Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard): Starts as favourite, although there are questions about his form and psychological state during the ongoing clenbuterol affair. The Spaniard has had a mixed time over the past month, winning a time trial at the Vuelta Castilla y León, missing out on the main prize there due to untimely punctures, then failing to make much of an impact at Flèche Wallonne. Since then he’s done reconnaissance of the Giro’s key stages, admitted it’s the toughest test he’s ever faced, and trained quietly in Madrid’s sierra. But at least he’s had some preparation for this Giro, unlike before his last appearance where he came straight from the beach – and won! Still looks the man to beat.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas): Hugely impressive when anchoring team-mate Ivan Basso’s winning Giro ride last year and then when taking his first grand tour victory at the 2010 Vuelta, the Liquigas team leader starts as second favourite based on that record and a good run of form over the past two months. Fifth at Tirreno, eighth at both San Remo and Liège, the Sicilian looks to have judged his run-in well, but may struggle on some of the madcap ascents in the final week. The strength of his team will help keep him in contention for a podium spot, but maybe not the top one.
Denis Menchov (GEOX-TMC): The only rider in the field with a grand tour record that stacks up well against Contador’s having won the Giro in 2009 and two Vueltas, the Russian is another good podium bet. Standing in his favour is the fact that he should be able to stay the pace with all but the best two or three climbers in the mountains, but counting against him is that the final day time trial comes too late and is probably not long enough for him to reverse any losses. A controlled 14th place at Romandie last week suggests his form is coming along nicely and it should be remembered that this is his main objective this season as Geox won’t be starting the Tour. Hasn’t won a race since his 2009 Giro win, though.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre): The 32-year-old Italian has had a stellar start to the season, finishing third in Tirreno, second to Contador in Catalunya and, most recently, winning the Giro del Trentino, which has long been a good pointer towards Giro form. Fourth and a stage-winner last year, Scarponi should thrive on a route packed with precipitous ascents and lacking in flat time trial kilometres. He’ll love the uphill test at Nevegal, but he may suffer from a lack of team support compared to the likes of Contador and Nibali given that he is sharing leadership with Alessandro Petacchi. He’ll do very well to improve on last year’s finish.
Roman Kreuizger (Astana): Previously part of a very strong partnership with Nibali at Liquigas, the Czech who celebrates his 25th birthday today (happy birthday, Roman!) will be the main man at Astana. It remains to be seen whether the fact that he’s not Kazakh will work against him given the recent nonsense within this team, but it appears to have been built around him and looks very strong. He was a stage-winner at Trentino, hugely impressive at Liège and quiet at Romandy, which suggests he’s peaking nicely. But Kreuziger has never ridden the Giro before and it remains to be seen how successive days of mountain mayhem will affect him.
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha): One of the few Katusha riders to come out of the early season with any amount of credit, the Catalan struggled with injury early in the year but rebounded with second places at Amstel and Flèche plus a stage win in the Basque Country. He’s ridden the Giro three times before in very much a supporting role, but has shown on many occasions that he thrives on the kind of super-steep climbs that will become familiar over the next three weeks. His team looks good as well. Has still yet to finish in the top five at a grand tour, but should manage that on what is the route of his dreams.
Carlos Sastre (GEOX-TMC): Now 36, the 2008 Tour de France winner has seen the option of a return to the scene of his greatest triumph closed off thanks to Geox’s non-selection, so, like team-mate Menchov, has turned his focus to the Giro instead. They look a very useful double-act, but not one that could upset an in-form Contador in the way that the Schleck brothers are likely to if the Spaniard makes it to the Tour. Sastre has shown no sign of form at all this season, but that’s often his way going into three-week races. Although he looks to be on the wane, no one will want to let him get too far clear in the mountains. This is his 25th grand tour, so hats off to him for that landmark achievement.
Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi): Although it’s a bit of mystery why he’s being kept away from partnering up with Samuel Sánchez at the Tour, Antón probably won’t mind too much given that the profile of this race suits his strengths perfectly. Although no mug in a time trial, it’s on the steep climbs where the 28-year-old Basque comes into his own, as he showed when he romped through the opening two weeks of last year’s Vuelta. If he could have stayed upright heading for the Peña Cabarga, it might have been him and not Nibali who was celebrating in Madrid. Based on that performance and good early season form he’s a threat, but both rider and team have been talking down his hopes and underlining that he’s only looking for a stage win.
Marco Pinotti (HTC-Highroad): A career-best ninth overall at the 2010 Giro, the 35-year-old Italian time trial champion looks likely to be handicapped by the number and difficulty of the climbs. He finished more than 14 minutes down on race winner Basso last year, but showed that he’s got the stamina to last the pace in a race this tough, even if he’s not able to follow the very best in the high mountains. He has looked a more-improved climber this season, notably when finishing fourth at Romandy last week, but he may have to depend on the final stage TT to boost him up into the top 10 once again.
David Arroyo (Movistar): One of those steady riders who tend to finish between 10th and 20th in any major tour they start, the 31-year-old Spaniard almost pulled off one of the greatest coups in cycling history last year as he rode to second place behind Ivan Basso. A member of the huge break that went clear on the storm-hit stage to L’Aquila, Arroyo took the lead on Monte Grappa and held it for five days until Basso nudged him aside. A strong climber, Arroyo revealed that he’s a daredevil on descents and those skills should serve him well again, although no one is likely to make the same mistake that Basso did if the Spaniard gets into a break. His form has been so-so, while his team have been talking up stage wins, so his podium prospects look very remote indeed.
Emanuele Sella and Domenico Pozzovivo: These two flyweights could provide some headaches for the main contenders. Both should thrive, particularly in the final week when the riders reach the steep ramps of Monte Crostis, the Zoncolan and the Grossglockner. Winner of three mountain stages in the 2008 Giro won by Contador before testing positive for EPO-CERA, Sella looks the pick of these two Italians based on his previous winning history and the impressive look of his team, which also features José Rujano, another flyweight climber looking for redemption after recent travails.