continued in the late summer.

This is my favourite race of the season, with an often stellar field and fiendishly hard parcours that shirks the trend of short mountain stages

This is my favourite race of the season, with an often stellar field and fiendishly hard parcours that shirks the trend of short mountain stages often found at its big counterpart, the Tour de l’Avenir. This year, the organisers have extended invitations to riders born in 1998; U24s in effect. That creates an interesting dynamic between some of the favorites for the GC, as there are some 18-year-olds here competing against 23-year-olds. I confess to having mixed feelings about this, as I think riders need a chance to show themselves after the last year and a bit of little to no UCI racing if you’re not on a pro team. But then, there is also a particular rider here who has been racing pro events this season, and he has a big advantage on the 18 to 19-year-olds too.

But enough of the moderate controversy, let’s revel in the great race. I’m thankful to The British Continental for once again giving me an extra large platform to share my preview on this race, and with good reason, as the 2020 Giro was one for the Brits. Whilst 2019 saw a strong performance for our proud nation, with a stage wins for Fred Wright, Matt Walls and Ethan Hayter, who nabbed two and the points jersey, there was no real GC bid, with Hayter spending a few days in pink but ending 15th overall, while Mason Hollyman was 20th. 2020 was all about a certain INEOS Grenadier, and it’s time to recap.

2020 race recap

Tom Pidcock won all three of the hilly and mountain stages in the race, cruising to the GC win in arguably the most one-sided Giro since the race returned in 2017. For reference, at just under three minutes down overall, Henri Vandenabeele was the only man within a whopping FIVE MINUTES of Tom overall. Admittedly, the always strong Colombians had a horrible shot at preparing for the race with lockdown restrictions, but simply put, the rest of the field couldn’t touch the Brit.

Photo: Giro Ciclistico d’Italia

Vandenabeele arose from a terrible Giro for Lotto-Soudal U23, which saw the Belgians squad lose both Viktor Verschaeve and Maxim Van Gils early on, to take 2nd, and Kevin Colleoni would repeat his great 2019 performance in the mountains, and this time remained consistent enough to take 3rd overall, with Giovanni Aleotti 4th and Colleoni’s teammate Filippo Conca 5th for the second successive Giro. 

Stage-wise, Pidcock and Luca Colnaghi won over half of the eight stages between them, and Colnaghi just won the points jersey ahead of Tom, although an accidental positive test and ban has taken some gloss of Luca’s Giro. Jordi Meeus and Jonathan Milan won a bunch sprint each, and Alejandro Ropero grabbed Spain’s first Giro stage since the race returned on the opening day to complete the round-up of the stage winners. Young Edoardo Zambanini was best young rider in 10th overall, and Pidcock won the KOM jersey.

2021 route

Looking at this year’s race, I want to say kudos to the organisers for creating a quite diverse parcours. The Giro has always tried to be different, whether its very hard mountain stages (double Mortirolo in 2019, the Fedaia too, Mortirolo again last year and Montespluga at over 2000m), a Strade Bianche stage in 2019, or the ‘real GC time’ ITT to end the 2018 race, it just does things that go against the grain. And this year is no different. Gone is the prologue, and in comes a 25km ITT, which hugely goes against most U23 races outside of a Championship ITT. The race once again has a climb over 2000m, and a finale matching a stage from week one of the elite men’s Giro, which as we saw on TV, will be very hard. Let’s go over the parcours in full now.

Stage 1: Cesenatico-Riccone (144km)

A sort of reverse Coppi e Bartali stage, the climb leaves the start town, home of Marco Pantani when he was still with us, and heads into the hills, with the Sogliano al Rubicone climb from Coppi e Bartali around halfway in, which is over 10km long at an average of just 2.4%. 25km to go sees Monte Olivo climbed, but again that’s just under 5km and averages less than 4%. There are a few lumps and bumps in the final, and with the Maglia Rosa up for grabs, I expect chaos, but the final few kilometres are flat and I do think a sprint is the likely outcome here.

