The first Grand Tour of the season is upon us, as Hungary hosts the Grande Partenza of the 2022 Giro d’Italia. The absence of Tadej Pogačar, Primoz Roglič and defending champion Egan Bernal makes the race for overall victory look wide open, so even small gaps on today’s uphill finish in Visegrád could be decisive. But its shallower gradients should mean that it’s a puncheur, rather than a pure climber, that will be the first to don the famous pink jersey.
Budapest > Visegrád, 195km
How the sprinters must wish this stage was just 5.6km shorter. Before heading into Visegrád for an uphill finish, the entirety of this opening stage in Hungary is flat, with only a couple of intermediate sprints (one at 73km, another at 167.km) to race for. But that final climb is too long and too hard for the sprinters to remain in contention, shifting the whole stage’s dynamic towards the puncheurs instead.
At 5.6km in length, this final climb will require a sustained effort. Anyone with designs on winning the stage will have to hold back during its shallow first couple of kilometres, where the teams of the top puncheurs are sure to set a blistering pace. The significant efforts will be made during the final 3.5km, which average 5% — but the steadiness of the slopes, and the fact it never exceeds 6%, should mean that the heavier puncheurs have the advantage of the lighter climbers.
Last July, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won an uphill sprint on what was just his second ever Tour de France stage. Could he do the same at his Giro debut, only this time a day earlier? The Tour of Flanders winner was looking a little tired towards the end of his spring campaign, but, refreshed and recharged, he has the power to leave all others for dust on a finish like this.
Another springtime star making his Giro debut who could like the look of this finish is Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert). While not too much pressure should be placed on a neo-pro who has never before ridden a Grand Tour, the way he outperformed expectations during the classics, most memorably to win Gent-Wevelgem, suggests he can’t be discounted.
Though the climb rules out their leader Mark Cavendish along with all the other pure sprinters, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl still have a contender in Andrea Bagioli, who was third on a similar, albeit steeper, finish at Alto de la Montana de Cullera during last year’s Vuelta a España.
The man who won that day, Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), would certainly be a contender had he the form from that race, but has so far struggled to get up to speed this season.
Though it might be possible to gain a few seconds if there are any splits in the bunch during the final dash to the line, most of the GC riders are likely to ride defensively. Positioning will be crucial heading into the final climb, as the peloton should arrive at it altogether as a large, chaotic bunch (notwithstanding any major crashes, which is always a possibility during the tense opening stage of a Grand Tour).
Having domestiques who can motor on the flat run-in will therefore be a great boon, in which sense Ineos Grenadiers’ Richard Carapaz should be very well assisted by Richie Porte and Jonathan Castroviejo, even if he, like other GC contenders Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), would have preferred a steeper finish.
There are a few who have a quick enough kick to compete for the stage victory, however. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is one such rider, and as is João Almeida, although his UAE Team Emirates face a tough choice regarding whether to lead-him out, or try to set up either eight-time Giro stage winner Diego Ulissi or Alessandro Covi.
A finish like this, where GC riders and stage hunters will all rub shoulders, is likely to be a messy affair, with a large pool of riders all fancying their chances of winning. But if there’s one rider who has the star persona to rise to such an occasion where the esteemed prize of the pink jersey is on offer, it’s Mathieu van der Poel.