World champ Cadel Evans top contender for the pink jersey
The organizers of the Giro d'Italia have done it again: they've brewed up a wicked but beautiful route guaranteed to offer up a spectacle of both scenery and sporting feats as the peloton makes its way down from Amsterdam to the olive groves of the south and then back up Italy's boot to the finish in Verona.
The 93rd edition of the race has all the classic elements of the Italian Tour - soaring, classic peaks like the Gavia, Monte Zoncolan and Mortirolo, ample flat stages to suit the sprinters, unpaved stretches of road guaranteed to create drama as well as an all-star cast to play the starring roles.
The spotlight is focused in on World Champion Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre as the main protagonists, but there are plenty of other challengers waiting in the wings for their chance. Cyclingnews has picked ten top names we think will be fighting for the maglia rosa.
1 - Cadel Evans (BMC)
The absence of RadioShack and their nemesis Alberto Contador from the Astana roster for this Giro d'Italia is good news for one man seeking that elusive Grand Tour win: Cadel Evans.
The world champion has shown stellar form so far this year, coming out swinging in the Tour Down Under before posting a podium finish at Tirreno-Adriatico and a grabbing a gutsy win at La Fléche Wallonne last month. He will be extra motivated by the fact that he is contesting his first Giro d'Italia since 2002. That race was Evans' first career Grand Tour and one in which he spent a day in the maglia rosa.
Evans seems to be reinvigorated by both his rainbow jersey and his new BMC team, and has far outclassed any of his Giro competitors so far this season in terms of race performances.
After finishing on the podiums of the 2007 and 2008 Tours de France and 2009 Tour of Spain, and falling just short in the 2006 Tour de France and 2007 Vuelta, Evans will be hungry to finally add the Grand Tour title to his palmares that he has always wanted.
However, the Giro d'Italia cannot be won on paper, and Evans will not be able to benefit from lengthy individual time trials to steal time from his rivals.
In the 32.5km team time trial on stage 4, he'll need the full backing of his BMC squad, but will be missing valuable help from George Hincapie who will be at the Tour of California, and Alessandro Ballan who is currently under investigation by the Italian authorities.
On paper, his team is weaker than the likes of Astana, Cervélo, Garmin-Transitions and Sky, but luckily the team time trial is relatively short and time gaps shouldn't be too difficult to get back. Yet, even the smallest loss to his rivals will leave him with the risky proposition of making up ground in the high mountains where one bad day could be the end of his hopes.
2 - Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam)
If it weren't for the fact that Carlos Sastre hasn't done anything of note so far this year, he would be the out-and-out favourite for the race. It has everything the Spaniard needs in a Grand Tour: few individual time trial kilometres, loads of ridiculously hard mountain-top stage finishes and a positively outrageous hill climb time trial.
The one advantage that Sastre has over all of his rivals is the fact that he has completed more Grand Tours than most of them combined. He's finished - not just started but finished - a whopping 20 Grand Tours. In addition, he has placed in the top ten of no fewer than 13 of those, including besting Evans to win the 2008 Tour de France.
The qualities that enable a rider to complete such a demanding schedule and continue to excel cannot be underestimated. Sastre has the endurance and ability to recover that will be critical in a Giro with such a difficult last week.
With the highest point of the race coming on the penultimate stage and only 15.3km of time trialing on the last day, his rivals will need to put big time into the Spaniard before the last weekend to neutralize his threat.
3 - Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo)
The week leading up to the Giro d'Italia hasn't been kind to the Liquigas team, with the UCI suspending Franco Pellizotti, last year's runner up, for irregular biological passport blood values. Yet the absence of the coiffed one could prove to be a benefit to Basso, who will have a better case to be undisputed leader on the road.
Pellizotti has been replaced at the last minute by young stand-out Vincenzo Nibali, but he will be unlikely to challenge Basso for leadership due to the lack of preparation and the fact that his season began in January and the race was not a target before this week.
Basso may not have been his old dominant self in recent years, but is still a formidable climber and the course will certainly suit his body type and his qualities as a Grand Tour specialist.
The Italian's chances could be limited to his team's sometimes questionable tactics of doing an irrational amount of work on the front of the race for little gain. They'll need to use that strength in the team time trial and then save their bullets for the last week to keep Basso protected until he can use his strengths on the summit finishes.
4 - Alexander Vinokourov (Astana)
Vino, Vidi, Vici! Vinokourov has seen and conquered both his critics and his rivals with a brilliant first full come-back season with the Astana team.