Stage 2: Riccione-Imola (138.2km)

This stage feels like it should have little effect on the GC, but offers a nice chance to split the field a little and remove the sprinters from competing for the win. Again, does it look familiar? It should. Despite not finishing on a motor racing circuit, the final climb is also the final climb used in last year’s worlds, so that really should create a selection. No one should lose the GC today, but pink should change hands. After 105km of flat, there’s a short and steep unclassified climb, before the first cat three of the day at 23.5km to go. Following that, the riders head for Cima Gallisterna, which maxes out at 14% and is officially 2.7km at 6.5%. 9.5km from the line means there is a chance to get back, but like Alaphilippe showed in the worlds, it’s pretty much downhill all the way to Imola, so that is no small task. I’m excited for this stage, and I love the straight and steep nature of the final climb, but this should just set the scene for the ten days of racing, rather than decide it all.

Stage 3: Cesenatico-Cesenatico (133km)

This is a hard stage to predict. Per La Flamme Rouge, there’s over 2000m of ascent, but it mostly comes in the middle of the stage, so it could be a breakaway day, although stage two feels too easy to really distance riders enough to make that viable without threatening the Maglia Rosa wearer, or a sprint between those fast men with better legs on the hills (cough cough Mr. Colnaghi and his merry band of revenge tour teammates). There are two cat threes in the opening half of the stage, but with just under 60km to go, the race’s first cat two appears, 6km at just over 6%. The riders descend and then immediately go up the race’s first cat one of the day with under 45km to go, and that’s 4.6km at 8% and the final few hundred metres at over 12%.

After that though, the race is very untechnical, which should help any chase from sprinters remaining, and the finale in Cesentico is untechnical too, keeping attackers in the peloton’s sights. This could go either way, but I feel with a backloaded final the sprinters need to try take this chance.

Stage 4: Sorbolo Mezzani-Guastalla (25km)

There’s not much to say about the ITT. It’s pan flat, with 27m of climbing and little to no turns until the final few ks. So I’ll take the chance to talk about what it can mean for the GC.

The startlist is a bit unknown as I write this part of my preview, roughly a week before the race begins. But from the top of my head, there is no Pidcock coming here who is a phenomenal TT rider as well as climber, and gone are the days of Leknessund, Foss, Van Wilder, etc. I’m expecting a lot of climbers, and they may all collectively die against the clock, but unless someone is awful, they should still all be in close contention with each other. Perhaps a Sean Quinn can steal a march, but other than that, the gamble to include this in the parcours shouldn’t wreck the race for the organisers. But, like I said, it’s a bit different, and it’s something you get in the pro races, so why not try and prep the GC stars of tomorrow for life competing for an elite Giro or Tour?

Stage 5: Fanano-Sestola (142km)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but look familiar? Yep, it’s the aforementioned final of the 2021 elite Giro’s fourth stage, won from the break by Joe Dombrowski, and it forced a selection of the best climbers, albeit aided by some horrific weather.

The opening 50km or so are flat, and the next 50km features a cat three and some rolling hills, but it’s the final third of the stage we care about here. With just 12.5km to go, the riders take on a cat one climb to Poggioraso, which was not categorized in the elite race, but here is 12.2km at 4.2%, although there is a descent in there which messes with the gradient. 

From there, there is a descent to the foot of Colle Passerino, another much harder cat one, which is 4.3km at nearly 10% average and a max of 16%. From the top, there are just 2.5km to the line. This could see a solo winner from a break, or a solo GC rider, but potentially also a few GC riders coming to the line together. Either way, barring anyone having a disaster pre this stage, this is the first real chance to shake up the GC if the TT fails to do so.

Stage 6: Bonferraro di Sorga-San Pellegrino Terme (177km)

Yes, this could be a GC stage, but after the past few stages, the win should be the break’s. They have a whole day of flat before the cat two Selvino climb to build a gap for the hill, and then descent to the line, with a few flat ks before the finish. Let’s cut to Selvino (11.8km at 5.3%). The descent takes the riders to 5 flat ks to go before the line. This is a good climb to try and distance the weaker GC rider, but it would take a very strong attack for some GC riders to really distance the others. It feels more you cannot win the race today, but you could lose it. I think this is for the break today though.

