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The 2014 Giro d'Italia route
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There are 10 days until the start of the 2014 Giro d'Italia, the first Grand Tour of the season. This year's race starts on Friday May 9 with a team time trial in Belfast, Northern Ireland and ends three weeks later in Trieste, Italy on June 1.
Over the next 10 days Cyclingnews will countdown to the 2014 Giro d’Italia with up to the minute news, special race and stage previews, exclusive interviews, special photo galleries, pre-race analysis and press conference coverage.
During the race Cyclingnews will provide live coverage of every stage as well as expert opinions. There will be complete coverage with race reports, stunning photography, video interviews and news from our European editors Stephen Farrand, Barry Ryan and Alasdair Fotheringham, who will be at every stage.
The route of the Corsa Rosa
This year's Grand Partenza in Northern Ireland will add an extra twist to the race route before the riders fly to Italy for a more traditional route north via the Italian Alps, the Dolomites and the terribly steep Monte Zoncolan.
The race begins with a 21.7km team time trial, with the stage starting in the Titanic shipyard. Whoever brings home the fastest team, will pull on the first leader's pink jersey.
The early road stages suit the sprinters but Belfast and Dublin could both be shaped by the weather and especially strong winds, while the change in temperatures after the transfer to Bari, in the south of Italy, could prove a shock to the system.
The sprinters will be able to show their speed on several early stages in the south but stage five to Viggiano and stage six to Montecassino end with steep climbs to the line.
The real mountains begin on stage eight with the Cippo di Carpegna climb covered in honour of the late Marco Pantani, who used to train on its steep slopes during his career. The stage ends with another steep climb to Montecopiolo, with the final kilometre at 13%. The following stage to Sestola in the Apennines ends with a 16km climb and could indicate who will struggle in the overall classification.
The Giro d'Italia includes two individual time trials: the rolling 41.9km twelfth stage in the Piemonte vineyards between Barbaresco and Barolo, then a 26.8km mountain time trial on the slopes of Monte Grappa on stage 19.
The mountains tripletto
The high mountains begin after two weeks of racing, with a tripletto of mountain finishes to Oropa, Plan to Montecampione and the Vall Martello. Marco Pantani won at Plan di Montecampione in 1998 and the climb is the official 'Montagna Pantani' in remembrance of the 1998 Giro d'Italia and Tour de France winner.
The riders enjoy the third rest day of the Giro before the stage to Vall Martello and the stage is only 139km long. However it will be a day of pain with the Passo Gavia and the Passo dello Stelvio before the climb to the finish at 2059 metres.
A further triptych of mountain stages will decide the final overall winner of this year's Giro d'Italia, with a tough day in the Dolomites and a finish at Rifugio Panarotta, the mountain time trial on Monte Grappa and then the grande finale on the Zoncolan.
The climb to the finish is only 10km long but seems to last forever due to the double-digit gradient. Any time gained during the rest of the race could easily be lost if a rider has a bad day. With the final stage a flat ride to Trieste, the 2014 Giro d'Italia could easily be decided in the very last climb of the race.
The 2013 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has opted not to defend his maglia rosa, leaving the race wide open but with a number of big-name contenders.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Nicholas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) lead the Irish challenge but are perhaps outsiders due to a lack of Giro d'Italia experience and endurance.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also lacks Grand Tour experience but his second place at the Tour de France in 2013 showed his climbing ability and the crescendo finish of the Giro suits him and his low-key build up to the race at home in Colombia.
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Cadel Evans (BMC) showed he is back to his best by winning the recent Giro del Trentino and the Australian also has the guts and determination to try and take on Quintana and go for overall victory. He and BMC will have to gain time on the Colombian in the time trials and then hope they can defend their advantage.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) could have the best balance between experience and climbing ability, while Rafa Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) is also a dangerous dark horse.
Michele Scarponi (Astana), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) carry Italian hopes of a home success, along with talented young rider Fabio Aru (Astana), who will target the best young rider's white jersey.
The sprinters showdown
Despite Mark Cavendish opting for the Tour of California, the Giro d'Italia sprints will still show who is the fastest finisher in the sport.
Cavendish will be replaced by his lead out man Alessandro Petacchi, but the star sprinter will be Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano). The German dominated the sprint competition at the 2013 Tour de France and will be out to strut his stuff on Italian roads.
Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) is on the lookout for his first Grand Tour win at the Giro d'Italia and he and Kittel will face competition from Ben Swift (Team Sky), Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), Francesco Chicchi (Neri Sottoli), Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp).
The sprinters and stage hunters will provide the early entertainment before the fight for the iconic pink jersey begins in earnest in the final 10 days of the Giro d'Italia.