Returning from his disgrace in the 2007 Tour de France, where he was ejected after testing positive for blood doping, the much reviled rider from Kazakhstan has been not only holding his head high now that he is back to being a full-time professional, but he has defied the cynics by waging an astounding assault on Liège - Bastogne - Liège last month.
After ripping the neck off the Giro del Trentino despite the best efforts of Italian Riccardo Riccò on the final stage, Vino will now seek to return to his form of 2006 when he topped the podium in the Tour of Spain.
The 36-year-old has a strong team to get him through the team time trial, but without a long individual test to help distance himself from pure climbers, 'Vino' will need luck and super motivation to get him over the likes of the Monte Zoncolan, the Mortirolo and Plan de Corones.
5 - Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone)
'Garza' is far from washed up at age 36, and this bald-headed former Giro winner is looking better than ever after a win in Tirreno-Adriatico this spring.
The mountains classification winner in last year's Giro d'Italia will once again be handicapped by the lack of time trial talent on the team test in Cuneo, but his ample abilities in the high mountains will keep him in the hunt during the final week.
Experience will be his best ally in his quest for a repeat of his victorious performance of a decade ago.
6 - Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo)
As a late addition to the team's Giro d'Italia roster, Nibali will not be expected to act as outright leader for Liquigas. Yet this talented 25-year-old has proven again and again that he has the mettle to be a Grand Tour contender as soon as he can be given the green light to be the protected rider.
Should Basso falter, Nibali could step into the role of team leader and fight for the overall and he has the tenacity to do just that. But will he go that deep and potentially sacrifice his Tour de France preparations?
7 - Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
The 'little prince' has not been in a position to contend for a Grand Tour victory since his Giro title in 2004, but the hands of time seem to have turned back to that year and Cunego will be reunited on the Lampre team with his then co-captain Gilberto Simoni.
The two long ago patched up the damage from the unpleasant rivalry of those years on Saeco/Lampre Caffita. And now that Simoni is riding the race as a pre-retirement send-off, there should be no question as to who the team leader will be.
Yet Cunego has since shown himself more suited to one-day Classics than mountainous Grand Tours, so it will be a literal and figurative uphill battle for him to get onto the podium in such a difficult Giro.
8 - Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli)
Scarponi has never threatened to win a Grand Tour, but after coming back from his Operación Puerto suspension, the Italian seems to have reinvented himself.
The winner of last year's Tirreno-Adriatico, Scarponi is given to seemingly suicidal breakaways which led to two stage wins in last year's Giro.
He and teammate Jose Serpa dismantled the peloton at the Settimana Lombarda, where Scarponi claimed the overall victory. Look to the always aggressive Androni Giocattoli team to capitalize on any cat-and-mouse games the other favourites might play.
9 - Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Since Wiggins' reinvention of himself from a time trial specialist to a Grand Tour contender with Garmin-Transitions, much has been made of his switch to Team Sky and his focus on the Tour de France. The team will make its Grand Tour debut in Italy and will look to put on a good show, but in all likelihood Wiggins will be using the race as preparation for the Tour de France.
While his weight loss and change in training allowed him to climb well enough to score a fourth place finish in the 2009 Tour, he has yet to prove himself on climbs with the severity of a Zoncolan or Mortirolo.
While Team Sky will keep Wiggins high up in the GC on the team time trial, it is unlikely that they will gain enough time on superior climbers like Sastre to place Wiggins on the top step in Verona.
10 - Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox)
This young Italian has been posting solid performances over the past few years, including a 9th place in the 2008 Giro d'Italia and a second place in the Giro del Trentino this year.
Pozzovivo earns a place on our top ten through his aggressive and tenacious performances in last month's Giro del Trentino, where he topped Riccardo Riccò for a stage win on the Alpe di Pampeago. His 8th place in the 2008 Giro stage on Plan de Corones indicates he has the capability to handle the steep mountains, and he has demonstrated time and time again that he has the motivation and hunger to win.
Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d'Epargne): The Italian has finished top 10 in the Giro d'Italia four times and on the podium once. He might not be the best climber in the high mountains, but is difficult to dislodge and is a strong time trialist. With his new team, Caisse d'Epargne, he will have enough firepower to remain high on GC following the team time trial.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) is likely using the Giro d'Italia as preparation for the Tour de France but will still be aiming for a high finish overall. The team is always strong in the TTTs, and with the bulk of the climbing in the final week, Vande Velde will have time to ride himself into form. Again, he isn't the most explosive climber but is steady and consistent.
Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli) is Scarponi's right-hand man. He's a wily escape artist who, given enough leash, could steal enough time to make life difficult for the other GC contenders. If they play games, Serpa could be the one who benefits.
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