10/05 - Stage 2 - Belfast to Belfast - 219 km

The Giro d’Italia is finally underway. After Friday’s team time trial, the following three stages are made for the sprinters. The GC riders will have to pay close attention in order to not lose any time on this tricky stage alongside the sea.

The Route
After the official start of the stage, the riders head north towards the sea-side. Like the main part of the stages in Ireland, these first 86 km are completely flat. The morning breakaway will have plenty of time to establish a solid gap before they reach the coast. Here, the riders turn right and continue alongside the sea all the way back to Belfast.

The first categorized climb of this year’s Giro d’Italia comes after 126.9 km on Cushendall Road and offers 3 points to the first rider over its top. The descent is tricky, especially if it rains. Crashing this early in the race can be catastrophic. Daniel Martin is the sad proof of that. I’m sure we will see the peloton take it very easy here.

We can expect strong winds alongside the sea for the final part of the route, making for a very nervous day in the saddle. Also, remember the roads in Ireland have cat’s eyes along the centerline. In rainy conditions, these will be extremely dangerous for an already nervous peloton.

The final 20 km barely include any turns. This will grant us a fast and furious finish. However, for some reason, the race organizers thought it would be a good idea to put in a sharp 90° left hand turn with about 300 meters to go. The final part of the B126 road isn’t very wide and the peloton will be stretched out significantly as this point. You need to be within the first three riders coming out of this last corner if you want to win the stage. On wet roads, the fight for positions may lead to overconfident riders hitting the deck in this corner. Let’s hope it won’t be the case.

The favorites
As mentioned in the overall preview, Marcel Kittel should be one level above the rest of the sprinters in this race. He has established himself as the new king of the bunch sprints and Giant-Shimano probably has the best leadout team in the world. They know exactly when to hit the front. If they time it perfectly again, Kittel won’t have problems winning this stage. However, the final corner close to the finishing line, doesn’t really suit the strong German. If roads are wet, you have to be very careful in this corner, meaning it won’t be a high speed sprint. Few - if any - can match Marcel Kittel’s top-speed, however there may be a few riders able to get an early jump on him out of the corner.

The most in-shape sprinter in the peloton right now is most likely Elia Viviani. He won two stages in Tour of Turkey and the way he outsprinted Mark Cavendish on stage 7 was beyond impressive. These first 10 days of the race are the most important ones for Viviani this season. In Turkey, Viviani proved to be extremely fast on the final meters. In case Marcel Kittel doesn’t get a high speed leadout, I think Viviani will be able to surprise and take his first stage win in the Giro d’Italia.

Two other strong sprinters who benefit from this kind of finish are Giacomo Nizzolo and Nacer Bouhanni. Nizzolo did very well in Tour de Romandie last month. On stage 2, he was probably the fastest rider in the final but due to poor positioning, he had to open his sprint too early. Instead of winning, Nizzolo ended up making the perfect leadout for Michael Albasini. The fast Italian has what it takes to win a stage in this Giro and I wouldn’t be surprised if he came close on stage 1 already. Nacer Bouhanni is extremely fast on the line. He has won four bunch sprints so far this season, but he hasn’t been matched against the big guns lately. However, Bouhanni doesn’t care about the company he’s in. He’s a former boxer and he’s not afraid of pushing people away, no matter who they are. When the fight for positions gets tough, Bouhanni gets tougher. It may cause a crash in the final corner and it may cause him to win the stage.

The outsiders
One rider who will be extremely focused on finishing near the front is Michael Matthews. After winning the opening team time trial, Matthews just has to be the best-placed rider from GreenEdge in order to take the leader’s jersey. In his first Grand Tour (Vuelta España 2013), Matthews won two sprint stages. He’s now eager to continue his streak in the Giro. The young Australian has been very strong this season so far. He probably can’t match the top sprinters here in a classic bunch sprint, but as soon as the roads start to kick up a little, Bling will excel. Today he doesn’t have to win in order to achieve his first goal, to take Maglia Rosa. To me, it would be a surprise if Michael Matthews didn’t end up the day in pink. The hashtag for stage 2 should be #BlingInPink.

Jetse Bol will be an interesting rider to follow in this race. A super-joker for the bunch sprints. He's the designated sprinter from Belkin and he's very eager to prove his worth. In Tour of Turkey, Bol finished 6th on stage 4 when given a rare chance to shine. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in his first Grand Tour. Making top10 on stage 2 would be a great start for the young Dutchman. Don’t forget that Jetse Bol already has beaten guys like John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel and Taylor Phinney in his early years for Rabobank’s continental team.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.