Arguably one of the biggest events in U23 cycling is upon us: the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia U23, or U23 Giro. The route is insane, featuring a short prologue, two nailed on bunch sprints (and two stages that could be sprints or go to the break). There is a rolling stage to Asiago that will challenge the GC men but not break their back and is a carbon copy of the stage Thibaut Pinot won in the Elite Giro in 2017. Another Giro mainstay summit finish is included on day three to Sestola. There is also three very, very tough summit finishes, to Passo Maniva, the partly-sterrato climb to Folgarida and the summit finish to Pian della Fugazze, which will really shape the GC. To top it all off, there is a pursuit-style ITT around the steep hills of the wine country, including the Muro di Ca’del Poggio. The winner of this race will certainly deserve it, as there is nowhere to hide on this parcours.
Predicting the GC for this race is very tough, as the length of the race means riders could falter and fall away at any moment in any stage. Furthermore, a lot of the top GC riders at this level are not going to be at the race. Names like Aurelien Paret-Peintre, Andreas Leknessund, Marc Hirschi, Tadej Pogacar and Mikkel Honore are not on the startline, making for a really interesting race. of the teams that are racing here, Lotto-Soudal U23 have left Thomas Vereecken off their roster, as well as missing Kobe Goossens and big favourite Harm Vanhoucke through injury and illness respectively. Petroli Firenze leave puncheur Mattia Bevilacqua at home, followed closely by Colpack, who have left first year sensation Andrea Bagioli at home, while the Russian and Colombian national teams have left Petr Rikunov and Ivan Sosa with their trade teams respectively.
PROLOGUE: Forli-Forli (4.7km)
A relatively short prologue through the beautiful city of Forli. There are four dead turns and two roundabouts, where the riders enter at 6 and leave at 12. Everything else is straight, this is a power course if ever you saw one. Not much to see here in terms of the GC. Sprinters like Jacob Hennessy and Gerben Thijssen will be up for the win, but track riders and time triallists like Calum Scotson, Rui Oliveira and Mikkel Bjerg should also be in contention
STAGE 1: Riccione-Forli (137.7km)
What should be a bunch sprint does in fact include the presence of two third cat climbs in the second half of the stage. The second of those climbs tops out at 20km to go, and is 6.6km long at 4.2%, whilst the preceeding climb is 5.9km at under 3%. There is time for sprinters to return to the bunch, but they may not have the legs to win if they are dropped. Conversely, it is probably too far out for an attack to go. However, racing in Italy is fantastically unpredictable. With all that being said, a bunch sprint for stage one is still the most likely outcome here, especially if a sprinter is within 10 seconds of taking the leader’s jersey.
STAGE 2: Nonantola-Sestola (128.3km)
If the leader’s jersey didn’t change hands yesterday, it certainly will on the race’s first summit finish of the race at the Sestola ski station. The racing should be aggressive today, as there is 75km of slightly uphill road before the foot of the cat two climb of Sant’Antonio, topping out after 91.5km (13.5km at 3.8%). There is only a short descent before the rad rises up a cat three climb (2.6km at 5.1%), which is summited with just under 20km to go. There is a much longer descent before the road rises to Sestola. Rather than go up the traditional side, the riders go up the cat two climb of Montecreto (4.1km at 7.4%), summited with 16.3km to race. after the KOM, the road continues to rise all the way until 4km to go, before descending all the way until the final 1.5km, which are uphill at around 5.5%.
STAGE 3: Rio Saliciento-Oriocenter (160.8km)
The flattest stage I have ever seen in an Italian race, outside of the traditional crit stage to end each edition of the Elite Giro. All that is worth reporting is the intermediate sprint at just under 90km raced. Perhaps this is just as well, as this is the longest stage of the race, and the riders will need a virtual rest day given what they have to face in the coming days. If the outcome of today is not a sprint, the sprinter’s teams should be politely asked to leave the race. And the sprinters need to make the most of this chance, as they face a lot of mountains before the possible sprints on stages six and nine a, and even if they are fresh by that point, those stages are just as suited to breaks as they are the sprinters. We should see the fastest U23s in cycling battle it out on this stage.