Stage 7: Sondrio-Lago di Campo Moro (120km)

Pretty much identical to last year’s Montespluga stage, the big 2000m climb is a relatively simple day out. Two cat twos after a flat opening half of the stage, before the monstrous 28.8km climb at 5.4% begins. The opening part of the climb is shallow and rolling, with the meat of the climb from Lanzada to about 2km to go is 12.2km at 7.6%, and that’s the real test. There is a descent to the flame rouge before it kicks up to the line once more.

This is where things really begin to sort themselves out. We’ve had some long climbs and some steep grades so far, but at this length and altitude, the best will rise to the top. It’s perfect for rhythm climbers, with a few kilometres averaging over 9% in the back half of the climb. If you have a bad day here, it’s race over for me, as there will be nowhere to hide. After some punches and jabs thrown in the opening week, this is where the first riders will get knocked out.

Stage 8: Aprica-Andalo (116km)

This stage does feel a let down, it’s the first this race I’ve been disappointed with. It just feels like it could have been so much more. The opening 30km are uphill, culminating in the cat one Passo del Tonale (8.3km at 6.3%), with the rest of the stage varying grades of downhill until the cat one climb to Andalo (14.6km at 5%). It’s a little harder than the grade suggests thanks to some false flat kilometres to allow riders to recover before the final few clicks to the line, but this stage is only going to be hard if the riders make it so. After some rough days from stages four to seven, this could be a GC ceasefire. Either way, I expect the Tonale to create the break and then allow that to go to the line, with about two to three minutes needed to survive a GC battle on Andalo, if it happens.

Stage 9: Cavalese-Nevegal (167km)

One last GC dance to try and win the race. Again, this stage will come down to legs like the previous day, as there is no devastating climb to sort things out. Like stage eight, the opening 23km is uphill, with 19 of those the cat one Passo Valles at under 5%, although the final 4km averages just under 9%, so that’s a nasty start. After a long descent, there’s a cat three climb with about 70km to go, followed by more flat, then we go up the final climb for the first of two ascents, no doubt inspired by the double Sestriere from last year’s elite men’s race.

Nevegal is 12.5km at 4.6%, so similar to Andalo from the other day. The top comes with 29.5km to go, and the climb itself goes up in steps, although nothing is too steep. The challenge is the fact there is little flat in between the two ascents to recover, and after nine days of racing and 3000m of climbing, you need to be mentally and physically strong here. Today is where the GC sees the last chance for changes.

Stage 10: San Vito al Tagliamento-Castelfranco Veneto (163km)

Strangely for this race, it ends in what should be either a break day or bunch sprint. With less than 800m of climbing all day, that suggest a sprint. There are some steep climbs in the middle, including the Muro di Ca’del Poggio, which is 1km at over 12% and was the scene of the split ITT from the end of the 2018 race. It is followed by the 1.2km long Guia climb at over 60km to go, and that averages 7%. There’s a much easier uncategorized hill with 40km to go, but that aside it’s flat to the line.

So why would this not be a sprint: simply put, TT aside, the riders have done hills and mountains for the last five stages, and the sprinters will be very tired after such a long race. If it gets to a sprint, the final is hugely straight, so would suit a sprint. There could be excitement today, but at this point, not in the Maglia Rosa battle, that should have been settled the previous day.

The GG contenders

Now that we’ve had a look at where the favourites will do battle, we can turn our attention to who the big contenders are, as well as the stage hunters and sprinters, who this year I will be grouping together since we are shy on nailed on bunch sprint opportunities.

