By Gregor Brown
All eyes may be focused on the Astana team when the Giro d'Italia's centenary race begins, but the Liquigas team could well steal a little bit of that glory come race day. With two contenders for the overall, Ivan Basso and Franco Pellizotti, and Daniele Bennati for the sprints, the team stands a chance of taking home a good portion of the prizes come May.
In the 2008 Giro the team had Pellizotti for the overall classification and Bennati aiming for the sprints. Italian fast-man Bennati won three stages and gained enough points to take home the sprinter's maglia ciclamino, while Pellizotti took the maglia rosa in the first week and won the race's epic mountain time trial to Plan de Corones and finished fourth overall.
Now, with Basso on board, the team appears stronger than ever for its home tour, the 2009 Giro d'Italia. But can it make the pieces into a stronger whole in order to face the onslaught of the likes of Mark Cavendish in the sprints and Lance Armstrong for the overall?
Basso faced a similar situation at CSC where he rode alongside Spaniard Carlos Sastre in the Grand Tours, and he believes that he will work out a similar coexistence with Pellizotti come May.
"I think that [Pellizotti] showed last year that he can win the Giro," said Basso over the winter. "I won the Giro in 2006 and battled for the win at the Tour de France. I have the spring to be able to show that I can be the leader of the team at the Giro d'Italia. The second thing, we all know what our value is. It will be easy when the Giro comes to decide who of the two we should ride for and protect [as a leader].
Basso paid respect to Pellizotti, and also to the team's sprinter, Bennati. He does not expect the whole team to be at his disposal and this modesty by the team's star rider will help keep the team functioning as a unit.
"Definitely, the riders that will be helping Bennati will be riders that will have the ability to also race for us in the classification. At this moment in the world there are only two riders who merit having eight teammates for them – [Alberto] Contador and Armstrong. The rest of us have to ride with teams that have multiple objectives."
Pellizotti spent four days in the early part of the 2008 Giro wearing the maglia rosa of race leader and racked up a stage win on one of the Giro's most epic stages, the 12.9-kilometre time trial up the dirt and gravel roads of Plan de Corones. This year, he wants more, and he put the onus on Basso to show he is worthy of support.
"My objective is to win the Giro," said Pellizotti. "It was the first year that I battled to win the Giro and it helped me grow. I will start [this year] with greater experience."
"Basso has to show he is the Basso of two years ago. I have shown to be that rider, now it is up to him to show and give faith to the team.
"We will start with two captains. The team gives me the responsibility to play my cards and I think it is right to allow me to make my race. If he shows to be better than me then okay, I will help him."
Not to be forgotten, Bennati will provide the team with some of its best chances for stage victories. Even with an inflamed Achilles tendon that forced him to miss the Tour de France, he took seven wins in 2008. Three of those wins, and the maglia ciclamino, came at the Giro d'Italia.
He has shown that he is worthy of a lead-out train, and is hoping to add to his tally of stage wins. But Bennati is not an explosive sprinter like Robbie McEwen or Mark Cavendish, both of whom use fewer men to deliver stage wins. The Italian prefers to have a long lead-out, and may not have the men to achieve the wins if Liquigas devotes more mountain domestiques to Basso and Pellizotti.
"At the Giro Ivan will have the priority and more men. There will certainly be always two men at my side, who can also give a hand to Ivan in certain occasions."