The world’s toughest race in the world’s most beautiful place: that’s the marketing line used by the PR team behind the Giro d’Italia and in truth it's hard to argue with the sentiment. But the 2018 Giro, one of elite cycling’s three ‘Grand Tour’ events along with the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, has a rather big elephant in the room to deal with ahead of the 4 May start in Jerusalem.
Chris Froome, the Team Sky rider and reigning Tour de France and Vuelta a España champion, is making his first appearance at the Giro since 2010. Boy, how things have changed since then. He is a multiple-time champion, of course, and an Olympic Games medallist, but the 32-year-old has also been dogged by accusations of doping.
At the Vuelta a España he recorded an ‘adverse’ test for the legal asthma drug Salbutamol and still faces questions as to why double the legal level was found in his urine. Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, wants more details from Team Sky.
The case of Alberto Contador springs to mind: the Spaniard who tested positive for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France and was subsequently stripped of that title and the one he won latterly at the Giro in 2011. At the time of writing, Froome is free to take his place on the start line.
“It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader's jersey my asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor's advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.”
There will be an element of cynicism that greets Froome for the first leg as he aims to become only the third man in history to hold all three Grand Tour titles, succeeding the Eddy Merckx (1972-73) and Bernard Hinault (1982-83). Froome is 13/10 with bookmakers like Redbet, while the defending Giro d’Italia champion, Tom Dumoulin, is available at 9/5 and the Tour of the Alps winner, Thibaut Pinot, at 7/1.
This is a rather unique hosting of the Giro d’Italia and Grand Tours in general for that matter: this year’s edition will be the first in which the inaugural stage is held outside of Europe. Jerusalem has been chosen as the host and the race will work its way across Israel before heading to Italy from stage four onwards.
For just the fourth time in history and the second in the past five decades, the final stage will be hosted by Rome on 27 May. All in all, the entrants will traverse a route of some 3,500km, with the small matter of 170km needing to be made every single day. Not for the faint-hearted then!
There is no doubting that Froome, as endurance cycling’s premier performer, is a hot favourite thanks in part to Team Sky’s backing. Their record in Grand Tour events is unrivalled and Froome does not appear to be the kind unduly worried by the continued furore about his appearance – nor his rumoured appearance fee of $2 million.
But there are some doubts that persist, nonetheless. This is his first assault on the Giro title in eight years and while he is an undoubtedly elite performer these days, it is a long old time since he has tackled this gruelling layout. Perhaps there is value for punters in backing proven performers on Italian roads then.
Dumoulin is the defending champion and thus must not be underestimated, but by the same token he has done very little else in Grand Tour events to suggest he is a consistent performer of the highest order. And so how about a punt on Thibaut Pinot? The outstanding Tour of the Alps winner who led from Stage 3 and never looked back.
He finished fourth here on debut 12 months ago and also has a podium finish to his name in the Tour de France, and at odds of 11/2 from the likes of Betfair he is surely worth a second look. Italians have such a rich history in their home race.
Names like Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Felice Gimonzi are synonymous with cycling excellence and in Domenico Pozzovivo they have a talented racer who is desperate to land a major title. The 35-year-old was second in the Tour of the Alps, sixth here 12 months ago; his fifth top-ten finish in general classification in this event.
Pozzovivo is an Italian road specialist and given that some bookmakers, including redbet, are paying out each way bets on the first three places, there is certainly value to be explored in backing this home hope at 28/1 with one of the top online betting sites.