Winner candidates: Juan Ayuso (Colpack-Ballan), Anthon Charmig* (Uno-X DARE), Jesús David Peña (Colombia Tierra de Atletas)

Podium contenders: Henri Vandenabeele (DSM Devo), Yesid Pira (Caja Rural U23), Sean Quinn (Hagens Berman Axeon), Didier Merchan (Colombia Tierra de Atletas), Thomas Gloag (Trinity), Alexandre Balmer (Groupama-FDJ Conti)

Outsiders: Asbjorn Hellemose (VC Mendrisio), Anders Johannessen (Uno-X DARE), Yannis Voissard* (Swiss Racing Academy), German Dario Gomez, Yeisson Casallas (both Colombia Tierra de Atletas)

Jokers: Marco Frigo (SEG Racing Academy), Henok Mulubrhan (Team Qhubeka), Edoardo Zambanini (Zalf), Tobias Johannessen (Uno-X DARE), Ben Healy (Trinity)

Juan Ayuso. Photo: Trofeo PIVA

Whilst a lot of young pros handle the limelight at WorldTour level, Juan Ayuso faced a different pressure in 2021. After his last junior season was cut short due to Covid, he knew he was getting a few months as an U23 before he was off to UAE-Team Emirates. Well, he has grabbed his chance with both hands at Colpack-Ballan. 17th overall at Coppi e Bartali, with 5th and 6th in the final two stages, Ayuso then delivered back-to-back wins at Trofeo Piva and Giro del Belvedere, before adding the GC at Giro di Romagna too. He was a good TT rider as a junior, and he says he prefers long climbs to the shorter ones he has faced to date, so on paper this route is perfect. Like Evenepoel in the pros, the length of the race will be interesting for him,  but we know he has both the form and talent to win this overall.

Anthon Charmig, Denmark. 2020 European Road Championships, Plouay, Brittany, France Men’s U23 Road Race. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

The first of the riders who would normally be too old to start here, Charmig is a gifted climber. The Dane was 6th at the Tour of Turkey and was very recently 2nd overall at the Alpes Isère Tour. He has a super strong team with him, as we will go on to see as this preview continues. He has the ability to shine here before departing to be a full-time pro with Uno-X’s top team.

Jesús David Peña. 2021 Vuelta de la Juventud Coldeportes. Photo: La Federación Colombiana de Ciclismo

The other super-team here is the Colombia Tierra de Atletas squad. The nation played a big part in both the 2018 and 2019 races, but faced very unfavourable circumstances pre-race in 2020 with lack of outdoor training, a late flight to Europe and bad weather. They have a lot of cards to play, but Jesús David Peña seems the best bet. A two-time winner of the U23 Tour of Colombia, Peña was 7th here as a first-year as teammates Andres Ardila and Juan Diego Alba went 1-3 overall. Last year he struggled, but he seems right back on form and ready to finally take control of this race.

Henri Vandenabeele. Photo: Team DSM

Henri Vandenabeele was 2nd last season, and swapped Lotto-Soudal for DSM in the offseason, but his form is a big question mark. We know he is a gifted climber, but the Belgian has had limited race days in his favoured terrain to show his class. 11th on the last stage at Tour of the Alps showed he may be rounding into form, and if so, he will be right in the battle for the win.

Yesid Pira was the revelation of the Tour of Colombia, with 5th overall and a stage win. He’s come to Europe with the Caja Rural feeder team, with whom the final year U23 has reportedly signed for 2022 onwards. He may struggle in the TT, but if he has the same climbing legs he had back home, he is a name to track in this tight podium battle. 

Sean Quinn is more of a diesel, and he will excel in the TT here amongst GC riders. He is a dangerous man to give time to, and was 6th here in 2019 and was looking good in 2020 before a final weekend collapse. His form is also good, having won Clasica d’Arrabida and taken 14th and best young rider at the Volta ao Algarve too. A real man to watch.

Didier Merchan was runner-up at the U23 Tour of Colombia behind his own teammate Pena, and is another final year U23 looking to secure himself a pro deal. He excels in the mountains and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win a stage if the team doesn’t go all in on one option on the road. Another exciting man to follow.