STAGE 4: Mornico al Serio-Passo Maniva (127.9km)
Despite the run in to Sestola being much hiller than what the riders will face in this stage, the cat one finish atop the Maniva is the hardest of the race so far. The race is fairly simple, with a cat two climb at 82km (8.4km at 5.8%) serving as a leg softener before the Maniva, which begins almost immediately from the descent. All in all, the road rises for 36.7km, although roughly the first 11.5km of that is not especially steep. From Tavernole sul Mella to San Colombano, which is a 15.2km stretch of road that leads to the 10km to marker, the road steeps and the final 10km are the steepest of what is a brutal climb. The organisers have called the climb at 13.3km, giving an average of 7%. This is the road stage that could really shake up the GC the most in my opinion, as anyone on a bad day here could lose minutes.
STAGE 5: Darfo-Folgarida (125.6km)
Given the pain the riders will have suffered yesterday, stage five is simply cruel. The road rises all the way from the start up until 50km into the race and the top of a cat three climb (6.9km at 4%). After a short descent the road climbs again for around 30km, although the final 10.8km (which start in the fabled cycling town of Ponte di Legno) make up the cat one Passo del Tonale, which has been graded cat one and is 8.3km at 6.3%. A long 35km descent follows, before the riders tackle the HC climb of Folgarida. Much has been made of the sterrato climb, but while it has gradients that can mirror that of the feared and legendary climb of Colle delle Finistre (12.2km at 7.2%), the climb is mostly on asphalt, with just the final 2.2km of the climb taking place on gravel. This doesn’t make the climb easier however, as it is within these final 2,2km that the road to Folgarido is at its steepest, featuring pitches of 11%. Another brutal stage and another touch of genius from the race organisers.
STAGE 6: Dimaro-Pergine Valsugana (121.7km)
There are not a lot of perfect chances for a breakaway to win stages in this race based on the parcours, although we know that U23 racing is so aggressive that a break can realistically win any stage. But in this race, most of the stages are either GC days or sprints. This stage looks like a sprint, but after the two marathon slogs in the mountains, there is a chance the sprinters and their teams may be tired. A mostly flat stage has two cat three climbs, the latter of which comes with 16.4km to go (just 900m at 6.1%). The road at the finish means there will be an uphill sprint, although we are talking 3-4% grades at most, so the stage still suits a sprinter rather than a puncheur. There is a chance this comes down to a bunch sprint, but there is also a great chance a breakaway succeeds on this stage.
STAGE 7: Schio-Pian della Fugazze (135.4km)
The final road stage for the GC riders to gain a lead ahead of the pursuit style time trial two days later. The first half of the stage is flat, and includes an intermediate sprint in Schio, which is where we started the stage. A cat three climb at 78.6km (6.7km at 4.5%) breaks the tension in the bunch and allows the climbers to start finding a rhythm. The cat two Passo Zova is just 4.1km long but does have some steep gradients of around 14%, but coming just under 40km from the line, it is not likely to be more than a leg softener. A short descent before some relatively flat valley roads follow, before the road begins to tilt upwards to burn the riders legs more. Once the riders reach Valli del Passubia, the cat one climb to Pian della Fugazze begins. The cat one climb is 11.3km long at 7.3%, but the opening few kilometres are not very steep, meaning the final 8-9km are steeper than usual, rarely dipping below 9% and touching 14%.
STAGE 8: Levico Terme-Asiago (152km)
While this stage is a GC day, it is not as likely to affect the riders at the top of the overall standings as the profile suggests. How can I say this? Well, this is carbon copy of stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia Elite from 2017, where the GC riders had minimal time gaps, although the U23s are less likely to replicate this, given how aggressive the racing at this level is. The opening part of that Elite Giro stage featured the Muro di Ca’del Poggio, which we see in stage 9b, although we don’t have that climb here, with a much easier cat three climb used. The HC slog of 25km at 5.2% of Monte Grappa comes next for the U23s, before the long descent and few kilometres of flat road before the cat one climb to Foza (15.6km at 5.9%), swiftly followed by the rolling roads into a tight finish at Asiago all featured in a stage won by Thibaut Pinot. Foza does bite towards the top with grades of 11%, enough to shake Tom Dumoulin in the pro race, although he limited his losses well on the rolling roads that followed. There are no real U23s built like him Dumoulin though, so most riders distanced on Foza will find it hard to make it back. But the best climbers should be able to keep together and contest the stage in a sprint, that is unless this day is taken easier with tomorrow’s split stage in mind. This is the second of three possible chances the breakaway will get in this race.
