Giro d’Italia 2024: Essential race preview

Tadej Pogačar will start the first men's Grand Tour of the season as the overwhelming favourite, but can anyone prevent what many are predicting will be a procession in pink?

Clock09:02, Monday 29th April 2024
Who will lift the famous Trofeo Senza Fine?

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Who will lift the famous Trofeo Senza Fine?

The Giro d’Italia has so often been an unruly beast, but it will need to be at its absolute wildest not to be tamed by arguably the biggest favourite we’ve seen at a Grand Tour in a quarter of a century.

Therein lies the paradox for the race organisers, RCS Sport. Perennially keen to attract the biggest stars who might otherwise focus on the Tour de France, they have finally reeled in Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), and while the Slovenian’s presence adds lustre, it also threatens to turn the battle for the famous maglia rosa into a procession in pink.

Pogačar, runner-up in the past two Tours and winner of the two before that, is the outstanding Grand Tour rider on the start list of the 107th edition of the Giro. Absent are the other riders who can realistically be said to belong in the same league: Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike), Primož Roglič (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step). Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), winner of the 2018 Tour de France, is the biggest-name challenger, but the Welshman’s also-ran podium finish at the 2022 Tour is evidence of a gulf in level that makes you wonder how anyone is going to be able to keep up with Pogačar.

Not when he’s in this kind of form, anyway. The UAE Team Emirates leader has completed 10 days of racing so far in 2024, and has already racked up seven victories. Strade Bianche and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were taken out with long-range solos, while the Volta a Catalunya was ticked off with an insatiable haul of four stage wins that intensified the comparisons with ‘The Cannibal’ Eddy Merckx.

This is the sort of scenario you suspect could repeat itself over the three weeks of the Giro – Pogačar seems to be that much better than anyone else, and he doesn’t ever seem to get bored of winning.

The big question is whether the same can be said for cycling fans? The mounting list of exhibitions has led to complaints in some quarters that Pogačar is killing these races as spectacles. This, of course, is nothing new in sport, which has historically valued serial winners up until the point where they make it look all a bit too easy. Merckx himself knows the feeling all too well, having been requested to stay away from the 1973 Tour de France by the race organisers.

Read more: Tadej Pogačar is a bit of a freak but he’s beatable at the Giro d’Italia, says Cummings

The 2024 Giro d’Italia may well shape the public perception of Pogačar, as well as forcing us to confront how we feel about all of this. His presence undeniably adds prestige, not just for the organisers but also in terms of such a star wanting to step out of the Tour de France tunnel vision to sample the breadth of cycling’s traditions. In that respect, Pogačar should earn a degree of goodwill, and if he were to stride to victory, then there’d be the added allure of history being made in front of our eyes - a palmarès expanding further into all-time greatness territory. It would also open the door to the prospect of a first Giro-Tour double success since Marco Pantani in 1998.

However, if he were to do a three-week Catalunya, that would damage the race as a contest, which, in a modern world where sport increasingly feels like show business, would have serious entertainment implications.

How you feel about all this is subjective, but at this Giro d’Italia, it seems like it’s not only Pogačar’s palmarès on the line, but also his reputation.

Read more: Stat Attack: 8 records to keep Tadej Pogačar from boredom at the Giro d'Italia

The other factors

The prospect of Pogačar running away with this Giro d’Italia comes with a fair few caveats. After all, the notion of the Slovenian as an all-conquering cannibal is tempered somewhat by his suffering at the past two editions of the Tour de France, where he has not only lost but also unravelled.

If there’s any hope among Pogačar’s rivals, it will be that he is prone to those so-called jours sans - off-days. The Vingegaard blueprint from the past two Tours would appear to be to wear him out on the heaviest days, while also exploiting his restlessness, tempting him and even cajoling him into flying too close to the sun.

This itself comes with caveats, not least Vingegaard’s astounding strength, the strength of his team, and the suspicion that Pogačar suffers in the heat, which is not going to be a factor in the high mountains of Italy in the spring.