Thomas Gloag (right) with Elliot Phillips in Colombia. Photo: VC Let’s Get It

Thomas Gloag was a key part of Tom Pidcock’s win last year here, and like so many, mixes good TT skills with truly exciting legs as the road points upwards. The Brit has done a lot of training in Colombia, although only began racing recently this year, so he too has form questions. But his 2020 Giro has me excited for what he can do off the leash this season. You can listen to The British Continental’s podcast interview with Gloag here.

Alexandre Balmer has also become a strong climber, but like Quinn I’d expect him to take time in the ITT. A mountain biker, he has great bike handling and real punch, the big question with the Swiss is how will he get on in the high mountains. If he can limit losses, he has a shot at a podium. 9th at the Alpes Isere Tour is a good sign though.

My outsiders face a number of challenges to make the podium. Anders Johannessen has been brilliant this year and was robbed of 4th overall at the Tour of Turkey by a bullshit time penalty, but Charmig does seem to be on better form and Johanessen has yet to race in the big mountains, but I’m happy he’s here. Hellemose has the diesel to last the ten days here, we know that from last year, but he just doesn’t seem in quite the shape he was last season, but with a backloaded final half, he may be able to ride into form. Gomez is arguably the Colombian’s best TT rider, but he is a bit younger and has no U23 European experience, so could be forced into a support role, whilst Casallas is a strong climber, but again Pena and Merchan seem more obvious leaders. Voissard was 6th last season but his form has seen him be very anonymous so far this year, but with a course similar to last season he can come good perhaps.

The jokers should be able to fight for either a top ten or some stages, but at the moment their big U23 stage race pedigree remains a question mark. Henok Mulubrhan feels like more of a puncheur than a climber, but 11th overall last year and good shape so far this season means he should improve on his 2020 result. Marco Frigo has yet to ride GC in this sort of race, but I see no reason why couldn’t do well overall, and Tobias Johannessen was looking great at Tour of the Alps before Covid-19 race protocol dictated the team left the race, and that was the last time we have seen him. Another rider to have featured on The British Continental podcast, Ben Healy has stages already at l’Avenir and Ronde de l’Isard, and was great here last year, but it remains to be seen if the Irish road race champ can do a good GC. Edoardo Zambanini faltered last year to end 10th overall and best young rider, but that result was still way above expectations. Another top ten would be a top result.

The sprinters

Despite not having as many guaranteed sprint stages as last year’s race, we have a terrific field of sprinters here to compete for the wins and points jersey.

Representing the locals, Colpack-Ballan have veteran Michele Gazzoli, who arrives hunting a stage win after getting his first international UCI win at GP della Liberazione. Samuele Carpeni (General Store) was 5th that day, and matched that result at the recent Coppa della Pace to showcase his good legs. Qhubeka have Luca Coati, who has shown flashes of real speed this season too. Luca Colnaghi is not a pure sprinter, but after his doping case from last season threw his two stages and points jersey into doubt, as well as costing him a pro deal, there is no one more motivated than Luca on the entire startlist. With two domestic wins this year, his form is also pretty good.

Marijn Van den Berg at the 2021 Orlens Grand Prix Photo: Szymon Gruchalski

Coming from abroad, Marijn Van den Berg (Groupama-FDJ Conti) is the big name, with 5 UCI wins this year, including both stages and the GC at the Orlens GP Nations Cup. His teammate Laurence Pithie, a first-year U23, is also rather fast, so he should also be watched. In equally good form is Stan Van Tricht, who was 2nd at the weekend at Coppa della Pace behind teammate and ITT favourite Daan Hoole. Van Tricht and Van den Berg are the biggest names to follow. Jarrad Drizners (Hagens Berman Axeon) is light on race days but was impressive versus the pros in Algarve, whilst Trinity youngster Luke Lamperti has a win already at Tour d’Eure et Loire and the American is definitely quick. DSM Devo’s Marius Mayrhofer has been quiet lately, but a strong start earlier this season in Italy means he should be right up for the stage win battles.

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