This year's Giro d'Italia is one of the most open editions of the race in recent years with a host of GC contenders vying for the 2012 maglia rosa. Cyclingnews takes a look at the top contenders for the overall win...
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale)
The 2010 Basso would have cantered to a third Giro this May but unfortunately for the Varese rider, this version is a pale shadow of the athlete who resurrected his career two years ago. It took until the Giro del Trentino in April for him to even finish a race and his subsequent performances in Romandie suggested little in the way of a return to form. In some ways, his Giro build-up mirrors that to last year’s Tour bid, when a crash derailed his preparations, leaving him exhausted and over-trained by the time the race started. At least Basso won’t be overworked before this year Giro, and while the heavy third week of racing will allow him some time to ride into form, this is still a demanding Giro. The opening skirmishes in Denmark are bound to skittle the GC contenders, while stages 7 and certainly stage 8 to Lago Laceno, could see Basso hit from all sides as fresh pocket-rocket climbers like Jose Rujano (Androni-Venezuela), Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) seek to expose any fraction of weakness. In Basso’s favour he has the race’s strongest team, and unlike all but Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), he knows how to close out a three-week race.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)
Strong on the climbs, stronger than he’s given credit for in time trials, Scarponi has every reason to feel confident as he approaches this year’s race. With Nibali Tour bound and Contador on a course that could see him win the Vuelta and perhaps the Worlds, the competition is weaker, but Il Presidente will still face stern examinations from riders vying for his 2011 crown. With Damiano Cunego as a teammate, and despite his patchy form, Scarponi will start as one of the major favourites, a strange scenario when you consider how low his GC aspirations stood on the eve of his Puerto ban. One word of caution: no rider has won back-to-back Giri since Miguel Indurain in 1993.
John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
The Frenchman has a huge point to prove after finishing a surprise fourth in last year’s race (later bumped to third after Contador’s expulsion). But weak against the clock, Gadret will have to count on the natural talent and determination that carried him to a stage win in Castelfidardo, and fourth last year. A year of GC experience and a demanding final week all favour Gadret, who beat the likes of Rujano, Roman Kreuziger and Denis Menchov last year.
Jose Rujano (Androni-Venezuela)
The 30-year-old Venezuelan finally got his grand tour career back on track last year with 7th place in the Giro. Several barren years since his defining performance in 2005 were followed by poor team choices and a severe loss of form, but Rujano looks to have settled with Savio’s motley crew. In fact, this is the first time since 2005 he’s ridden for the same team for consecutive seasons. Can he win the Giro? Probably not, but his explosive speed on the climbs could determine who does.
Roman Kreuziger (Astana)
It would be unfair to say that Kreuziger has failed to deliver on the promise he showed when winning the junior world title in 2004 or the 13th place he raced to at the 2008 Tour de France, but there’s certainly an element of stagnation. While other riders of his generation such as Andy Schleck and Vincenzo Nibali have gone on to win grand tours, Kreuziger has languished in the chasing group, never one of the top three or four climbers or most accomplished time trialists. Still, he should better last year’s 6th place and on current for - he was one of the strongest Giro riders at Romandie - Astana will be looking for podium place.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox)
If you’re looking for omens in the battle for the maglia rosa then look no further than the diminutive Italian. 25 years ago, Stephen Roche stormed to overall glory in the Giro, becoming the first Irishman to win a grand tour. Forward to 2012, and although there’s no chance of a repeat win for the Irish, Pozzovivo’s Colnago team are registered in Ireland. 25 years since an Irish win, an Irish-registered team line-up this year. It all makes sense, doesn’t it?
Well okay, maybe not, but Pozzovivo deserves to be on this list for his riding credentials. His ride in Trentino was eye-catching to say the least and while it’s true that we’ve seen flashes of brilliance from him there before, this year was a genuine improvement. A three-day event is not a grand tour though and Pozzovivo’s time trialing and staying power are questionable, but if he’s within 4 minutes of the race lead heading into the final clutch of mountain stages he could pull off a surprise or two.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda)
Garmin’s previous attempts at Giro GC success have all ended poorly but in Hesjedal the Argyle Armada have a genuine top five threat. He may not have replicated the 2010 Tour de France result but if he can remain upright in Denmark, rely on a strong TTT performance and arrive at the start of the third week within the top ten overall, there’s a strong possibility of him holding out.
Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan)
The team are fast turning into a soap opera. In January we had Johan Bruyneel unable to deny Frank Schleck would race the Giro. The will he,won't he story ran all the way up Liege, with the rider adamant that the Tour was his main goal. Then there was the Kim Andersen interlude which reached levels of absurdness when Andy Schleck and Bruyneel both came out with conflicting stories within 24 hours of each other. From the outside looking in, there certainly appear to be tensions between the new management and the Schlecks.
Either way Frank Schleck will start the Giro. On paper, he’s more than capable of beating Scarponi and Basso over three weeks, but this is the Giro, not the Tour, and you have to question Schleck’s motivation. Whether you rate him or not, he believes he can win the Tour de France, and his podium places are testament to that. But he must now refocus and attempt to challenge in a race he’s never shown interest in. The Giro is wide open, and Schleck, if motivated and on form, can win.
Joaquím Rodriguez (Katusha)
Rodriguez was one of the strongest riders in the Giro’s second half last year, rising from 22nd place after a drab showing on Etna to 5th by the time the race reached Milan. This year, Rodriguez can ill afford to start so poorly but he remains one of the most talented riders in the field. His time trialling remains a weakness but the GC contenders aren’t exactly stacked with chrono specialists, and his climbing talent, his explosive sprint and his underrated team, make him a decent tip for the podium.
Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD)
A 2005 edition of Procycling once featured Cunego, Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich on the cover, with the headline “three’s a crowd”. At the time Cunego was seen as the next star of grand tour racing having shot to fame with the 2004 Giro title. A lot has changed since and Cunego finds himself some way down the list of favourites. A consistent ride in last year’s Tour was a reminder of his talent and the Lampre rider heads into the Giro under the radar, talking about stage wins and supporting Scarponi. He started the 2004 Giro in similar circumstances but as we’ve alluded to, this is a different era. Should Cunego ride to his complete potential he’s unlikely to side step a top ten placing and who knows, even bag a couple of stages in the process.