STAGE 9a: Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (75.6km)
And here is the final chance for a break. This could be a final chance at glory for the sprinters too, which makes four in total provided they take every chance they get. They do face an early cat three climb, before taking on the cat two climb to Combai, topping out at 23.3km to go, although it is very steep averaging 13.2%, but lasts just 500m. However, Valdobbiadene finds itself in the heart of Italian wine country and was used in a rolling TT in the 2014 Giro won by Rigoberto Uran. While the climb into Valdobbiadene is not categorised, it may actually be quite steep if it is the same hill that featured towards the end of that Giro TT. The climb tops out with around 5km to go, although it is false flat all the way to the line. This stage could be anything from a breakaway, a bunch sprint, a puncheur group, a solo attacker or a late group forming. It is this uncertainty that makes Italian racing so great. One thing is for sure though, is that the Giro’s GC favourites will not be too keen to expend energy attacking, not with the brute of an ITT to come later in the day…
STAGE 9b: Muro di Ca’del Poggio-Muro di Ca’del Poggio (21.2km)
Remember when I said the inclusion of the sterrato Folgarido climb was genius from the race organisers? Well this ITT comes from the other side of that line: madness. Let’s just get the course out of the way first. The first 5km descends the Muro di Ca’del Poggio, followed by another few flat kilometres. From there the riders go up the less than 1km long Manzana climb, but that has a max grade of 12%. After that, the road rises and falls all the way to the 15.4km mark (there is an intermediate time check at 11.7km). That 15.4km mark is the top of another rise, known as Confin, which is longer than Manzana, but is still very steep at the top, with a grade of 10%. From there, the riders get 5.7km of downhill before they reach the foot of the Ca’del Poggio, the most famous climb in the region. Despite being only 900m long, it reaches a max grade of 18%, which should be the steepest in the race. A simply brutal way to not only finish a TT, but the race overall.
Now for the best bit. Race organisers wanted to run this ITT like a pursuit for the final top 15 in the GC. So, in theory, the current Maglia Rosa will set off first, and if he leads the second place rider by 30 seconds, then 30 seconds after the Maglia Rosa starts, then the rider in 2nd overall can start and so on and so forth until the top 15 have gone off. The first rider to the top of the Poggio wins the GC. This is something that will be great, especially on this parcours, and will make an already interesting ITT a contender for highlight of the year. This event could potentially revolutionise Grand Tour and RCS must be commended for being brave enough to think of this. The UCI too must be commended for agreeing to this. Not quite sure if the stage win can go only to riders outside the top 20 in GC, or if the top 20 will have their time recorded too, with the fastest being given the stage win. Either way, this is going to be a thriller.
A PRO’S PERSPECTIVE
The Rider: Edoardo Affini, Italian, 21, SEG Racing Academy
After some time away from the site, one of our first ever interviewees returns to give us some insight into his home race. Edoardo Affini was more than willing to answer our questions on the race, which he is very passionate about. While Classics and time trials are more Edo’s game than riding in the high mountains, but the rouleur will be essential in SEG Racing Academy’s bid to win the race overall. Enjoy a pro’s perspective into the U23 Giro d’Italia below and read what Edo had to say about the race.
Q: How do you think your shape is going into this Giro?
A: I am ready for the Giro, I had good feelings in the last races and the final preparations went as we planned, so we’ll see what will happen during the next 10 days …
Q: As a proud Italian, how does it feel to be racing this amazing race?
A: I am really happy to be in the selection for the Giro d’Italia U23, it’s almost the only chance I have to race in my country, so I’m sure that I’ll enjoy every stage and try to do my best.
Q: This year’s Giro, your first, is 11 stages/10 days long? What are some of the challenges of racing for that long and does the length of the race make you nervous?
A: For us, U23 riders, it will be the longest race of the season, so it will be a challenge being able to keep high performance without having a really bad day, especially for GC contenders. Another tough challenge can be the weather conditions that can change during ten days especially in the mountains, being able to sustain those possible changes without getting tired/damaged can play an important role. The length of the race is not making me nervous, I think that it is really stimulating to race for ten days in a row, also to see how my body will react.
Q: Have you circled any stages in the Garribaldi yet that you want to try and win?
A: I’m really looking forward to every stage, but of course some suit me better than others. The opening prologue and the last TT will be a target for me. I know the parcour of the last TT and it is going to be really hard, especially after all the stages done before but for sure I’ll give everything I have left. I’ll also play my cards in breakaways when it will be possible, and do whatever to help the team.
Q: What stages do you think are most important for the GC?
A: I think that the finish on the top of Passo Maniva will be a good opportunity to make some gaps between the GC contenders. The day after, in Folgarida, will be an important stage as well. Closer to the end, the 8th stage, will finish in Asiago will set the GC before the last shot in the TT.
