By Shane Stokes in Palermo
Alberto Contador and his Astana team are last-minute additions to the Giro d'Italia line-up, being granted an invitation earlier this week in place of the bitterly disappointed NGC Medical-OTC Industria Porte squad.
Cyclingnews understands that the latter team had invested a considerable sum of money in making sure they had the infrastructure in place to ride the Grand Tour, only to be told at a very late point that their invitation would be withdrawn.
Contador said that he understood the team's disappointment, while also stating that he was glad that Astana got an invitation.
As Tour de France champion, all eyes will naturally be on him to see if he can replicate the climbing form which won him cycling's toughest race. He played down his chances somewhat at a pre-race press conference on Friday, explaining his preparation is far from ideal.
"I was on holiday at in the beach when they called me," he said. "Before that I did the Vuelta a Pays Vasco and then I had a problem with my mouth. I stopped racing and had this holiday. They called me and asked me to do this Giro, and so I started again to train. I am not in the condition I would like to be, but I did my best [to get to the race with training kilometres done] and I will do my best day by day."
He would clearly be at a higher level of form had Astana been given more notice, but said that he doesn't feel stressed by the thoughts of not being one hundred percent. "I am tranquil, because I think we have a very strong team. There are two other riders who can ride the Giro well, Klöden and Leipheimer, and so I don't have any pressure on me. I will see how I feel day by day and then I will decide what I can do."
Should the Spaniard manage to ride himself into form, he could do some serious damage later in the race. He's consequently likely to be satisfied to limit his losses early on, let his racing legs come to him, and then see what he can do.
"I think the final week will be a very difficult one," he said. "It will be a good week for me [if he has form]. I think the Giro this year is the most difficult race in the world, because the climbs are more difficult this year than the Tour of the Vuelta. The gradients are very steep.
"I hope to be in good shape, to ride well on these climbs. Then I can do well, or perhaps I will be bad. Anything could happen."
Asked straight out what his chances were of winning, he cautioned the media against talking up his prospects of holding the final Maglia Rosa. "I don't want to give false hopes," he said. "I am not in good condition and this race is a very big race, it is an important race. So let's not have illusions about me because I don't have the level now to do well. We will take it day by day. Now I can't say anything about what I will do."
The Giro begins on Saturday with a long team time trial in Palermo. Astana will have good time trialists, including Leipheimer, Klöden and Contador himself, and so many feel that the team could challenge. However, while it is strong on paper, its limited preparation may hold the squad back.
Contador has his own favourites for the test. "I think those in the running are Slipstream, CSC, and also the Italian teams because they have extra motivation. They aim for this race all year because they are at home.
"We are strong because we have good time trialists, but it doesn't mean that we will win. We don't know what our condition is."
One thing is certain; given the difficult of such a flat-out effort, each of the riders on the team will have a better idea of their form on Saturday evening.