09/05 - Stage 1 (TTT) - Belfast to Belfast - 21.7 km

This is the first time in three years that the Giro d’Italia starts out with a team time trial. The overall contenders will hope to gain an early advantage while the sprinters will aim to minimize the time loss in order to take Maglia Rosa in the upcoming sprint stages.

The route
Looking at the map and the profile, this is a team time trial for the big powerhouses. There are a few tricky corners in the beginning around Titanic Belfast but after that, we have a long stretch of about 6 km with almost no turns at all. With the expected tailwind, the pace will be very fast here. The first time check comes at Stormont on top of a 1.1 km hill with an average gradient of 3 %. From here, the riders turn right, down the hill and then right again onto another long straight-out part of over 6 km. This is where the teams with big engines really can make a difference.

The second time check comes at Oxford St. after crossing Queens Bridge. The final 6 km include a couple of difficult corners. The final one, a 90° right hand turn, comes with just 300 meters to go. Remember, the team’s time is clocked as the fifth rider crosses the line. It’s important to accelerate quickly out of this final corner with all remaining riders. The finishing line is next to the spectacular City Hall building.

As you might fear in this part of the world, the weather forecast looks very wet. As of Thursday morning, some forecasts show dry conditions in the evening, while others predict showers. No matter which one turns out to be right, let’s just hope all teams will ride in the same conditions.

The favorites
The way I see it, there is one team above the rest for this TTT. GreenEdge is aiming big at this stage and it shows in their choice of riders for the race. Brett Lancaster, Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn and Svein Tuft were all part of the silver medal team in Florence last year. GreenEdge has always aimed to excel in this discipline and I’m confident they will repeat their winning performance from the Tour de France last year. The Italian road champion, Ivan Santaromita targets a good overall result in the Giro. It would be of huge importance if he could get a good early advantage on the other climbers. However, Santaromita really has to bring his A-game if he wants to follow the wheels of his big teammates.

Another climber who hopes for a good start to the race is Nairo Quintana. He’s the big overall favorite and his Movistar team is eager to give the Colombian the best possible start. In recent years, Movistar has been amongst the best teams against the clock. They don’t necessarily have as many specialists as the other teams, but riders like Adriano Malori and Jonathan Castroviejo will ensure the pace will be high at all time. Last year they finished second in the team time trial in the Giro. I’m sure they will be up there again this time.

In Giro del Trentino last month, BMC won the team time trial. Most of the riders from Trentino are doing the Giro d’Italia as well. Add to that strong time trialists like Ben Hermans, Manuel Quinziato and Samuel Sanchez and BMC is definitely a team to take seriously in Belfast. Last year, on a much more demanding course, BMC had a horrible TTT, finishing 12th on the day. This flat and fast course should suit Cadel Evans and co. very well. Anything but a place near the podium would be a surprise.

The outsiders
It may seem bizarre not to include the double team time trial world champions, Omega Pharma Quickstep, among the favorites. However, they start this race without any of the top specialists. They neither have a single rider from the winning team in Florence nor do they bring any of the riders who secured them second place in the Tour de France last year. In 2013, OPQS finished 17th in the team time trial in the Giro d’Italia. With the likes of Thomas De Gendt, Iljo Keisse, Rigoberto Uran and Julien Vermote, the Belgian squad will do better this time, but they won’t win the stage.

Astana usually does well in team time trials. Last year they finished third. Still, this year the only time trial specialist on the team is Janez Brajkovic. The Slovenian rider is strong but he can’t carry it alone. I think there are way too many climbers on the team to produce a top performance this year.

Instead, look to Cannondale for a good outsider. The Italian team finished 5th in Trentino last month and is very motivated to do well. As mentioned in my overall preview, the following 10 days are the most important ones for Elia Viviani this year. In 2013, he missed out on wearing Maglia Rosa when Mark Cavendish won the opening stage. This year, Viviani is eager to take the pink jersey. Stage 2, 3, and 4 are made for the sprinters and with 10 bonus seconds on the line, Viviani hopes to lead the race within the first week. However, it requires a big performance by Cannondale in this team time trial. It will be interesting to see if Elia Viviani is within striking distance of Maglia Rosa when the stage is over.

On paper, Belkin should be able to do well. The flat course suits the Dutch team as riders like Wilco Kelderman, Jetse Bol, Rick Flens, Martijn Keizer and Jos Van Emden all are capable of keeping a high pace. People may not expect Belkin to get a great result in this team time trial but I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to get close to the podium.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv. To see the complete starting order for the team time trial click here.