However, it does indicate that creativity may be key, and in this respect strength in numbers could be vital. If teams allow the stage to be set for a mano a mano between their leader and Pogačar, there’s only one realistic outcome, but if certain teams take risks and give the Slovenian more things to think about, they may carve out an opportunity or two. In this respect, those put off by the idea of a one-man show will be looking to Ineos Grenadiers, where Thomas is flanked by two potential threats in Thymen Arensman and Tobias Foss.

Read more: Analysing Ineos Grenadiers’ 2024 Giro d’Italia team

The other major factor is Lady Luck. Crashes and injuries are part and parcel of cycling. Indeed, 12 months ago Pogačar was storming through the Classics and looked set for an Ardennes triple, only to break his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At last year’s Giro, Evenepoel led the way at the first rest day and looked like the winner in waiting, only to be struck by COVID-19.

In order to dominate the Giro, Pogačar will first need to cross his fingers and hope for a smooth run from Turin to Rome. It might be a stretch to deny his overwhelming favourite status, but given all the twists and turns we’ve seen at the Grand Tours throughout the decades, it would be foolish to paint this race as a foregone conclusion.

The other contenders

So, who can realistically get the better of Pogačar?

We’ve mentioned Thomas, and he’s very much the ‘best of the rest’ in terms of pedigree. The Welshman won the Tour in 2018 and, despite a period where he fell out of favour within his team, has cemented his consistency with podiums at the 2022 Tour and last year’s Giro. 12 months ago, Thomas wore the pink jersey in the crucial penultimate-day time trial, only to have to hand it over to Roglič, and he returns in the penultimate season of his career with a sense of unfinished business. 

Thomas has no results to write home about so far in 2024 but, like Pogačar, will be doubling up with the Tour and insists he’s in a good place heading to the start in Turin. He is once again flanked by Thymen Arensman, who was sixth last year and, now 24, could take another step forward in his Grand Tour trajectory. Ineos have a third potential card in Tobias Foss, who had a top-10 in the 2021 Giro and is a former time trial world champion, but has struggled to get his stage race career truly off the ground.

Ineos Grenadiers have vowed to race “aggressively” and they’re one of the few teams who look capable of making a dent as a collective.

Read more: Geraint Thomas relishing Tadej Pogačar challenge at the Giro d’Italia

Other contenders include Ben O’Connor who’s having a strong season, as are his team, Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale. The Australian was fourth at the 2021 Tour but is arguably in the form of his life in 2024, finishing as runner-up at the Tour of the Alps and UAE Tour, and fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico. Aurélien Paret-Peintre will also be hoping to make a GC impact for the French team.

Visma-Lease a Bike are led by the young Cian Uijtdebroeks, who gets an immediate Grand Tour leadership opportunity after his controversial transfer from Bora-Hansgrohe over the winter. The Belgian talent, however, has had a low-key campaign so far.

Daniel Martínez almost saved the Giro for Egan Bernal in 2021, and he returns to lead the line in his first Grand Tour for Bora-Hansgrohe, with some form that includes beating Evenepoel to the uphill finishes at the Volta ao Algarve.

Former podium finisher and experienced campaigner Damiano Caruso lines up alongside the up-and-coming Antonio Tiberi for Bahrain Victorious, while the Giro-loving Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) and Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-AlUla) return for another bite at the cherry.

Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich PostNL) is twice a podium finisher at the Tour and while his Grand Tour GC career has faded from those heights, the Frenchman is in a rich vein of form with a runner-up finish at Liège.

The other classifications

Of course, the Giro is not only about the battle for the pink jersey. The maglia ciclamino, the plum-purple jersey for the points classification, will be enlivened by several sprint stages and a strong cast of contenders.

Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step) is the top of the pile in terms of victories so far this season, and comes armed with a dedicated lead-out that includes his trusty friend Bert Van Lerberghe and the US talent Luke Lamperti. Having swept the floor at lower-level races, Olav Kooij makes his long-awaited Grand Tour debut due to a gap in the Visma GC leadership and should be Merlier’s biggest rival, along with last year’s points classification winner Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek).

