Gruelling start will greet Giro aces
The Giro d'Italia roars into Belfast this week and while the colourful celebration has captured the imagination of local people, the riders will arrive focused solely on the job at hand.
Friday's opening stage is a rare delicacy in the sport – a team time trial – demanding teamwork and sacrifice that will land the winning team an early grip on the maglia rosa and a collective trip to the winners' podium.
While race organisers have provided a dynamic 21.7km course to highlight the city's landmarks, most will be but blurs in the peripheral vision of those on two wheels. They will see only unforgiving tarmac and their own churning legs as they pound pedals in unison.
The speeding trains that will storm their way from the Titanic Quarter to Stormont, then to Stranmillis before returning to the city centre, will do so in a single line, geared towards aerodynamic precision as man and machine combine with sports science in the search for minute advantages
The team time trial is, in many respects, a series of individual bursts designed to push a well-oiled machine along at a constant, rapid speed. Each rider will take a short turn at the front, driving the pace while shielding those behind from wind drag, before swinging to the side, then to the rear for some brief respite. Stronger riders may do more than their fair share, but a time trial leaves no place for hiding.
Orica-GreenEDGE enter the race with a formidable reputation in this event after their blistering win at the Tour de France last year. World Championship winners Omega Pharma Quick-Step will also be among the fancied teams but are missing members of that victorious squad, most notably Mark Cavendish.
That may open the door for one of the Giro favourites, Cadel Evans, and his BMC Racing outfit. The 37-year-old Australian won the Tour de France in 2011 and has set his sights on this season's Giro. Preparation has gone well with a victory at the four-day Giro del Trentino last month, a race which BMC kicked-off with a team time trial victory.
Evans has lauded the quality of the team around him for this year's Giro, and their skills will immediately be put to the test.
The first kilometre of any team time trial is of vital importance, as teams look to establish a steady rhythm without burning themselves out. That challenge will be compounded in Belfast through the early series of sharp turns between Queen's Road and Bridge End.
The lengthy straight run along the Upper Newtownards Road will provide a welcome opportunity to establish a good pace, but the riders will only reach Stormont after a punishing, kilometre-long climb from the gate to Lord Carson's statue.
The bendy decline will need to be navigated with care before the teams return to the city, heading towards the Ormeau Road and along the Stranmillis Embankment before a hairpin bend at Stranmillis College precedes a short, sharp climb up to Stranmillis itself. A straight path then remains, bar the final turn into Wellington Place.
While the course should take each team a little over 20 minutes, the relentless speed will take its toll. Yet the team time trial arrives at the beginning of the Giro specifically because of the heftier challenges which lie ahead.
On home soil the race will put the teams through the rigours of several mountain top finishes and punishing climbs that are likely to eliminate a hefty proportion of the peloton. For those less skilled in climbing, the Irish stages are opportunities for success.
The flat courses mean that the sprinters will be gearing themselves up for the arrivals in Belfast and Dublin at the weekend. Saturday's trip to the north coast, encompassing the Giant's Causeway and coastal route, will provide breath-taking scenes but unless weather conditions create havoc, a bunch finish in Belfast is likely.
With British superstar Mark Cavendish missing the event, the stage seems set for Marcel Kittel to take the red jersey atop the sprint classification. Making his debut at the Giro, the 25-year-old German won four stages at last year's Tour de France while also briefly holding the leader's yellow jersey. His explosive finishing is a sight to behold, and he will undoubtedly be the man to beat into City Hall and Merrion Square.
* PETER Kennaugh has withdrawn from Team Sky's squad for the Giro d'Italia.
The Manxman has been forced to pull out of Sky's nine-man squad following the illness which also caused him to withdraw from Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 27.
Chris Sutton has been named as his replacement, but the loss of Kennaugh is a fresh blow to Team Sky's plans for the first Grand Tour of the season.
"The Giro is one of my favourite races and I would have loved to have ridden it again," Kennaugh said on the Team Sky website.