Q: This year, the team has Stevie Williams, one of the big GC favorites. How does having a favorite change the way the team races and do you feel extra pressure?
A: Yes, Stevie showed that he deserves to be in the favorites and our main goal as a team will be to do our best in order to bring him in the best conditions possible to fight for the victory. Team’s goal comes first. There are other teams with strong GC contenders, so the pressure is not only on us.
Q: I know there is no provisional start list overall, but who do you think will win the GC?
A: I can’t say only one name, but I can say that the winner will be a real fighter and strong rider.
WORKING OUT THE FAVOURITES (based on a provisional startlist, so may not be 100% accurate!)
3*: Jasper Philipsen (Hagens Berman Axeon), Matteo Moschetti (Polartec-Kometa), Giovanni Lonardi (Zalf)
2*: Gabriel Cullaigh (Wiggins), Francesco Di Felice (Gallina Colosio), Gerben Thijssen (Lotto-Soudal)
1*: Alberto Dainese (Zalf), Jacob Hennessy (Mitchelton-BikeExchange), Amine Galdoune (Gallina Colosio)
THE STAGE HUNTERS (aka the other big names here who aren’t sprinters or GC riders)
Mitchelton-BikeExchange: Callum Scotson, Brayan Chaves, Drew Morey
Wiggins: James Fouche, Mark Downey
Colpack: Francesco Romano, Marco Negrente, Alessandro Covi, Filippo Rocchetti
Hagens Berman Axeon: Mikkel Bjerg, Sean Bennett, Michael Rice
Russia: Nikolai Cherkasov, Stepan Kurianov, Alexander Kulikovksii
Colombia: Wilmar Paredes, Einer Augusto Rubio Reyes, Cristian Munoz
Petrol Firenze: Lorenzo Fortunato
Lotto-Soudal U23: Alex Colman, Brent Van Moer, Ruben Apers
IAM: Gino Mader
CT Friulli: Mattia Bais, Massimo Orlandi, Matteo Donega
Dimension Data for Qhubeka: Matteo Sobrero, Luca Mozzato, Stefan De Bod
Biesse Carrera: Michel Piccot, Raul Colombo
General Store Bottoli: Rasmus B. Iversen
SEG: Thymen Arensman, Ide Schelling, Daan Hoole, Edo Affini, Jan Maas
Mastromarco: Paolo Baccio, Luca Covili
Astana City: Vadim Pronskiy, Dinmukhammed Ulysbayev
Tirol: Sven Burger, Johannes Schinnagel, Georg Zimmermann
UC Monaco: Daire Feeley, Sebastian Castano Munoz
Vendee U: Mat Burgaudeau
Polartec-Kometa: Juanpe Lopez, Diego Pablo Sevilla
THE GC FAVOURITES
Winner Candidates: Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-BikeExchange), Stevie Williams (SEG), Aleksandr Vlasov (Russia)
Podium Contenders: Joao Almeida (Hagens Berman Axeon), Samuele Battistella (Zalf), Michel Ries (Polartec-Kometa)
Outsiders: Julian Mertens (Lotto-Soudal U23), Mark Donovan (Wiggins), Marlon Gaillard (Vendee U)
Joker: Will Barta (Hagens Berman Axeon)
With so many top riders not being here, Robert Stannard will shoulder a lot of the pre-race pressure. He was 8th overall last year while working for Lucas Hamilton and Jai Hindley, and possesses the key skills to win here. He can climb with the best and will be faster than any other GC contender here, meaning he can win a lot of stages and take bonus seconds. Despite losing Harry Sweeny before the race, he has Sam Jenner, Callum Scotson and a few other strong teammates to support him here. Interestingly, if this race comes down to the Ca’del Poggio in the TT, good luck trying to outsprint the Aussie on those gradients, there is really no one as punchy as the 19-year-old is in the U23 scene. Relatively untested in the GC battles, this is a big race for Stannard, before he moves on to the Mitchelton-Scott pro team at the season’s conclusion.
Hot on Stannard’s heels is Stevie Williams, who was utterly dominant as he won two stages and the GC at the Ronde de l’Isard. That race was a lot shorter than this one, but his team have signalled their intent by sending what is probably the best team here, Hagens Berman Axeon aside. In Daan Hoole and Edo Affini, the team has two roulerus who can get over smaller hills, with Ide Schelling primed to take over after that. Thyman Arensman and Jan Maas will go high into the mountains too. Williams has the form, as well as the proven track record in the mountains. He will never get a better chance at winning an U23 stage race as long and as hard as this one. Can he double up in the non-Nations Cup stage races?
