Cycling’s Sherpas: Who are the key men for Yates and Roglic as the Giro battle heads for the hills?

As the Giro FINALLY headed to the mountains today after 12 stages of relatively uninteresting terrain, many expect the battle for the Maglia Rosa to really get going.

We had an aperitif in terms of climbing yesterday on the stage to Pinerolo but with three categorised climbs – including a summit finish – today’s ride to Ceresole Reale is considered by many as the ‘real’ start of the race.

Simon Yates admitted he’d had a ‘stinker’ in the second time trial to San Marino, losing a whopping three minutes 49 seconds to ‘virtual’ GC leader Primoz Roglic.

Despite that, spirit in the Mitchelton Scott team still seems high with director sportif Matt White insisting that, while he had no explanation for Yates’ poor performance on Sunday, he was looking forward and not backwards.

One thing Yates and his camp will take heart from Roglic’s relative lack of experience in Grand Tours – the Slovenian is in his fourth compared to the Brit’s eighth – and the fact that his team, on paper at least, doesn’t look as strong in the high mountains.

But Roglic – who lost key lieutenants Robert Gesink before the Giro even kicked off and Laurens De Plus earlier in the race – has looked imperious in stage races so far this season, winning each one he’s started.

There are other contenders other than Yates and Roglic of course… but we still think the pink jersey will be on the shoulders of one of those two come Verona.

And if the battle is going to be won in the mountains, who are going to be the key teammates employed to keep their leaders safe?

Team Yates

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There’s no doubt that on paper the Mitchelton Scott team is the stronger of the two on paper but Grand Tours, as we’ve seen in the past, care little for experience and reputation.

Yates seems quite calm and content despite sitting further back than he will have liked to have been and he’ll have learned plenty of lessons from last year’s implosion.

Esteban Chaves

The Colombian is going to be the key man for Yates as we hit the high mountains. Chaves has plenty of Grand Tour pedigree having twice finished on the podium – at the Giro and Vuelta a España in 2016 – and is only four minutes 30 seconds behind Roglic himself.

That experience and the relatively small time gap means that he could be a marked man which might open the door for Yates at key moments.

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Like most Colombians, he’s strong in the mountains and if Mitchelton Scott are to take the race to Roglic, his aggression should really test the resolve of the Slovenian.

His form this year hasn’t been exceptional but his 2018 was blighted by illness and he took an eight-month break after being diagnosed with the same Epstein Barr virus that has sidelined Mark Cavendish for large periods of the last couple of years.

Mikel Nieve

The vastly-experienced Spaniard is no stranger to Grand Tours having won three Giro stages – including the final mountain stage in last year’s edition – and a stage at the 2010 Vuelta.

Nieve is also used to being at the sharp end of races for others having helped Chris Froome to victory at the Tour de France in 2016 and was at Yates’ side last time out in Italy when things crumbled disasterously in the final stages.

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He might not be getting any younger – he turns 35 on Sunday – but the one-time Grand Tour tip is showing no signs of taking things easy.

As well as his stage win he also racked up a 17th place on the Giro GC and top 30 spots in the Tour de France and the Tour de Romandie.

He also ended the season strongly, placing 13th in the World Championships road race in Innsbruck.

Lucas Hamilton

The ‘baby’ of the Mitchelton Scott mountain team, the Australian is making his Grand Tour debut at the Giro.

The 23-year-old is in good form this season already, winning the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and getting top 20 finishes on home soil at the Sun Tour and the Santos Tour Down Under.

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He’s a former Oceania and Australian junior road race champion and has already shown plenty of purpose and willing during this year’s Giro, finishing fourth on stage seven despite a final push in the final few kilometres not quite working out.

If he can keep his excitement in check over the next week and a bit then he could be a crucial cog in the Yates machine as the Bury rider looks to make up for last year’s collapse by climbing onto the top step of the podium next weekend.

Team Roglic

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The losses of Gesink and De Plus have dealt two big blows to Roglic’s Giro ambitions but, given the incredible stage racing form the former ski jumper (sorry!) has been in, you wouldn’t discount him winning in spite of that.

His team in the mountains in young and relatively inexperienced but everyone has to start somewhere and the trio below will be keen to repay the faith Jumbo Visma have placed in them with the announcement of their new contracts earlier this week.

Sepp Kuss

The American is the least experienced of the three mountain domestiques at Roglic’s disposal with just last year’s Vuelta a España under his belt in terms of Grand Tours.

But what the 24-year-old lacks in three-week stage race experience he more than makes up for in potential and ability.

The former mountain biker, in only his second season at World Tour level, has mainly found success on home roads, with his biggest result to date the overall at last year’s Tour of Utah as well as three individual stages and the mountains classification.

This year the plan was to ride the Tour of California, where he finished 10th on the 2017 stage to Mount Baldy, and the Vuelta before the injury to Gesink opened the Giro door.

Antwan Tolhoek

Another rider at the start of his WT career, this is the Dutchman’s third season in the top division.

This year’s Giro completes the Grand Tour set for the 25-year-old, who finished in the top 30 of his debut at the Vuelta and top 40 in the Tour last year.

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Was a useful lieutenant for Roglic in last summer’s Tour, twice guiding his leader back to the pack after mishaps on stage six. Roglic would go on to claim fourth overall, pipped to the podium in Paris by Chris Froome.

It’s been a whirlwind last 18 months for Tolhoek – he was suspended in December 2017 for taking sleeping medication against team rules on a training camp.

And the fact he’s even riding the Giro is nothing short of a minor miracle after an eye infection, which started on a flight back from racing in the Far East, threatened his eyesight!

Koen Bouwman

It might seem strange describing a 25-year-old as the ‘most experienced’ rider in Roglic’s arsenal, especially given this is only Bouwman’s fourth season as a pro, but that perhaps shows the relative inexperience of this Jumbo Visma team.

Despite that he’s got a couple of notable results to his name including a stage win and the mountains jersey at the 2017 Critérium du Dauphiné.

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During his youth career he also topped the mountains classification at the Tour de Romandie and finished 10th in the 2014 Volta a Limburg in a field which included a number of riders who he now shares the road with in the World Tour peloton.

Last year he had top ten stage finishes at the Tour of the Alps and Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali.

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