The team taking on the 100th Giro d’Italia
There is no other race in cycling like the Giro d’Italia. Its three-week duration offers only a passing resemblance to the Grand Tours of France and Spain. In its joy, beauty and lust for life it is as far removed from the spectacle surrounding the Tour de France or the barren and sweltering Vuelta España as might be imagined.
There is no other team in professional cycling like Cannondale-Drapac. In their youth, verve and irreverence, there is something decidedly New World about their approach to this most traditional of European sports. The striking green outfits supplied by POC, and POC’s own iconic Octal helmet, are merely the outward manifestation of a rebellious spirit.
Who else would send a team without a designated leader to such an epic event as the Giro, and the centennial edition at that? But Slipstream Sports, the company founded by general manager Jonathan Vaughters, has been built around a philosophy of doing things differently. The path well ridden is not their path.
And so now, as the hundredth Giro d’Italia begins in Alghero on Sardinia (a partenza intended to honour 2015 Vuelta winner Fabio Aru, who is now absent through injury), Cannondale-Drapac will send out a diverse group of developing talents and experienced campaigners, united by a shared desire for victory.
The parcours is one that does justice to an historic edition of the Corsa Rosa. Two time-trials will shake up the general classification, especially the final stage test, which is likely to leave the final outcome in doubt until each rider has crossed the finish line in Milan. In between, the riders will tackle some of the world’s most majestic mountain passes.
Who better exemplifies Cannondale-Drapac’s commitment to youth and opportunity than Hugh Carthy, a 22-year-old neo pro from Great Britain, armed with such self-belief that last season he traded attacks among the peaks of the Asturias and Pyrenees with Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team), the winner of the 2014 Giro and the pre-race favourite for this historic edition of the Corsa Rosa?
The epithet ‘cool customer’ might have been coined for Carthy, whose demeanour is in a fine tradition of rock stars and actors from the north west of England. Only total self-belief would have allowed him to leave Preston for Pamplona without a word of Spanish, to join Caja Rural, his previous team. Perhaps it is his confidence and resourcefulness, as much as his results, that have propelled him to the WorldTour with Cannondale-Drapac.
Carthy has made a fine start to his career in green, and rode strongly at the Tour of the Alps, issuing a statement of intent as early as the opening etapa, where he finished in the top 10 on a stage won by the late Michele Scarponi (Astana). Even with such a bold strategy, selecting Carthy for the Giro speaks volumes for Cannondale-Drapac’s faith in such a burgeoning talent.
The only rider in green ahead of Carthy that day was Davide Formolo, Cannondale-Drapac’s Italian wunderkind. The 24-year-old is another who embodies the team’s commitment to youth and promise, though Formolo is no empty conveyer of unfulfilled potential.
It was at the Giro—and where else, for this young man of the Veneto, the breeding ground of such great champions—that Formolo achieved the greatest feat of his young career by winning the stage into La Spezia, a result based on attacking verve, self-belief and the tactical mastery of sports director Charly Wegelius.
He has ridden strongly already this season, notably at the Tour of the Alps, but also at the Volta a Catalunya, a World Tour race in which he finished fourth overall in the classification for best young rider.
The Giro, however, has far greater significance, to the sport, and to Formolo especially. He most-of-all among the nine riders despatched by Cannondale-Drapac to Sardinia will wish to seize the opportunity presented by such an open team structure.
Who offered more to last year’s Giro d’Italia in attacking verve than Joe Dombrowski? The young American was Cannondale-Drapac’s most potent force in the mountains. Inexperience cost him victory on stages 16 and 20, but he will return to the Giro this year far wiser, if only a little older, and prepared to fulfil a potential that has been the talk of the sport since he won the ‘Baby Giro’ in 2011.
Intelligent, personable and with talent in abundance, Dombrowski might typify Cannodale-Drapac’s bold strategy for the Giro. A rider unafraid to articulate the mixed blessing of leadership, a Dombrowski unburdened might be Dombrowski at his best, a fact to which witnesses to last year’s Corsa Rosa will testify.
The final week of this Giro is the one in which the Virginian has the greatest chance to shine, according to Wegelius. The parcours is unrelentingly savage and the climbs more than justify the overused term ‘iconic.’. The Pordoi, the Stelvio, the Tonale, the Monte Grappa…Dombrowski should find himself in his element.
Michael Woods is another rider well-placed to take advantage of Cannondale-Drapac’s bold selection policy. Aged 30, his cycling career might still be described as young. A top class runner before turning to two wheels, the Canadian has been exhilarating at times in the early season.
At La Fléche Wallonne, he seemed poised for victory for much of the ascent of the Mur de Huy, matching eventual winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) pedal stroke for pedal stroke until the defending champion’s final assault. Four days later, he finished in the top 10 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of all the Spring Classics and one of the most revered races in cycling.
Woods’ strength in the Ardennes came as a little surprise. Two weeks earlier, he had seen off the challenge of Colombian champion Sergio Henao (Team Sky) to finish second at the GP Miguel Indurain, before travelling to the Basque Country to deliver a series of strong performances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Freedom should suit Woods well at his first Grand Tour. His Spring campaign more than justifies his selection.
By winning the King of the Mountains classification at the Tour of the Basque Country, Alex Howes announced himself as a contender for Cannondale-Drapac’s Giro squad, and is likely to prove a fine asset.
Charismatic and experienced, with six seasons in the World Tour and four Grand Tour participations, this will nonetheless be Howes’ first experience at the Giro - one he is likely to relish, given his form this spring.
Howes has called for more fun in modern professional cycling, and a reigning in of the sport’s current obsession with weight and watts. Performances from him of real panache at this most romantic of the Grand Tours will do much to advance an alternative agenda.
Cannondale-Drapac’s Giro selection is not entirely about youth. In Pierre Rolland, the team has valuable experience to draw upon.
Rolland knows what it takes to win Grand Tour stages, having twice tasted success at the Tour de France, in 2011 and 2012. His public disavowal of a GC campaign at this year’s Tour de France represents the considered view of an experienced rider.
His observations on the fight for overall victory at the Tour—that it has become a mathematical exercise and a bland spectacle—struck a chord with many. His decision instead to pursue stage wins both at the Giro and the Tour has pleased the same constituency: fans who favour racing with panache, rather than enslavement to the power meter.
Tom Jelte-Slagter, Krijistian Koren and Davide Villella
Jelte-Slagter is a former winner of the Tour Down Under and a competitor now in his seventh season in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour. He has contested the Giro on three previous occasions: 2011, 2012 and 2015.
Koren, by contrast, will roll out in Sardinia for his first Giro, despite a World Tour career of eight seasons, and seven participations at the Tour de France. A glance at his race programme this year reveals his diverse range of abilities. Koren was called up by Cannondale-Drapac for two of the most prestigious of the Northern Classics - Milan-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem - amid a stage race campaign that included Paris-Nice and, most recently, the Tour de Romandie.
Davide Villella is only 25, but already has four Grand Tour starts on his palmares, including two at the Giro d’Italia - a fact likely to be a source of pride to the Italian. Returning to the Corsa Rosa for its hundredth edition will please him further.