BELFAST, Northern Ireland (VN) — In a race renowned for its fearsome climbs, it’s the rolling green hills of Ireland that are causing some of the pink jersey favorites to take pause ahead of the start of the Giro d’Italia.
Three opening stages across the Emerald Isle could produce race-altering surprises that shape the outcome of the 2014 Giro. Rain, narrow roads, and above all strong winds are all but certain to see at least one if not more of the pre-race favorites have their GC ambitions undercut right out of the gate.
“Weather will be the biggest issue. Let’s try to break the stereotype that it always rains in Ireland,” said Irishman Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp). “It’s hard to say how it will pan out. Looking at the profiles, it’s quite open for a sprint. Most of the GC guys will be trying to stay out of trouble, and get to Italy with no damage done.”
That could prove easier said than done for a peloton packed with riders holding GC ambitions.
Two road stages and Friday’s opening team time trial are on the menu for the Giro’s “partenza” across Ireland. The opening three days look relatively benign, at least on paper, but they have many GC contenders starting with trepidation.
Riders admitted this week they have no idea what lies ahead. Teams only arrived Tuesday, and there was not much time for scouting local roads ahead of Friday’s late-day time trial.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be very interesting,” said Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who is racing in Ireland for the first time. “I am interested to see the road, weather, and wind conditions. These first few days for the GC challengers are to not lose time more than thinking about making gains.”
Friday’s team time trial over Belfast’s urban streets could become perilous in the rain. And wind and narrow roads will be major factors in the opening two road stages.
Saturday’s 219-kilometer stage 2 opens up to Northern Ireland’s coast, with the route sweeping past the Giant Causeway. Sunday’s rolling stage down to Dublin also straddles the coast in the closing hour of racing.
Irishman Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) has never raced in Northern Ireland, but he said Irish roads could turn treacherous in high speeds with a nervous peloton fighting for position.
“It’s never flat — rolling and mainly protected with hedgerows. Sometimes the winds are so strong, not even the hedges can stop it,” Roche said. “I was telling my teammates that the hedges protect against the winds, but we were on a training ride, and the wind was just blasting us, so it’s going to be very dangerous in the winds.”
Giro officials promised the Irish stages would provide a fitting backdrop to the season’s first grand tour.
“We will see true racing in these first three days,” said Giro director Mauro Vegni. “The team time trial is very interesting, and the two road stages are over roads and terrain that will demand concentration from the first moment. The wind and weather can put some riders in trouble.”
The latest forecast calls for rain showers and cool temperatures, with gusting easterly winds, which will play a stronger role in the coastal second and third stages.
“The wind could provoke splits in the peloton. It will be very windy along the coast roads,” said Omega Pharma sport director Davide Bramati. “It will be important to be in good position in the peloton, and have a strong team together to avoid missing a split if one opens up.”
Narrow roads, wind, and possibly rain will only heighten tension in an always-nervous peloton, made worse as GC contenders and sprinters fight for position at the front of the peloton in the race’s early going.