Belfast Telegraph

Riders keeping it country

Out of the city but the weekend action promises to be even slicker and quicker

By Paul Murphy

After the ferocious churning of pedals around Belfast's city streets in yesterday's team time trial, Giro d'Italia riders will ditch their aerodynamic helmets and uncomfortable crouches as the race heads to the country roads of Northern Ireland today.

The flat stage starting in Belfast will incorporate some of the province's best known attractions while giving the riders a chance to test their legs against the rest of the peloton.

The 219km stage returns to the capital this evening in what is expected to be an exciting sprint finish.

The ceremonial roll-out from the Titanic Quarter to Carlisle Circus and up the Antrim Road will be a preamble to the official start point at Newtownabbey where the riders will set off along the A6 towards Antrim, via Dunadry.

Don't expect a particularly fast pace early in the day as teams will look to find their rhythm after last night's late finish.

From Antrim the peloton will take a northward turn, heading straight along the A26 to Ballymena and then on to Ballymoney before eventually reaching the coastline just to the east of Portrush.

While the television cameras pan beautiful shots of the Giant's Causeway and commentators remark upon Bushmills' finest export, this is where the race on the road may get interesting.

The profile of today's stage points towards a bunch finish, with no serious climbs to disturb the shape of the peloton, but the narrower roads and coastal conditions may just disrupt things.

Rain is forecast for most of the afternoon along the path the riders will take, and there will be nervous competitors among the 189-man armada that reaches the Irish Sea.

Thankfully for the riders no serious wind is expected, but the potential for treacherous conditions may encourage an attack from those looking to exploit any caution at this early stage of the Giro.

The possibility of a crash along the narrow coastal roads, especially in wet conditions, will likely force the race favourites to play safe, while those not considered a threat in the general classification may be given a chance to ride ahead.

Any brave soul that does manage to gather a lead will only have to navigate the category 4 climbs on the Cushendall Road and Knocknagulliagh, near Whitehead, before the reasonably flat run to Belfast.

Both inclines will have 'King of the Mountains' points on offer, with their brevity providing a straightforward path to that competition's blue jersey.

Indeed, all the climbs on Irish soil are such that it might more readily be considered the 'King of the Hills' competition until some significant Italian gradients are encountered.

One likely feature of today's stage is the spectacle of the Giant-Shimano team driving the peloton from the front.

Whether chasing down an attack or simply setting up the final sprint to Donegall Square, they will be looking to get Marcel Kittel in the sprinters' red jersey tonight.

The young German is a hot favourite to take both Irish flat stages and won't be saving himself for the long haul.

He may not make it through the Italian mountains so winning early in the race will be imperative.

The first week of the Giro offers the purest sprinting conditions this year's race has to offer, so teams with fast-twitch finishers will look to force the issue.

While the north-east may be dangerous and, therefore, conducive to breakaway attempts, the remaining roads will help the peloton reel in any attacks. Tricky surfaces and turns do feature around Glenariff, Ballygalley and Larne, but momentum will build on the wider, straighter surface once the group approaches Carrickfergus.

Kittel is expected to dominate the sprint finish, especially given the absence of British ace Mark Cavendish and German André Greipel.

However, Kittel won't have things all his own way and can expect serious challenges from Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEDGE, Nacer Bouhanni of FDJ.fr and Italy's big hope, Elia Viviani.

The young Cannondale rider doesn't have a Grand Tour stage win to his name, but showed great form last month to twice beat Cavendish to the line at the Tour of Turkey.

There is also the possibility that the maglia rosa will change hands today.

While sprint finishes typically end with many riders receiving the same finishing time, bonuses of between 8 and 20 seconds for those who finish in the top three of the stage could catapult a new rider into the pink jersey.

It may turn out, then, that the biggest threat to the pink jersey lies within his own team.

Belfast Telegraph

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