Read more: Giro d'Italia: US talent Luke Lamperti set for Grand Tour debut

Other sprinters to watch include Fabio Jakobsen, who has the pedigree but is yet to have lift-off since his move to DSM, of which the same could be said for Caleb Ewan at Jayco-AlUla. Other strong challengers include Sam Welsford (Bora-Hansgrohe), Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Juan Sebastián Molano (UAE Team Emirates), Fernando Gaviria (Movistar) and the Tudor Pro Cycling duo of Alberto Dainese and Marius Mayrhofer. It’ll also be interesting to see how Ethan Vernon (Israel-Premier Tech) fares in his first Grand Tour.

Not all sprints are created equal, however, and there are a number of riders who’ll be looking at the lumpier and more selective days, not least Christophe Laporte, who is a late Visma replacement for Wout van Aert, Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) who won a stage two years ago, and Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ), the young New Zealander who had such a breakthrough Classics campaign.

As for the other stages, Hour Record holder and two-time world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) is the biggest draw for the race’s two time trials, as the Italian looks to add to the six Giro stage wins already to his name.

We’ve mentioned the most exciting young talents in Pithie, Lamperti, and Vernon, but it’ll be fascinating to see if two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) can conjure any of his old magic on his Giro debut. Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech) will be a threat for breakaways and the mountains jersey, which is what Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is targeting on his return to the Grand Tour fold, 10 years on from his overall victory at the Giro.

Read more: Nairo Quintana unfit for GC bid at Giro d'Italia, targets stages instead

The route

Tadej Pogačar didn’t need any favours, but when it comes to the route, it’s one that plays into his hands. Such is his class on all terrains, it’d be hard to design something that doesn’t suit him, but perhaps the biggest boon for the Slovenian comes in the context of the Giro-Tour double.

Having laid on a feast of mountains bordering on the extreme in recent years, the 2024 Giro route treads lighter, with the total elevation gain of 40,000 metres a reduction of around 20% in comparison with the past couple of years. On top of that, the total distance of this Giro is the shortest since 1979.

That will certainly suit someone looking to spread their finite resources across two Grand Tours, but what about the Giro itself? Well, Pogačar has never been seen as an out-and-out high-mountain climber anyway, with a cobbled Classic to his name in the Tour of Flanders. The Giro unfolding on a 'lighter' route would only seem to play into his more explosive hands.

While the climbing has been dialled back, the same cannot be said of the time trialling, with some 68.2km to be ridden against the clock in tests in the first and second weeks. Just as much as any mountain - and there are still a couple of savage days in the Alps - those two stages are perhaps the most important days of the race.

Read more: Giro d'Italia 2024: Five key stages that will decide the winner

The Giro starts out with a difficult, hilly stage around Turin, and it’s no stretch to imagine Pogačar pulling on the first pink jersey of the race. If not there, then the hike to Oropa the following day represents the earliest summit finish since 1989.

As the race heads down the western flank of Italy, stage 4 could see the first sprint finish, while the following two days present lumpier terrain ahead of the race’s entry to Tuscany for a taste of the Strade Bianche gravel. Stage 7 is the all-important first time trial, running 37.2km from Foligno to Perugia, while the opening week concludes with some rugged terrain in the Apennines and then a potential sprint in Naples.

The second week opens with a summit finish at Bocca di Selva in the medium mountains of the Apennines before transferring to the Adriatic coast for a trio of sprint or breakaway days as the race heads north towards the Alps. The second time trial comes on stage 14, measuring 31km between Castiglione delle Stiviere and Lake Garda, and it’s followed immediately by arguably the hardest stage of the entire race. It may have had to re-route its planned Swiss incursion but the famous Mortirolo has been added to make the summit finish up at Livigno - at 2385m of altitude, after 220km and 5,000m of elevation gain - a gruesome and decisive day in the saddle.

After the final rest day, the race heads further into the Alps, with the mighty Stelvio appearing early ahead of the rather tamer finish on Monte Pana. Instead, stage 17 looks mouth-watering and leg-sapping with a shark-tooth profile of four peaks - the last being another summit finish on the Passo del Brocon. There’s a brief respite as the race dips down to the Venetian coast but it’s back into the Alps on stage 19 with a lumpy day to Sappada ahead of a set-piece final GC showdown in the form of a double ascent of the mighty Monte Grappa.

That will decide the ownership of the pink jersey once and for all ahead of the transfer to Rome for the celebratory laps of the Italian capital and expected sprint finish.

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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