By Tim Maloney, European Editor
Italian national team selector Franco Ballerini is already picking his favourite for the 2006 Giro d'Italia: Gilberto Simoni. Despite conflicts in the past with Simoni over team selection in 2004, Ballerini sees 'Gibo' as a solid pick for Giro glory.
"It's a difficult Giro, above all in the last week with five nasty stages," Ballerini said. "No one can have an off day in this race. The start in Belgium is hard, because there are plenty of small climbs that will make things hard for the sprinters. In my opinion, looking at the last week of the race, I think Simoni could win. It will be interesting to see the challenge between (Simoni) and Cunego. Di Luca has also improved a lot and now knows how to ride for General Classification."
Davide Cassani, RAI-TV's cycling colour commentator is clear in his view of the 2006 Giro's outcome: "It's a much harder Giro than last years edition; it's a lot like the 1998/99 Giro and the three big mountain stages in the last week will be very decisive. In the end, I see a climber like Simoni or Savoldelli atop the podium, while it might be too hard for Di Luca and Cunego. Rujano certainly can't hide during that last week, either." As for other possible candidates for the 2006 Giro, Cassani said of Jan Ullrich that "he could ride, but just to train for the Tour, while there is too much climbing for (Floyd) Landis."
After winning 19 Giro stages in the last three editions, super-sprinter Alessandro Petacchi may skip the Giro d'Italia in 2006. Although his new Milram squad will certainly be there, Petacchi only sees a few chances for sprinters in the 21 stage Giro.
"There are only five flat stages that are good for sprinters and I think there are just too many mountain stages and other hilly stages," Petacchi explained. "Maybe I will have to take another look at my program and focus on the Tour de France instead." As for Petacchi's stand, Cassani said "I understand his point of view; there are few stages for sprinters like him."
Petacchi's friend and training partner, former classics great Michele Bartoli also evaluated Ale-Jet's reaction, saying, "He was expecting a few more stages adapted to his characteristics as a sprinter, and I understand his disappointment, but I'm sure he'll give it a second look when he calms down." Two time Giro winner Ivano Gotti, himself a superb climber, also was sympathetic to Petacchi, saying that "It's a nice Giro, but the organizers should have given more space to a great champion like Petacchi."
Former Giro winner Francesco Moser, President of the International Pro Riders Association (CPA) used yesterday's Giro presentation to promote his idea to reduce the length of the major stage races, saying "to shorten the Grand Tours will enable the riders to have a more reasonable program of 80 to 85 days of racing each season", but given the ongoing polemics between the UCI and the organizers of the Grand Tours, this scenario seems highly unlikely.