Aleksandr Vlasov is already a pro with Gazprom-Rusvelo, so there is an argument pro riders like him shouldn’t be racing here, although the Russian has raced a lot of U23 events with the national team this year, so it’s not like he is just dropping in for this race alone. The 22-year-old is a brilliant climber, who was 2nd on GC and won the summit finish at the Toscana Eroica stage race. however, he has just two race days since the conclusion of April, meaning his form is really up in the air. In Kurianov and Cherkasov (9th overall here last year), he has two strong teammates to help him, so if he has the legs, he can really win this race. all out questions will be answered within the opening few stages.
Joao Almeida was really impressive as he scored 5th overall in Ronde de l’Isard. The Portuguese rider has the added benefit of racing here with his trade team, rather than his national team, which gives him a lot more stronger teammates. The question is, is there too many chefs in the kitchen? Mikkel Bjerg, Sean Bennett, Rui Oliveira and Will Barta will all have goals at this race, so will Almeida have full support in the high mountains when he needs it most? If yes, the 19-year-old can at least podium here. If no, then he may crack early and find himself chasing stage wins.
One week ago, we would not have considered Zalf’s Samuele Battistella for the GC here, but after showing great resolve and a cool head when defending his GC lead, the fast-finishing Italian took 2nd overall at the Peace Race. With the mountains here being harder and the race longer, there is a greater chance he cracks, but given he too is very fast and can steal bonus seconds and stage wins, if he is on his game he can replicate his performance in the Czech Republic a few days ago.
Michel Ries has been racing against the pros a lot this season, but the Luxembourger will be ready to lead Alberto Contador’s squad here, showing his shape by taking 11th overall in the Tour de l’Ain. He is very consistent, finishing a lot of the time in the top 20 overall. The 20-year-old will like the lack of flat TT kilometres and should be comfortable in the mountains. He can handle the distance too, as he was already 19th overall in the similar length Tour de l’Avenir last season. This is his first stage race of the season at the U23 level, but we fully back Michel to deliver the goods for Polartec-Kometa.
We made Julian Mertens our big favourite ahead of the Peace Race after he showed great shape in the Ronde de l’Isard to take 3rd overall. He was virtually anonymous over the four-day race, although we hope for a return to form now he is back with his trade team. The team was meant to be super strong for GC, but with the problems for Vanhoucke and Goossens, as well as Vereecken being left out, Mertens looks a little isolated. Punchy and fast, Mertens can still go really well here, but he is likely to suffer in the high mountains. A top ten would be a good result here given the citrcumstances.
Mark Donovan also has just two race days since April, but the first-year U23 has been amazing all year, with 11th in Fleche Ardennaise his latest top result. a good time triallist, he will love the TT here given his climbing ability and was not outside the top 15 in the two race days he has had in Italy this season. Mark could finish anywhere form first to near the bottom in this race given his age and inexperience, but we expect him to once again prove why he is such a massive talent. This will be his first race in the high mountains at this level, but given his performance as a junior, we do not fear for him. The Brit is a huge talent, and a top ten would be massive for him.
Hagens Berman Axeon have an amazing squad here, with riders for sprints, TTs, breaks and, of course, the GC. Their GC didn’t go to plan last year, with Neilson Powless winning stage one and taking the jersey before fading to 6th overall, whilst Will Barta was 8th at the halfway point, but had to abandon. This time, Barta is back and looking for revenge. In his final season at the category, the American has placed well on GC all year: 14th in Istria, 3rd in the Triptyque Mons et Chateaux, 20th in Circuit des Ardennes and 23rd in California against the WorldTour guys (where one bad stage took him from 12th overall). Barta has the form, the real question is can he finally get close to winning a mountainous stage race? And will the inclusion of Liege winner Almeida hinder his GC bid, or can they help each other? The latter seems more likely, given that is simply the Axel Merckx way. Barta is a great rider, and he can go well here. The top ten is the least he should be aiming for.
Vendee U’s Marlon Gaillard started the season well, taking 4th in both the Tour of Morrocco and Ronde de l’Isard, but was very quiet in the Peace Race. He may be a little tired by now after doing those last two U23 races pretty much back-to-back, but if he has his racing legs, he will be a real threat to the GC, which is why he is our joker pick. The Frenchman has proven he can handle the distance, with the Moroccan race being ten stages long. Like a few riders here, his form is questionable, but if he has it, he can end his U23 career on a high note here, given he ages out at the end of this season.